Spotted in Elle Decor: an image (shown above) of antique maps hanging in a bathroom. My heart skipped a beat. It was like seeing a long lost love. A love that has moved beyond you and is now tripping happily along in a new, perfect life, a life in which even the bathroom looks amazing.
I used to have an antique map just like the ones in the picture. It was incredibly cool, a topographical map published in 1888, made of papier mache, with mountain ranges depicted as tiny sculptures, and set in a carved wood frame. The frame had a groove on one side and a lip on the other — the maps were intended to be mounted in a series, each one attached to the next, lining the walls of a school room where 19th century students most likely failed to fully appreciate the craftsmanship of these sepia-toned pieces.
I bought the map at a church rummage sale, when I was 12 years old. Two maps were in the parking lot of the church, mixed in with the usual jumble of cast-off clothes and plastic toys. One map depicted the continent of Africa and another the United States. As I was one of those income-free 12-year-olds (in the old days, before our current era of pre-adolescent internet entrepreneurs), I could scrape together just 10 dollars, the cost of one of the maps. I remember standing there agonizing between the two and for years I felt guilty leaving one behind, as though I had separated siblings. In the end I chose the map of the U.S., as not only did this make sense geographically speaking, it was manufactured in the days before the West was fully tamed. An entire region of the map was simply called “Indian Territory”. How compelling is that to a 12-year-old? And the map became the centerpiece of my bedroom, for a full decade at least, until we had a house fire.
Which the map survived. I managed to save it, not from the flames, which never came near it, but from the truly alarming amounts of water our enthusiastic volunteer fire brigade poured on whatever was left of the house. Months passed and finally, the day came when my parents moved back in the rebuilt house. I was living in an off-campus apartment at the time, in a place too temporary to deserve the map, so I brought it back, to that worthiest of habitations: the family home. I was carrying the map inside when I set it on the new porch, intending to do so just for a moment while I figured out just where to put it. I had entered that decorative limbo of early adulthood: my mom doesn’t want my stuff, I don’t have anywhere to put my stuff, so where does my stuff go? I went inside the freshly drywalled house, got a drink of water, took a nap, had a bout of self-pity — no, I don’t know what I did, but I do know that I left the map outside long enough for it to be destroyed, not by fire, or water, or any other element, but by a litter of 8-week-old puppies. Puppies who were now capable of making their charming way from the barn to the porch, and capable of descending on an antique map in a sort of feeding frenzy. Puppies can achieve a shocking level of destruction, as anyone who has left a lonely young dog home alone with upholstery has realized. A whole pack of them provides a sort of epic annihilation.
It was bizarre to come outside and see pieces of the map, chewed into bits, some parts half-digested and strewn over several feet, and feel such intense sorrow. For me, the weight of the loss of this single item seemed to bear the burden of the loss of what had been an entire house, which either means I’m extremely self-centered or hadn’t yet connected with the reality of losing most of my childhood home, and, for that matter, the childhood home of members of my family extending all the way back into the 19th century. Before my map was even created, when a term like Indian Territory carried real meaning.
Old things are both a solid link to the past and utterly ephemeral, just like us. Like the people who carry those same things from place to place, house to house, attempting to save them from destruction and always, in the end, failing. I’m glad I had that map, if only for a little while, and I’m glad I couldn’t afford to buy both of the maps I saw that day at the rummage sale. It comforts me to think that the other antique map lives on, in a happier place, where the bathrooms are large and the all-consuming forces of flames and puppies are held at bay, if only for a little while longer.