Hollywood props, of all things, took me back to family roots in Georgia. I was bored, a rare malady, for which the cure is a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western (so named because Italians directed them). A scene in Pale Rider featured a familiar sight, a washbasin and pitcher. Familiar, because I now own my late mother’s washbasin and pitcher.
Mom kept things from the past. Many of the things she kept, I now keep with good reason. They connect me to the past, my family’s past. Outside of visiting family members’ graves, owning some of their possessions remains the best connection. They turn a bit of my home into a museum of sorts. They add something to my life that’s hard to explain. It’s more a feeling than anything, an awareness, if you will.
In those westerns something about a washbasin and pitcher seems inviting. They bring a touch of civilization to a Dry Gulch outpost. Add candles or a kerosene lamp and a man has light to shave by. Sharpen that straight razor against leather, lather up the brush, and go from a dusty cowpoke coming off the trail to gallant gunslinger. Head to the saloon, toss back a shot, and see if a lady needs company or a bad guy needs dispatching. No doubt both if you’re Clint Eastwood.
A washbasin and pitcher sufficed until tubs came along. Some of you will recall The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, where Tuco (Eli Wallach) is taking his first bath in many a week. A pistol-packing one-armed desperado walks in to wreak revenge on the man who cost him an arm. He’s got Tuco right where he wants him—in a bubble-filled tub. As he lords over Tuco, gloating, Tuco fires through the bubbles and another bad guy bites the dust. “When you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk,” says Tuco.
Well, Mom’s pitcher and washbasin never appeared in a Hollywood western but she kept them as memoirs. Growing up, she lived in a home without plumbing, something we take for granted in this gilded age of running water and electricity. Perhaps my grandfather shaved with that bowl. Perhaps it is merely a replica, but an authentic connection nonetheless remains.
Mom also kept two old wooden, bread bowls. I have one. Its scars and scratches confirm how love staved off hunger. Hands long dead kneaded dough in that bowl and many a loaf of bread and skillet of hot cornbread came out of my grandmother’s old wood stove. People still make fresh bread, of course, but they seldom use old wooden bowls, opting for stainless steel bowls and electric mixers. As for candles, they remain in vogue. Those cozy, flickering points of light create ambience in restaurants and add a festive touch to home come winter and special occasions. Paraffin has given way to glass bottles filled with oil, but unlike washbasins, pitchers, and kerosene lamps, we still find uses for candles.
I view my collection of Mom’s keepsakes with no small degree of feeling. Besides being beautiful, the things she kept remind me of a time when everything was difficult, though folks at that time couldn’t know how easier things would become. Today, we look at washbasins, water pitchers, candles, and kerosene lamps as relics of primitive days. We’re glad those antiquated times are behind us, still we need to remain aware of how vital they were to our forebears.
I know that my great-grandparents and, for a while, my grandparents didn’t have running water or electricity. Most everything they did required hard labor. The things Mom kept helped them live; they weren’t props in a movie. They were essential to a way of life, a way of life we can only guess about as we flip switches, turn faucets, and pull a loaf of bread off the shelf.
Image Credit: the feature photo of the wash basin was taken by the author, © Tom Poland.