During Christmas in 1982, I fell in love. The object of my affection was a 1960 pink Chrysler Imperial. I spotted it one day a few blocks from our house. It was parked in the street and had a “For Sale” sign in the window. The car was boxy, broad, and brawny. It had more chrome plating than I had ever seen and weighed more than two and-a-half tons. As if that weren’t enough, it was a convertible with a white leather interior, a driver’s seat that swiveled, and transmission buttons on the dashboard. How could I not be in love? I had to have this car for Christmas.
But it was not to be. I also had three small children, a wife, and obligations. A car like the Imperial was both impractical and expensive. People pointed out the obvious, and I had to sit and listen to them like Job on a dungheap. It was a gas guzzler, a boat that required a dock rather than a driveway. Think of the repairs and spare parts. Would I even be able to find a mechanic to work on it?
“Can you imagine car seats in the back?” a friend of my wife asked. A second described the car as “hideous.” I took offense at that. After all, what could be more beautiful than a car with vibrant color in a sea of drab, Japanese imports that looked like electric razors buzzing up and down the freeway? This was a real car with a V8 engine, 413 cubic inches under the hood, and 260 horsepower. Compared to the Imperial, all other cars were just glorified lawnmowers.
Eventually, sadly, my wife talked me into getting a Volkswagen bus. Still, I pined for the Imperial. She pointed out that there may have been more going on with me than nostalgia. I told her my interest centered around preserving the past and appreciating history. So she got me a history textbook on World War One.
Of course, she was right. There was more going on than nostalgia. I have always had a personal interest in and devotion to the past. It shows itself in the things I surround myself with: rotary phones, antique typewriters, metal file cabinets, wooden card catalogues, a poor box from a Baroque church, old blue book exams. I even have a can of shaving cream from a trip I took to Italy nearly twenty years ago with my daughter. It’s still pressurized. What can I say? I am a measured man. Then there are the coasters from a European trip I took with a friend nearly forty years ago. Yet, I am not a pack rat. There is a method to my collecting.
What is it? I want to remember the past and preserve it out of duty but, more importantly, because I would feel lost without it. I don’t want the past to slip into oblivion. This isn’t just my worry. The ancient Greeks believed the river Lethe flowed through Hades, erasing the memories of the dead once they drank from it. That, to them, was hell. It is to me, too: a kind of existential Alzheimer’s if not exactly a medical one. And what of society in general? Are we not suffering from mass amnesia? Convince me otherwise.
There is one important thing I’ve learned in all my time collecting, documenting, and preserving things as the family historian. It is this. I never stopped to consider the most valuable artifact from the past, the one that contains all the memories, collective and personal, that I have experienced through the years. That artifact is not a diary, Christmas card, or love letter. It is me.
I remember the past. I hold it together, preventing it from slipping into oblivion. But not just me. It is all of us once we recognize our importance and the reason that a Savior was born. Not to preserve material things but to redeem us from insignificance and our fear of death. Because of him, all of our Christmases are Imperial.
Haven’t had enough? Go to Robert Brancatelli. Auto image courtesy of RainWater Gallery. For more on the past, see Memory of Mankind. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance. Merry Christmas.