When my wife and I are on the road, the shortest line between any two points runs through an antique mall. Not an antique shop, mind you. Their range is generally limited and upscale: fine china, arts-and-crafts furniture, Rolex watches. An antique mall’s offerings, however, run the gamut. That’s why we rarely leave without Diane calling out: “Come see this! My family used to have one.”

We rarely buy anything. For us, an antique mall is a repository of our youth.

Its objects aren’t anonymous. They have names and are replete with family lore. A meat grinder is Aunt Bessie’s meat grinder. Meaning that it’s the spitting image of the one my wife’s 90-year-old relative misplaced. Unable to dissuade her of the idea it had been purloined, we surreptitiously replaced it with one of a similar vintage — a sleight of hand Bessie accepted while skeptical of it being her meat grinder.

I once insisted that Diane come see a hand-cranked beach toy that scoops up sand and carries it to a miniature loading tower for an imaginary railroad. Breathlessly I recalled seeing a boy playing with one on the Montrose Avenue beach when I was 6 or 7. My mother explained we couldn’t afford it. This was during the Great Depression.

I’m tempted to posit a mathematical relationship between distance and frequency of antique-mall explorations: The longer the journey, the more often we feel a need to take a timeout looking at shelves loaded with fishing lures and Pyrex measuring cups. In terms of miles per day, it’s not an efficient way to travel.

Perhaps being away from home triggers a fear of losing touch with childhood. Maybe my wife fights it by picking up a hand-embroidered pillow slip like her Aunt Julia made. Is it a coping mechanism when I’m mesmerized by a set of photographic chemicals like those Uncle Harry passed on to me and I used in a darkroom that doubled as a clothes closet?

Yet my antique-mall compulsion even surfaces on the 75-minute run to our weekend home in Northwest Indiana. Religiously I walk the aisles of the same mall I’ve walked umpteen times. Checking out the dealers’ offerings, I’m saddened to see that an Erector Set has been sold, though I had no intention of buying it. It’s like going to an art museum only to discover that a favorite painting has been “deaquisitioned” — the highbrow euphemism for “sold.”

Actually my wife and I are infinitely less likely to visit a museum than an antique mall on our travels. Try to touch something in a museum, and an alarm goes off. Yet that’s exactly what we crave: a tactile sense of our roots.

We’re not alone in wanting to make that connection with our forebears. In one antique mall I spotted a tongue-in-cheek alert: “There is a 15 percent surcharge for saying: ‘My mother had one just like that.'”

Museums carry the additional handicap of telling a story from the movers-and-shakers’ perspective. The Chicago History Museum has a whole room devoted to Abraham Lincoln but doesn’t display my Uncle Bill’s lunchbox, and there is a reason why. Honest Abe had a greater effect on our nation than my uncle the tool and die maker.

As a historian, I get that. But deep down in my gut, it feels like something is missing.

In an antique mall, the story is told from the bottom up. You won’t find a ballgown of Bertha Palmer, the grand dame of 19th century Chicago. But there will be lots of tools like those with which carpenters and masons built the brownstones and the Palmer House Hotel that made the fortunes of her husband, Potter Palmer.

I love to fondle them — saws, brace-and-bits, planes for cutting all sorts of architectural doodads. I’m transfixed by the thought that a skilled mechanic could produce marvels that I, an amateur woodworker, can’t match with the aid of electric-powered machines.

Bertha Palmer’s Ming Dynasty vases and jars aren’t to be seen in an antique mall. But there will be lots of jelly jars that workaday families recycled as drinking glasses, lovingly filling them with the milk they hoped would endow their children with strong bones and healthy teeth.

So maybe the antique mall should be the model for an innovative cultural institution: a Museum of Ordinary Folks. There will be a lunchbox commemorating all the Uncle Bills who carried a lunchbox into factories that made America prosperous. A meat grinder would honor all the Aunt Bessies who ground up leftovers for the hamburgers that balanced family budgets.

A sign at the entrance would announce: “Feel free to touch the objects, and we love hearing the words: ‘My mother had one, just like that.'”

Ron Grossman is a columnist at the Chicago Tribune.

 

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