Simple gifts …

© Mary Garner-Mitchell. Bookshelves at Fantastic Thrift, Richmond, Virginia

Finding a penny, a blue heron, or a hawk crossing my path, such “signs” from above or beyond never fail me when I need a boost or comfort or just some divine assurance that I am never alone, that there is something “more” and beyond my mere mortal comprehension.  My most knee-buckling “sign” however is one of song. It is uncanny how this tune seems to follow me no matter where I go or whether my mood is sheer happiness or one of heartbreak.  I know it’s popular and it always pleases me to hear it whether at weddings or funerals. Yet it is impossible to recount the numerous times I will be driving along in silent melancholy, flip on the radio and it is this song floating into my ears. It is the old Shaker Hymn “Simple Gifts.”  Just last week, I happened to mention this musical phenomenon to someone in an email and a day later, only hours after learning of the death of a very close friend, it happened again. Only this time a bit out of the ordinary. In my grief, I found myself stumbling around a thrift shop (truly, I hardly remember driving there) and as I walked past the books, I was struck dumb as the booklet you see here was lying face up on the bottom shelf.  It is an illustrated version of the song’s lyrics, very whimsical and brightly colored, and fully of silly cats! I caught my breath, snatched it up and I carried it around in my shopping basket for an hour. I eventually decided that it wasn’t for me to actually buy or have. I know the words by heart and perhaps another would benefit from its simple gift — the message to once more take heart, to not be sad but instead to be thankful for the wonders of this life and the blessings and people in it, both past and present — to be encouraged and to “Come round right.”

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“Simple Gifts” was written in 1848 by Elder Joseph Brackett (1797–1882) while he was at the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine. These are the lyrics to his one-verse song.

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,

To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,

Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.[2]

White Room

© Mary Garner-Mitchell. Collection of miscellaneous white porcelain in the kitchen at Stagfield, Ashland, Virginia.

Perhaps you’ve heard the expression Like white on rice?  (You have to be Southern to say it “rite!”) Lest you wonder, it means something that’s integral, something through and through, something so stuck on something else that there is no separation.  I’m that way with old things. I don’t particularly like new, unless it’s a new car. That’s why thrift stores and junk shops are so appealing to me. And I seem to always be drawn to things that are or once were white.

I like how my collections of white objects are testament to their former purpose or previous life. Maybe with antique linens being the one exception, cracks, crazing, grease spots, the way a sugar cone has oxidized over the years earn these items  “most favored” status for they are the pieces that speak to me of memory, of time passing. Rarely do I think, “Oh, I wish this were restored to its original gloriousness, all clean and pristine.”  No, I like “50 shades of white” over the singular non color of new … “where the shadows run from themselves.”

© Mary Garner-Mitchell.

This photo deserves a bit more of a caption. Daddy made this Shaker-style table in 1975 for my first apartment from walnut he and my grandfather harvested long before I was born. If the house were to ever catch fire, I would certainly grab this piece on my way out! The reticulated bowl and platter filled with dried lichens may be one of my best thrift shop finds. It has an impressed stamp on the bottom that is hard to make out. If the Roadshow ever comes this way, I’m taking it and an early 19th century piece of French needlepoint for evaluation.The deer figurine is a yard sale find and I think I paid a whopping 5 bucks for it the year we moved into Stagfield. It moves around the house quite a bit. It is soapstone, I believe. The round plaque, a reproduction I buried in the yard for a winter so it would get mossy and gross enough to earn its spot amongst the old stuff!  The chalk urn I spotted in the barn of the same grandparents’ home when I was a little girl. When they held the estate sale many years later, I asked my mother to look for it and it was exactly where I had remembered!  It is my all-time favorite flower-arranging vessel. It holds pussy willow from the yard most of the time. The ironstone tureen is a much-treasured piece, and it, too, is on the “save list” as it has been handed down from my mother’s family for several generations and has held the centerpiece florals at numerous weddings, mine included.