Unpacking the “Table Linens” Box

More than just napkins and tablecloths.

I’ve had a sealed up moving box labeled “table linens” in various places in my bedroom for the past year and a half. I’ve been wanting to unpack it, but I wasn’t sure where I’d put the napkins, tablecloths, and placemats I assumed it contained. A few months ago, while cleaning up before expecting some guests, I shoved the box into my bedroom closet.

And promptly forgot about it.

Earlier this week, I finally cleared one of the shelves in my linen closet. This morning, while looking for something else in my bedroom closet, I found the box. Perfect! I thought to myself. I finally have the shelf space and can empty this box.

The first thing I found inside it, however, wasn’t table linens. It was a white Bed, Bath, and Beyond bag filled with paper-wrapped items. I pulled them out and unwrapped them one by one, remembering the day in autumn 2012 when I’d packed them.

They were a mixture of heirloom items I’d gotten as a child or adult from grandparents and some Native American folk art I’d bought on the Navajo Reservation back in the early 2000s.

The heirloom items were mostly Steiff stuffed animals — and yes, a clown (!) — that my father’s parents had given me when I was a baby. Even if they had been bought new back then — likely in Germany — they were at least 50 years old.

Heirloom Items
Some heirloom items, back on display in our new home.

There was also a dancing doll in Black Forest costume that’s almost identical to the one in this video. I remember getting that doll when I was about 10. My sister had gotten one just like it but I seem to recall that our dog tore hers up.

The Lladro figurine was one I’d bought for my mother’s mother for Christmas one year. She liked Lladro and I chose this one to remind her of all the nights I’d slept over at her house when I was a kid. When she died, my mother gave it back to me.

All of these items, due to their fragile nature, were safely tucked away in a big, glass-fronted cabinet in my old house. The cabinet had been a bookshelf in my wasband’s parents’ dining room, with dark wood shelves and lots of old books. My wasband inherited the bookshelf when his father died and it eventually made its way to our Arizona home. He replaced the wooden shelves with glass ones and added lighting — both of which really improved it. I never really did like the cabinet — it was too dark and heavy for my taste — but it did provide a great place to show off heirloom items. In addition to these things, it was also home to my Lenox china (still packed) and an original Hummel nativity set I got when my father’s parents died (and gave to my sister last year). There were some vases and crystal, too, but I left most of that behind; I was never a fan of cut crystal and since we’d gotten most of it from his family — he had an aunt who seemed to think we liked cut glass — I figured he should keep it.

The Native American folk art was more fun than meaningful and it lived on the mantel over the fireplace in my old house: a big wooden chicken and a smaller feathery rooster. I’d also picked up an ocarina and a little milk pitcher, both shaped like chickens. I used to have a sheep, but I think it was damaged and discarded. Or I may have given it away; I gave away a ton of things while I was packing.

Folk art chickens and more.

I moved everything from the “linens” box to my new hanging wall cabinets. They fit nicely, except for the dancing doll, which is a tiny bit tall. Don’t tell anyone, but her hat is supporting the shelf above her in the photo.

It’s funny because just today I was wondering what I’d put in the cabinet to fill it. Last week, I sent my collection of Katsina figures to the shop where I bought them about 16 years ago in Arizona’s Hopiland to have them repaired and they’ll definitely get places in the cabinet. (I’ll pick them up during my travels this winter.) But until I unpacked the “linens” box, I couldn’t remember owning anything else that might fill those shelves. I figured I’d pick up more odds and ends in my travels and eventually fill them all.

Well, this is two less shelves that need filling.

As for the rest of the box’s contents, well, it was table linens. Three different sets of napkins, a few tablecloths, including a lace one, a handful of placemats, and more lace doilies than I know what to do with. Looks like I can change out my napkins with the seasons now; I have the perfect set for spring.

Best of all: another box unpacked and thrown away.

18 thoughts on “Unpacking the “Table Linens” Box

  1. I really like the feathery rooster. Full of character and fun.
    What the wooden chicken lacks in class is more than made up by its enormous ‘chutzpah’ coupled with minimalist simplicity.

    • LOL. The chicken is funny and there’s a story behind it. I was seeing a lot of this “Navajo folk art” in various gift shops and even trading posts in the southwest. I bought this one because I like chickens. I later discovered that this “folk art” is not traditional at all for Navajos. They were merely exhibiting a trait that some Hopi artists had told me about: Navajos will make what sells. That’s why Navajo-made Katsinas are so widely despised by Hopi; the Navajos basically “stole” a cultural icon, created cheaper knockoffs with characters that don’t even exist in the Hopi culture, and grabbed a huge chuck of the bargain-seeking tourist market. I actually had a Navajo-made katsina in my old house — a huge gaudy thing my wasband’s cousin gave us. It was cheaply made out of the wrong wood — Hopi katsinas are always made of cottonwood root — with glued-on parts. I left it behind for obvious reasons. I don’t blame his cousin — he didn’t know any better — but I don’t need that junk in my house.

      As for the chicken, well, it is what it is. I don’t need to invest further in that particular type of “folk art.” I’d rather buy another Navajo rug — now that’s something the Navajo people are known for and do very well.

    • You raise some really interesting issues about cultural authenticity and the evolution of ‘traditional’ art.
      There is a mass of pseudo traditional art in South Africa, Australia and the Pacific Islands. If it sells to tourists, more will be made, some might exploit false or even ‘invented’ traditions.
      Tonight I shall go and watch our local blues band singing songs such as ‘Born under a Bad Sign’ and ‘Down on the Killing Floor’.
      The five band members are all excellent amateur musicians. They are all rich and white. They will sing of life on Parchman Farm and cruel prison bosses who exploit their imagined poverty. But they will play and sing so well we will forgive them for imitating a black consciousness they cannot possibly comprehend. But their love of The Blues is genuine and strong.
      For some reason we seem to get much more of this ‘expropriation’ of black culture in the UK than you do in the the US.
      Your Kachina and our blues music have evolved in very strange ways.

    • Very interesting comparison. I think the big difference is this: when a white band in the UK sing the music created by black musicians in the US, their audience knows they’re singing someone else’s music. It’s not like they’re trying to con their audience into thinking it’s authentic white guy UK music. But when Navajos make kachinas — which have significant cultural and religious significance for the Hopi people but are non-existent in the Navajo culture — the buyers are led to believe they’re buying authentic and iconic cultural crafts. They’re not. It’s a difficult distinction to make and some people might not think it’s valid, but that’s the way I look at it. And I admit that it’s partially from conversations with Hopi people and how they look at it.

      Here’s another interesting fact: when the Fred Harvey company and others started opening up trading posts along the railroad lines in the late 1800s, the Navajos didn’t weave rugs. They wove blankets. Trouble was, people buying things didn’t want blankets. Someone advised them to try rugs and they did and they sold like crazy. Now they are known for their rugs — which used the same skills that blanket weaving used. Weaving is a very important part of the Navajo culture. And you don’t see Hopis weaving rugs.

      I could go on with a discussion of jewelry. Zunis are known for their delicate inlays; Navajo jewelry was mostly large silver and turquoise pieces. Yet nowadays, in the finer gift shops at the Grand Canyon, Sedona, and Scottsdale, you can find a lot of Navajo made jewelry with inlaid stones. Not quite the same as kachinas, though — no religious significance to Zunis.

    • Agreed, it is complex.
      Is it true that the Zunis learned silver work from the Navajo quite recently?
      In my view their (Zuni) lapidary and cluster designs are finer and more interesting than most Navajo equivalents.

    • The whole issue of cultural appropriation is pretty thoroughly muddled when it comes to music. Is it “cultural appropriation” when an American cover band plays “Blackbird” by the archetypal British band The Beetles? Of course not, it’s just appreciation of a good tune, not appropriation of a cultural meme. Musicians have always and will always borrow and modify catchy riffs, melodies, lyrics, beats, and whatever they can use. Music is ever evolving, and everything that gets thrown into the pot is fair game.

  2. Sean, you make a good point. The pot of admixture can be very ‘tasty’. It can also become rather odd.
    Since I raised the music branch of this discussion, let me explain my position.
    Take the blues standard “Parchman Farm”. It was written by Bukka White in 1940 and described his own experience of that cruel and dangerous penal work camp.
    It was adapted by Mose Allison much later and Allison added the famous final sentence ..”All I did was shoot my wife”, a phrase which completely alters the notional injustice of the original. (If the singer IS a murderer, then his sentence is obviously appropriate)
    Most (all?) blues bands now use the Allison lyrics, not the original. Mose had no experience of delta work camps, as far as I know.
    Perhaps the change to the song is trivial? Whether it is or not, it is clear that a genuine ‘black’ experience has become changed and rendered inauthentic by Allison’s change to the last verse.
    The song, once a genuine protest at the left overs of the slave era is now famous for a psychopath getting his just deserts.
    When a US band does a Beatles cover, Paul Mc Cartney gets royalties. When a British all white blues band (as in my real example) performs the Mose Allison morph of Bukka White’s ‘Parchman’, something important about racial inequality is lost in the transition.
    I think something of this sort happens when artefacts, sacred to one group, are ripped off by another who attach no significance to the appropriated design.

  3. Cultural appropriation is definitely a hot-button issue, too much so, in my opinion. My main criticism of the concept is that it forces people into taking sides over issues that are frequently far too nuanced and complex to reduce into a simple “you are right, the other person is wrong” dichotomy. This is particularly true when it concerns issues of race rather than culture, especially in a place like the U.S. where we’ve been a melting pot since our earliest days. For example, how black is “black enough” to play the blues without it being “cultural appropriation”? Half black? A Quarter? 1/64th? Any metric that requires something as archaic and inherently biased as a “blood quantum” to grant legitimacy is both ethically suspect and unworkable. There is also the one-sided nature of the term, since nobody ever discusses whether ideas or concepts can be “appropriated” from the dominant western culture, only the other way around.

    For example, I contend that the most egregious and least discussed example of cultural appropriation in the modern era is the term “gay marriage”. The concept of marriage pre-dates the written word, and throughout history has universally referred to the union of man and woman. Virtually every language known since antiquity had or has a word directly equivalent to “marriage”, the concept being so widely understood that it hardly needed definition until recently. When gay rights activists forced the re-definition of the word marriage to include combinations outside of the the man/woman binary, this was in my opinion the most sweeping and egregious example of cultural appropriation in our time. The theft of the word “marriage” (and theft is the correct term) represented a gross violation of societal norms, marriage being after all a central tenet to most cultures. The subsequent redefinition represents a stunning affront to virtually all religions and nearly every culture. A term representing the cultural heritage and intellectual property of every major religion is snatched away in a blink, yet nobody seems to consider it a problem outside of the conservative religious communities whose concerns are routinely belittled and brushed aside.

    The willful blindness on the part of progressives about this illegitimate taking is breathtakingly hypocritical, and from the looks of things the issue is about to re-ignite yet again in our country following the election of Donald Trump and his religious zealot VP Mike Pence. The dogged insistence of the gay community on commandeering the word “marriage” has led to considerable conflict and a number of unintended and generally negative consequences. While most religious conservatives approved (sometimes grudgingly) of civil unions and domestic partnerships that granted marriage-equivalent rights to gay couples, they really dug in their heels against the appropriation of the word “marriage” itself. This has led to a constant battle against “gay marriage” on religious grounds, a battle that could have been avoided had gay rights activists not insisted on taking and redefining the word itself. Conservative religious activists rightly consider “marriage” to be a word whose meaning has been adequately defined for millennia. You can add any number of adjectives to the word (polygamous, open, loveless, arranged, child, broken, etc.) as long as it includes at least one man and one woman. The moment you re-define it to exclude the male/female dynamic you fundamentally change it in a manner which is intolerable to many conservatives. They will never stop fighting to regain their definition of the term, no matter how much damage it does to gay couples. Considering the upheaval and heartache that the back-and-forth battle for the word “marriage” has caused, it makes me wonder if it was really worth it.

  4. Sean, I think we are moving to two slightly different topics there (notion of ‘race’ and ‘gay marriage’) but they are both very significant and I am happy to hitch a ride with your agenda.
    First, ‘racial admixture’ and what is ‘black enough’. In my view the still unsurpassed musical “Show Boat” (Edna Ferber/,Jerome Kern) tackles this question most directly.
    As you know, it is set in 1887, but is still clearly relevant today. The heroine and successful show girl Julie La Verne is one sixteenth black but passes as white. Her ‘secret’ is betrayed and she and Steve are arrested for miscegenation. Her life takes a downward turn. Whatever your skin colour, we are compelled to be on her side, with Steve, her man.
    Now all I know about the US is from my travels as a tourist. It follows that you know more about this stuff than me, as you live there. That said, I have seen a white family get up and leave their unfinished meal in a Yosemite diner when a black family came to a table nearby. That was this century. We have every prejudice you have but the intensity is different. I would never see that sort of display in a public space in the UK.
    ‘Race’ is a useless and lazy term, it lacks biological precision. In practice it means skin colour and hair type or more correctly ‘ethnically graded clines’.
    I am of mixed ethnicity, all ‘white’ northern Europeans tend to be. Your name suggests that your ethnicity is the same as mine. I’m a bit Irish, mostly English, a touch Scandinavian and about 4% Neanderthal. We know we have that last bit, but like Julie La Verne, nice folks don’t discuss it.
    So if you are saying that discussions of human genetic admixture are imprecise, I have to agree. Yet race and culture still seem significant.

    Now to your second point about marriage and especially gay marriage. I agree with much you say. Religious or not, it seems obvious that cultures recognise marriage as a means of legitimising children born to a couple. The term confers the rights and duties of parents and rights (implied) of children. Thus the origin of the term is clearly rooted in heterosexual relationships.
    Although I have no religion I struggle with both the notion of gay marriage and especially gay adoption. Perhaps the term will catch on, perhaps it will continue to be controversial. In this sense I am not ‘progressive’, but nor am I anti-gay.
    My Oxford English Dictionary lists nine usages of the term ‘marriage’ but the first (‘a legally recognised union entered into by a man and a woman’) still dominates my consciousness too.

  5. Now that we’ve thoroughly hijacked Maria thread, I think I’ll bring it back around to something approaching the original topic. Having grown up in the Southwestern U.S. (New Mexico, specifically) I’ll second Maria’s advice to check the provenance of your art purchases carefully, there’s a LOT of dubious work out there, and even more outright fakes from overseas being marketed as “Indian art” by shady characters in gift shops and online. If what you’re after is actually the genuine article rather than just a category of art or an impulse purchase, you have to do your homework. By far the best way to ensure that you get an item that is both genuinely Indian made AND culturally relevant to their specific tribe is to buy directly from the artist. It’s a lot more work than just plopping down your credit card at a fancy Santa Fe gallery or an online auction site, but at least that way you know for sure that you’re getting what you pay for. While galleries play an important part in making artists work more widely known and more widely available, they get a pretty significant cut of the profits for that service. If you know what you’re after, buy direct when possible in order to better support the artist.

    And now that I’ve burned through yet another hour that I didn’t really have to spare looking up Show Boat on Wikipedia, I’m going to have to spend even more time finding a copy of the 1936 AND the 1951 versions on DVD to watch. Thanks for the discussion!

    • Good advice. Trading posts — the real (often historic) ones — are a great middle ground, too. I recommend Hubbell (at Ganado, which is where I bought my rug), Cameron (at Cameron), and Gouldings (at Monument Valley). Otherwise, if you go to Native American events, you can often buy directly from the artist. I got some wonderful jewelry at a Zuni event at the Northern Arizona Museum in Flagstaff one year. And the shop I go to in the Hopi reservation caters primarily to the native population, providing them with ceremonial items they might need. Everything in there is the real deal, often by local artists.

      As for Navajo rugs, a friend of mine collected quite a few new and used ones when he lived in Page, AZ. After a while, word got out and Navajo weavers started appearing at his door, offering their rugs for sale. He often paid a fixed rate by the inch, which I still think is pretty weird.

    • If you ever make it up to Anchorage Alaska, one of the best places to buy Alaska Native art is (oddly enough) the gift shop at the native hospital, ANMC. People come in from all over the state for treatment and to visit relatives, and some artists have been exhibiting there for years.

    • Thanks to you both for the advice. If you see it made you know it is genuine.

      Once in a while you come across a fake which is actually better than the original!
      Lots of art experts were fooled by the forger Tom Keating, who specialised in work in the style of (19th century water colourist) Samuel Palmer, an English romantic who was inspired by scenes of the ‘rural idyll’, often captured at night.
      Keatings work had more energy and sense of wonder. But he was caught and sent to prison. Now dead, his faked works are very valuable, of course.

      Sean, I hope you enjoy the video of Show Boat. I saw the London stage revival in about 1998, It blew me away.

  6. I’ll keep an eye out for a video of the musical, sometimes they’re a great alternative to the more polished movie of the same story. The last live show I saw was “Book of “Mormon” in Atlanta GA, it was hysterical!

    • Ah, yes. Mormon is brilliant. Like watching every sacred cow (apart from Islam?) get slaughtered in a two hour ‘rolling thunder’ of irreverence.
      I gather it has even played in Salt Lake City.
      Who can ever forget General Butt Naked?

  7. Beats “hakuna matada” all to hell and back, doesn’ it? :) We brought our 12 year old son along to see it, people looked at us a bit funny but it was totally worth it. We’re still using some of the inside jokes.

What do you think?