Throughout my entire life, I have collected various items, including rocks and shells, a vast array of books, clippings from magazines and newspapers I find interesting and inspiring, antiques and vintage items of different types, and miniatures. In fact, when I moved out of my parent’s house, my boyfriend and I furnished almost my entire Boone-area apartment with mostly vintage and antique items we purchased at yard sales, for the amazing price of under $200 for everything.
I still collect, but as I grow older I realize space is a concern and I try to hold back from buying as much. Still, quite often, on my days off, you may find me exploring the shelves of a local antique store or flea market.
In warmer months, I love to drive the roads of Surry County searching for yard sales and on occasion my parents and I venture across the state line and head toward some of my favorite antique and vintage shops in the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains.
For the past few years, I have noticed more and more old photographs and photo albums abandoned on the shelves of flea markets and thrift shops. Sometimes I feel as if I need to be the one who captures those forgotten images.
Have you ever wanted to be able to touch an object or a photograph and find out the story behind it? I feel that way when I see an old photograph — it almost hurts to know that I have no way to find out the story behind the picture.
I have a small collection of photographs I purchased at antique shops and flea markets — the image or person photographed spoke to me and I had to own it. When I see photographs that have been disconnected from their stories, their history, I always wonder why and how they found their way to a shop, stripped of their names and identities.
I ache to know their stories — I want to hear about their lost loves, triumphs, adventures, pleasures, and sorrows.
Another example is the beautiful and colorful quilt that hangs behind my bed, on the wall, serving as a sort of soft headboard, draped behind the old-fashioned metal frame of my bed.
My bed…now there is a story. It belonged to my great-grandmother, Cornelia Alice Hiatt Johnson, known to me as Grandma Nealie, my grandfather Bobby Johnson’s mother. My grandfather and his brothers all slept on that bed. My father slept on that bed. I know where it came from and how old it is — this is important to me.
The quilt though, there is a huge hole in my mind when I look at it. I researched the design of the quilt, the particular quilt block created and repeated to form the quilt as a whole. It is a California Crossroad quilt square, sometimes called a Greek Cross. I know the types of fabrics used, and I have admired the old floral cottons and lavender and white striped seersucker, wondering if they were leftover scraps from a young girl’s summer pinafore, or perhaps a favorite jumper.
All I know about the quilt is that we bought it at an auction, somewhere between Dobson and Rockford.
I yearn to know the story behind the quilt — who made the quilt, why the particular fabrics were used, when it was made, where it was made, why it was made — was it for a bed, made to keep someone warm on a winter night? Was it made for aesthetic beauty, as I use it now?
Perhaps this is why I have loved working as a reporter. I have a reason, a purpose behind collecting stories. I can narrow down my focus and share my story ideas because it is part of my job to do so.
A more recent acquisition was an item from a local antique’s store: a large picture of a group of African-American students, possibly from the 1940s or 1950s. The back of the picture had the name of Steve Talley’s father, who was a local photographer.
My mother took the picture to Talley’s Frame Shop, in hopes he would be able to identify the young people in the picture. He confirmed that it was taken by his father, but did not know the identities of the individuals photographed. My next step is to ask a local historian, then I will scan the picture and post it on a Facebook group about growing up in the area, in hopes of finding out the identities of the nameless individuals.
A love of history and an appreciation of storytelling runs in my family, as my grandmother is Esther Draughn Johnson, a local historian and the president of the Surry County Genealogical Association. I grew up hearing grandma and my Great Uncle Andrew, as well as my granny, Nita Davis, tell stories from their lives and I was fascinated by the tales and have often repeated them to others through the years.
It is sometimes difficult for me to visit history museums, as much as I love them, because I want to be able to press a button and travel back in time in order to see the stories behind the items on display.
History is a living, breathing topic, not just a series of dates, timelines, and facts. Facts are important, but to me, the stories behind the facts do a better job at illuminating the truth.
You must inject life into history or it is doomed to the forgotten pages of a book. But knowing me, I already own that book, and I bought it from a used book sale, just so it would not be forgotten.
Jessica Johnson is a staff reporter for The Mount Airy News. She can be reached at email@example.com or at 719-1933.