One of the finest things I own is a lamp with a stern brass pirate, one hand on his hip and the other gripping a sword. This pirate is a landmark in my mind, a mythic figure who haunts my first memories. For decades he stood on a spindly desk in my grandfather’s basement that smelled of spider poison and Saginaw Bay. I was afraid to look at it when I was small, perhaps sensing it was a relic from a different world, unable to imagine it would one day become part of mine.

My grandfather inherited the lamp from Queenie and Hazel, his spinster aunts. They say Hazel bought it at a Detroit pawn shop in the early 1900s, but nobody knows for sure. They said a lot of things about Queenie and Hazel. They said the sisters hopped a fence and walked across a military airstrip in Kalamazoo, determined to register as nurses in World War I. They said that a man tried to kiss Hazel and Queenie grabbed her rifle and chased him down the street. She even fires off a couple shots in some versions of the tale. I only know Queenie and Hazel from their images scattered in attic boxes, their faces unseen on glass Kodachrome slides. For me, this lamp is where they live.

The pirate watched over my grandfather’s spindly desk for decades, switched on when he went downstairs to putter in his woodshop where he produced his vases, bookends, and chests. When he moved to a retirement home, most of his belongings were sold. But he brought his lamp with him.

To make it easier for residents to locate their rooms in the endless corridors of look-alike doors, the nursing staff encouraged each patient to place a memento on a little shelf mounted next to each door. Plastic flowers, birthday cards, family snapshots, and woodland figurines lined the halls because it’s easier to recall a photograph of your grandchild than room 27B. My grandfather placed this lamp outside his door, where it threatened the tiny shelf with its brass weight. The pirate looked as if he might murder the neighbor’s ceramic kitten. Some of the residents complained. When he asked my opinion, I told him I loved his lamp. “Me too,” he said. “I think it classes up the place.”

He taped my name beneath the lamp before he died. Today it sits on my desk and although I still see the stern pirate that frightened me as a child, I see many other things as well.

Each day in 2020 I'm writing a short post for a series called Notes From the End of a World because I want to etch these uneasy times into my memory before I forget them. Before the world changes completely.

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