There was never a quick word with my Aunt Betty. She was eccentric, engaging and full of life even when she was full of death, her body full of cancer. Aunt Betty left behind a legacy of faith and joy and music among other things when she passed away seven years ago. One of the things she left me in particular was a cabinet overflowing with kaleidoscopes.
After I was bequeathed these scopes from my aunt, Betty Spoelstra, upon her death, I remember joining my mom and aunts to go through her belongings. Grabbing a stack of newspapers, I slowly began to remove the scopes from behind the glass pane doors of my aunt’s cabinet. Carefully wrapping each one, I gently placed them in a large cardboard box. There were so many – big scopes, tiny scopes, fragile scopes. Some were made of wood, some contained elements of stained glass and others were fashioned out of brass. Despite the variety, they all had two things in common: they had been hand-picked by my aunt, and they were beautiful.
A few months after receiving the scopes I began cataloguing them, figuring out who made them and how much they were worth. Enter: selfishness. Upon discovering how costly the kaleidoscopes really were, I began to worry that something might happen to them. Before my aunt died she told me of her intentions to give me her collection but she also instructed that I had to do as she had done and give them away. But I was pretty sure I didn’t want to part with them now. I had never before owned so many objects of both sentimental and monetary value, and I actually considered getting insurance just to cover the scopes should they ever be stolen or damaged. Absurd, I know. That’s when I knew it was time to start giving them away. In holding onto the scopes too tightly, I was holding onto the memory of my Aunt Betty inappropriately.
So, one by one, I have been doing as she requested – gifting cousins on their wedding day, teachers on their retirement and friends on their way to new homes with kaleidoscopes from her collection. I have watched each of the various scopes pass from my hand to the grateful receiver; scopes by Bennett, Chesnik, Karadimos, Knox, Koch, Paretti, Weeks, Van Cort and many others.
I have to be honest; there’s pain in the offering. But I know that’s a good thing. Gifts should cost us something if they are to be a true gift. And in case you’re wondering, the pain is not in parting with such costly collectibles. The pain is when I must take the scope in one hand and a cloth in the other, and carefully rub all of my aunt’s fingerprints off the scope before wrapping it in tissue and laying it into a gift box. I’m not losing money or beautiful artistry. I’m losing another piece of that which remains of my aunt.
After the third or fourth departed scope, I decided there must be a way to remember what the scopes looked like, not just on the outside but on the inside as well. I had always enjoyed photography, but what I was about to embark on was completely foreign territory for me. I knew nothing about kaleidoscopes and even less about taking pictures of them, and admittedly had many false starts in my efforts to succeed to such an end. Quite honestly, I didn’t believe it was possible. More than that, I think I believed that even if it was possible, I found the idea ineffectual. To what end was I going to do this? I never wanted Betty’s scopes; I wanted Betty. But using her optical instruments to create something new actuated a resurrection of sorts. Kaleidoscopes are typically placed on a shelf to collect dust. Rarely are they removed from the mantel for their designs to be admired. Photographing the interiors changes all of that. What would have been left hidden and underappreciated would now be revealed and enjoyed.
I learned very quickly that photographing the interiors of the scopes was not going to be as easy as taking my point-and-shoot Pentax to the eye hole and pushing the shutter button. I began documenting my progress so I could see what worked and what didn’t. It took several years of trial and error to get to the place where I can consistently capture high-quality images. And it was my husband who suggested one day that I begin learning how to make my own kaleidoscopes so I didn’t have to seek permission from the artists of the scopes I owned in order to profit from my images. So yet another challenge ensued, and I began researching how to make the perfect kaleidoscope. Easier said than done, but it was a worthwhile undertaking.
Lessons on life and love and letting go are blessed gifts that can come, I’ve found out, from unlikely places and through the most unlikely means. Such matters of the heart cannot be wrapped and placed under a tree to lay in wait for an unsuspecting receiver, and rightfully so, as it’s the process which makes such matters a gift in the first place. The journey – my journey in producing such beautiful images – was an integral part in reaching the end where I find myself today. It was only when I started giving the scopes away that the thought ever crossed my mind that there must be a way to preserve their beauty. And had my aunt not died, I never would have considered doing so in the first place. And this is not the end. Rather, I’ve found myself at the cusp of yet another new beginning. Thank you, Aunt Betty.
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