Ugly objects

On midsummer, it will be exactly 26 years ago that my mother died. After her death, many of her things remained with my father until he died 10 years ago. Then my siblings and I had to go through the various items that had once belonged to them individually, to them as a couple, and to us as a family. We had to decide what to give away (- and to whom and how), but, of course, we also selected things for ourselves (and our children as a memory). One of the things I chose was a vase that my mother had used seemingly forever. I can remember it in our family home during my childhood and youth. When I was a child, we frequently had guests at home and by good old custom they usually gave flowers to my mother. My mother would place the vase with the flowers right on the table around which the guests and we would sit. Even when the vase was not needed, it was present in an unobtrusive way: you could see it on one of our numerous bookshelves in our living room.

Actually, I never liked the vase – even as a child I considered it exceptionally ugly, yet, at the same time, I found its ugliness a bit fascinating. I do not like the colours, design and touch of the vase. I still have the same feeling whenever I see and take the vase. I hardly use it although it is not a ‘bad’ or unpractical vase. Most of the time, it is stored in a cupboard, together with other vases, which I consider much nicer. Like my mother, I love flowers; they are important elements in making my home feel cozy, colourful, fresh, and they add some new smell to it. (They might smell a bit displeasing when they start to rot but I share the house with a husband, three children, a cat, a dog, and numerous pairs of, sometimes smelly, shoes, so the sweet smell of rotting flowers is still OK). Even if I use this particular vase only occasionally, I need to move it regularly – this means I see and touch it – when I select another vase. So, even if it is on a subconscious level and tied to ordinary household activities, this ugly vase somehow keeps accompanying me.

I had never thought about my mother’s relationship to this vase. What was the story behind this vase? Had my mother chosen and bought it? Did she like it? Most probably, otherwise she would not have kept and used it. But how can I be so sure that she really liked the vase, in particular after I decided to keep it although I do not like its look and touch? What if my mother had kept this vase out of a moral obligation (Mauss 1990) to someone or something and not because she liked it? Perhaps she found this vase ugly, too, but because she had received it for a special occasion or from someone dear, she simply never had the heart to throw this vase away or to give it away. Maybe keeping the vase was an annoying burden for my mother – but why do I still keep it? Is this hideous vase a memento of my mother?

The vase certainly is not an object that helps to ‘immortalize’ my mother or brings her back. However, I started realizing that it directly links to my home, which I shared with my parents who were both still alive at that time. The vase helps me to recall situations and experiences from my childhood and youth. These memories are broad: they connect to stories and experiences, they include different people, my parents, my siblings, various guests and friends, and the circumstances of their visits as well as other slightly blurred, banal, everyday situations that create a nice, warm, not necessarily nostalgic but somehow a comforting or satisfying feeling. A feeling that is associated with home. These feelings become materialized through the object, and not through a home, which anyway is long gone. While the vase itself does not figure prominently (or at all) in any of my memories and feelings, it functions as an actant (Latour 2005) that enables me to create or recall certain associations and relationships that go beyond the materiality and meaning of the vase itself. The vase is an ugly object (in my subjective opinion) but it is more than just a memento of my mother. It continues to shape my ideas and feelings that connect to home. The vase is part of my story, which includes my whole family, our life and our home during the Cold War; it links to both everyday and special situations, and it represents certain times, places, and issues. Many of our guests were exile Estonians and Lithuanians like my parents, East European dissidents and political journalists, and some visitors across the Iron Curtain or across the Atlantic were ‘dubious characters’, as my parents referred to those who they suspected to work for secret services. The vase was present during those visits, after which I was regularly reminded to keep quiet about the content of the conversation and about our guests. For me, the vase functions as some kind of a time-machine – not one that literally projects me back through some sort of magic power or high technology but rather in a figurative sense. When I am in the mood, it enables me to travel back into bygone times, atmospheres and sentiments that I cannot reproduce in words but which I manage to re-experience in some sort of nebulous-warm feeling and blurred memories.

I did not realize this before but even ugly objects in our homes can have a particular function. Precisely, such ugly or sometimes troublesome objects are one of the interests of our SENSOMEMO project through which we attempt to study various aspects of materiality and affective object relationships, including multisensory experiences, emotions and memories.


Latour, Bruno (2005) Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford University Press.

Mauss, Marcel (1990 [1950]). The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchanges in Archaic Societies. London and New York: Routledge.