I find myself the owner of treasures of value to no one, but history and as the unofficial family historian – me.
My late-husband was a semi-hoarder, a trait well earned from his mother as I came to learn over the years. In a series of happenings in the two years after his passing that I will not go into here, things were put into storage for what I hoped would be for a few short years. Eight years later I in turn have inherited all of these things and have finally begun the arduous process of sorting through them.
Some things were easy to decide what to do with, such as the receipt from Sears & Roebuck. Think about it, I said Sears & Roebuck. The receipt is so faded, I could barely make out the date (06/01/68) and the cost ($27.00), but not the purchase item itself. I’m reasonably sure -were she alive now- Laura, my late mother-in-law, would not be too put out that I tossed it. Reasonably sure – I think. $27 was a hefty amount for a S&R purchase back then. A part of me sincerely feels that she could likely recall what the purchase was for – with the steel trap that was her mind before Alzheimer’s took its toll.
The birth certificate of a brother-in-law, deceased long before I met my husband, is another story. From the 1940s, I can still feel the raised seal of its stamp, letting me know it is official if not the true original. Marriage certificates, note the plural on that. My erstwhile mother-in-law was quite the dish, let me tell you! Old dog tags, family photos, more documents, family letters etc. were also unearthed. Two letters showing some serious animosity between sisters-in-law, shed a light on tensions I had sensed, but could never put name to back then. Letters from my late-husband to his mother while he was in the army nearly made me cry. I am the only living person who can be the bearer of these captures in time for these specific people. At least for the moment.
Bill was estranged from nearly every single person he was related to by blood. I know he has, (or knew he had?) a brother in San Diego. A falling out over twenty-five years ago has sealed the deal on my wanting to find him now. Some physical wounds heal, but the emotional scars can still fester. Somewhere out there is a niece with whom I did get along. Regrettably, as life has a way of doing, in with Bill’s passing I am ashamed to say we are no longer in contact. Her father’s birth certificate, among other items are things are rightfully hers and I would love to give them to her. Thus, I simply cannot let them go for I have hopes of finding her and being able to do such someday. But what do I do with this treasure trove now? Had I a private home with the ever useful basement or attic, there would be no question as where to put these in the meantime. However, the reality of living in an apartment where storage space is at a premium I find myself at a personal cross road. For I also have my own treasures to add to the mix.
In a bin from storage I found the tops Bill and I wore for at our wedding. My best friend presented Bill and I with an heirloom clock. It has the traditional marriage vows printed on it, with our names and wedding date on a plaque attached to it. It is too obvious what it is, and after ten years of being a widow, now living in an apartment he is not a part of, I could not hang it on the wall. So it, the tops and a few other things I’ve deemed a part of “that time” yet feel should not be thrown away, has been stored up on a shelf in a closet. Out of sight, if not entirely out of mind.
As I am still sorting through the cache, currently all are boxed, taking up space on in front of a bookshelf in my living room. I fight the cleaning urge to just toss them and be done with it. It is treasures like these, mementos held onto and passed down are how people trace family. Not just the who someone was on the family tree, but who someone was as a person. The family tree can tell me Dorothy and Laura were sisters-in-law. Only finding those letters tells me that they were not fond of each other and how long that animosity ran between them. The letters tell me how much Bill loved his dogs. The family tree will tell you that Bill and I were married and when. Only the photos will give testament to the not exactly traditional aspects of the wedding itself.
In the interim, my not-so-immediate goal after the sort, is to scan and document everything I can. And perhaps laminate some of the older, more delicate paper items that are in danger of being lost forever. That is fine in and of itself, but while I can scan a photo of my three-year-old child wearing it, I cannot scan the “child-abuse” shirt itself. Or scan the wedding clock, or the dog tags, or… or…
Most people can easily trace to their grandparents and perhaps back to at least one set of great-grandparents, but not much further. One of the reasons sites like Ancestry.com and the television series “Who Do You Think You Are?” exist is because there are many who understand the importance of documenting these things, at least the paper things, while you can. In this throwaway society of new or nothing, it becomes harder and harder as people cannot or just don’t hold on to these pieces of the everyday anymore.
The thought that many years from now another family member will come across these previous timelines and enjoy these revelations as I have, fills me with joy. For while the photos and letters can be documented electronically, it is not the same feeling that raised seal or the texture of an old shirt under your fingertips. It is my wish that long after I’m gone, hopefully future great-grandchildren, will come across the old photos, the clock, the “child abuse t-shirt” and other treasures saved and smile just as fondly on them then as I am smiling now thinking of their stories.
That alone tells me I will be holding on to these treasures for a little while longer – throwaway society be damned.
Writing Our Lives #52essays2017 Challenge – Week 2
A year-long weekly personal essay/memoir/creative nonfiction writing challenge. To learn more about this challenge or to participate, check out Vanessa Martir’s website and learn about it.
And let’s see how others are slicing it up this week:
Slice of Life Writing Challenge|Two Writing Teachers