When my parents died several years ago, my brother took care of disposing of all their things. My father passed away first, and my brother seemed to have gotten rid of all his things within the first week. I didn’t understand and never asked what was the rush. My mother died about five years later. It took my brother months before he would part with anything. Even after he sold the house and moved out of the family home, I suspect he took some of her things with him to his new condo. He had a hard time letting go. He did give me all her jewelry so I could pass the heirlooms down to my girls. I left it up to him because he was living with them and it seemed to be part of his grieving process. He needed to do things in his own time and in his own way.
A couple of weeks ago, after waiting eight years, my brother in-law got the call for his new subsidized apartment. He is living in the apartment that my in-laws rented 33 years ago and lived in till they died about eight years ago. Not much was disposed of until the last couple of years. Still, a lot remained and I wanted to help my husband sort through everything so the move, which takes place this Saturday, would go as quickly as possible. The new apartment is much smaller, so we would be taking half the furniture and disposing of the other half. We had to go through closets and drawers picking and choosing what to keep and what to get rid of. I’m not sure if it stirred any emotions in my husband, as he went through all his parent’s belongings. We’ve been cleaning out their things the last two Saturdays and must have filled 40 big trash bags.
In those forty trash bags were items that triggered memories for me. There was the artificial pink flower arrangement I had made for my mother in-law for a special occasion, that she kept in her bedroom. It had seen better days. I found a couple of pairs of her shoes and purses still in her closet, that her sons overlooked in previous clean outs, and put them in the trash. There was the spring pan that she had made so many cheesecakes in when we would go to visit her every other week. I came across the little artificial, two foot Christmas tree and ornaments that she would put up every year to make the apartment a little festive looking for the girls when we went to visit on the holidays. It had to go out in the trash too.
Some things I came across I had to bring home. I found the Joe DiMaggio collector’s plate that we had gotten for my father in-law for his birthday one year. I packed that away to bring home, along with some medals and pins he had gotten when he was in the army during World War II. I took home the anniversary clock we had gotten them for their 50th anniversary. And, we found some old pictures in an old cigar box, and a big family portrait of my mother in-law’s family dated 1947, that I knew my older daughter would be interested in. She has the same “bug” that I had at her age, when my husband, my brother and I all worked to collect information on our family trees to pass on to the children we would have one day. Now my daughter, who just turned 25, is doing research online and adding to information and documents we were able to collect before she was born. When I told her we had the pictures she couldn’t wait to go through them.
The more I went through these things the sadder it seemed. These were the things collected by a couple who spent 50 years of their lives together, and had raised three boys. Trash bags of ordinary things. Old dishes, cups and saucers, sheets, comforters, books, lamps, and the old coffee maker that made us all countless cups of coffee. Is this all that remains? Bags of trash, a few pictures and memories? Who will remember them once the few of us who remain are no longer here?
It is all because of the mini series “Roots” that we got the idea to preserve as much of what was important as possible, close to 30 years ago. We asked our parents questions, sent away for documents (birth, death, baptismal, marriage certificates and passenger lists) to piece together our family tree. We wrote down the stories they told us and asked questions to fill in the details as much as possible. My daughters know the stories as well as we do, as though they had heard them themselves. They ask questions about people great aunts and uncles they don’t remember or never met. So much history we have been able to preserve and pass down for my children and now their children, which would have died with our parents.
It’s good to think about preserving your family history while you can. Things get thrown out. Pictures are nice, but often unlabeled and you won’t know who is who. Even memories fade with age. But the written word, documents, charts, oral history can preserve your family history for future generations to come.
My parents and my in-laws may not be here any more, but their words, their story, their pictures remain. Their great grandchildren will one day get to “know” them and hopefully appreciate the love and sacrifices they made in the past to create a better future for them.