I have always loved time travel stories. There are some amazing theories about time, how we experience it, what exists within and perhaps outside the flow as we move through it. But eventually we are left only with stories, photos, documents and memories. Learning my own family stories gave me both hope and courage to move ahead with some of life’s most difficult challenges – and I have come to believe that it is the experiences of struggle, conflict, even despair, that sometimes have the most power for our lives.
So here I will be sharing those stories, those discoveries. You might well think that the details of these moments from the past have no meaning for anyone but me or some relatives somewhere – but I suggest otherwise. So, I am going to write about them here. They are not all pretty, or happy endings (perhaps) – but they are real, at least in the sense they are truth that I know, which is never of course all of it. And I will do my best to share them honestly.
Many of them I have because my Mom was in many ways a hoarder. She was a disabled single mother with two boys, age 9 and 6 at the time of her divorce; in time, hopefully, I can share more about her life, but what is relevant today is that she kept a room in our childhood home crammed with boxes, things that we were supposed to stay away from, never to be touched. It is odd she preserved the past yet wanted to perhaps insulate herself from it at the same time; whatever her motives, I am grateful that I was eventually able to sort through it and review some of it in her later years, while she was in a care facility. She passed there in May 2006, Memorial day weekend.
Before her passing, and that of my father nearly a year later, along with the passing over that same two years of my uncle, stepmother, and my Dad’s cousin Bill, I was able to talk with them, reconnect with relatives and meet others for the first time, visit family sites, and learn more about the people whose messages were preserved in the cards, letters, photos, documents and diaries. Now, “sheltering at home”, I am beginning the process of culling from them something to preserve for my broader family – no children of my own, of course, but cousins, nieces, nephews and others who share this heritage.
There is a mountain of paper. I haven’t really looked at these files since my move to SF move than two years ago – it was always “important” but now that circumstances force me to stay home, it is time to climb the mountain. This past week or so our dining room table has been covered in files, and some of it – has gone in the trash. Deciding what is worth keeping is daunting. I kind of feel like I am throwing out irreplaceable items, and yes, they are – but irreplaceable is not the same as worthwhile.
Among the fragments, envelopes, plastic baggies and other stacks of what have you were the kind of things we stick in drawers thinking we might need someday, but never do. As I went through them and started to toss things in the trash, I realized these little scraps of paper reflected not just the ordinary items in my Mom’s life, but something more. There were business cards for doctors, for gift shops and florists; receipts for books orders, thank you notes from friends. Birth announcements and baby showers; on the other end, death notices. Neighbors going back to the 60’s. Lists of members of her bible study groups, where they had moved to, their children. My Mom … cared. She really did care about all these people, and many names I had not seen for decades.
These were pieces of my mother’s heart, of her life and memories, now … gone, with her.
In time I will share more about my Mom … her love, and the limits on it, and how that affected me and others. She was a person of faith, in many ways turning to that to cope with the physical – and emotional – pain of her disability, and her past. For now, I just want to share some pictures of what I found, little pieces of a life not to be remembered by many, not particularly distinctive or world changing, yet meaningful, just as many of your parents or your own lives – lives that matter in small ways but nevertheless do indeed matter.
Here is a 1954 letter from Humphrey’s music co. before my parent’s marriage, for the “splendid manner in which you have paid your contract obligation” and assuring her “You have compiled an enviable credit rating in Long Beach”. There was a cultural politeness, an etiquette (for some) then, which no longer exists. Why she kept this all those years is a mystery, just like some of the other weird items like the thank you note from J. Edgar Hoover.
A small scrap of an ad for a backyard children’s swingset from the LA Times in 1962 with a handwritten notation “Hope to buy for James and Norman in our new home”. They had been married 8 years or so by this point – about 2 years remained before that ended, but the swingset was in our yard, rusting and deteriorated, well into the 1990’s when I returned to care for the house once she was unable to remain. We had fun on that, in our little tract house backyard. All that for $33 in 1962!!
From somewhere in between those dates, or maybe even earlier when she worked for McDonnel Douglas Aircraft in Long beach – “Your Social Security account card” pamphlet filled with helpful advice. Funny how most of the information is pretty much the same today.
An unused thank you note with a scripture and an illustration of a cat – she always loved cats, but we never had pets of our own. “May your day be blessed with simple pleasures”. She was a stickler for sending cards, all occasions, and kept many that she received from family. A tradition that is becoming lost along with many others.
Including this one – which I will be keeping to pass on to my oldest niece – her birth announcement from 1994. My Mom loved her grandchildren, but did not get to have what many grandparents share, due to distance and other factors. “There is no such thing as a small miracle”, with pink ribbon. She also had handwritten notes for each birth with weights and time.
I am sure my Mom would think of my older brother’s children as her most lasting legacy, one I could not offer, but there are others in the way she touched our lives. She was by no means a saint – saints are mythical figures, for the most part – but she tried to share love with people around her. Like her parents before her, the marriage she had looked forward to ultimately failed, and she was left broken in more ways than physically. She turned to faith for encouragement, and to share it with others as best she could. We did not always have the relationship that she wanted – I could not be the son she had hoped I would become, and that was something that was never resolved between us – but we still shared love.
So what do I take away from this tiny scoop out of the mountain of paper that lies now in folders and boxes awaiting the judgement of “keep” or “trash”. Little scraps of paper, soon to be picked up in our recyclable barrel, on to the dump. Names, addresses, most of people long gone, like Mom. Someday, someone will be throwing out my scraps of paper – and yours. Little fragments of our lives and memories, moments that only we remember, already perhaps fading. But it is not the paper which we need to preserve.
There are people in our lives today that will not be here perhaps sooner than we imagine, and they have loved us, and fought with us, disappointed us and rejected us but also lifted us up. We have done the same to others in our lives. Perhaps we should search the fragments and notes in our drawers and address books and reach out, one more time. While we can. Take their hands, sit with them; thank them. And for those we cannot thank here and now, to take the time to preserve them. To ensure their love, and sacrifice, lives on – in our actions in the days to come, as well as in the memories, faded photos, and scraps we leave behind.
Thank you Mom. I am glad we came to a place of peace together. Not all your lessons were good ones, but you taught me love, and I am grateful even today you are teaching me still.