Piecing together family history, box by box

Piecing together family history, box by box

Every family has a story, as NPR’s “StoryCorps” project has so poignantly told.

We’ve been revisiting ours in recent weeks box by box, combing through the treasure trove of memories from my parents’ house.

We’ve found some actual valuables — a box of silver no one knew was there; a ring made out of my great-aunt’s wedding set after she died in childbirth.

But the real finds came in the boxes stored in dark corners of the basement or the recesses of a dresser drawer, things we’d never seen but my parents couldn’t bear to part with.

The storage bin full of artwork, poems and letters we made for Mom when we were children. Her “baby Blog Photobox,” with our birth announcements and hospital bracelets. The topper from my parents’ wedding cake in 1949. Dad’s Army uniform and hat, carefully preserved in their original boxes.

From earlier generations, a crystal cup inscribed with my grandmother’s name, Eileen, in 1907, presumably for her first birthday. A box of old rings and school medals that belonged to my grandmother and her siblings. A prayer book that my great-aunt, a nun, brought to her father from Europe in 1923. A charming photo booth shot of Dad’s parents.

We originally planned to sort through all of the boxes in a weekend or two, and we’ve made some progress. But it’s slow going. We keep interrupting each other to say, “Look at this!”

We’ve gotten reacquainted with some familiar things, too, like the tray of Dad’s cuff links and tie bars, a staple of his generation. Holding them, and his “W” insignia ring, I could almost feel his rough hands holding mine, worn from years of carrying milk cases and loading trucks in the cold.

Or the suitcases my parents used on their honeymoon to Colorado Springs, each inscribed with their initials. Their stories about visiting Pike’s Peak and the Broadmoor Hotel suddenly seemed so tangible.

We laughed at the old wedding magazine full of outdated advice on the proper role of a 1950s bride (who had probably worked in a factory during the war); our goofy hairstyles and clothes from younger and skinnier days; my nephew’s letter to Mom after a surgery, when he wrote that if she had to have any more “I will kill the doctors.”

They saved so much more than I realized, including almost every greeting card anyone ever sent them (and we wonder where I get this trait?). There was a whole stack from our wedding day 20 years ago, which was also my parents’ 45th anniversary: A sweet note from my mother-in-law to them, thanking them for the hospitality. A card I gave them that day. Their place cards from the reception. A note Dad wrote to Mom that morning, expressing appreciation for my husband and his family.

It’s the letters that do me in. Dad was a pro, leaving a note almost every morning for Mom and whoever else was staying at the house, before he left at 4 a.m. to start his milk route and open the family store.

We found one of the best tucked inside a drawer along with the holy cards from his wake in 1999. It was written one December morning when my brother’s family was expected home for the holidays, a time Dad looked forward to all year. He reminded Mom of the things they needed to get for the visit: “Bran for Al’s cereal, gooey butter coffee cake for rest of family, lots of love, which we have already.” There was a P.S.: “Can’t wait.” And a P.S.S. “LOTS OF PRESENTS.”

Eventually we all go through this sort. It’s such a mix of emotions — the thrill of finding each piece of the past, gratitude that someone kept it safe all these years, sadness that it’s come to this, for whatever reason. I wish I could ask my parents for more stories, more details to fill in the holes.

We came across an old photo of Dad laughing and playing cards with his Army buddies. It was taken in Natal, Brazil, where he served at an air supply base during World War II. We’d heard the war stories about him working at the PX, his chance meeting with Humphrey Bogart, the letters he received almost daily from his sisters, the hellish heat during his basic training in New Orleans.

But looking at that photo, and so many others, I realized we didn’t know much about his daily life there — the friends he met, the places he visited on leave.

The source material is there, the letters and precious photos and artifacts from the past. We can piece it all together.

This is our family’s archives. I wish we could keep it all together in some kind of museum. We plan to try in a virtual way, with photo scanners and file sharing sites. But there’s nothing like holding in your hand the things that touched them.

Which is why I rescued Mom’s honeymoon suitcase from the Goodwill pile. And why my brother lugged home Dad’s old leather satchel, embossed with their shared initials, even though it’s falling apart. And why my house is full of boxes.

We did donate a lot to charity — which makes me realize I have to pare down my own stuff so my children don’t hate me after I’m gone. I’m a bit of a saver, like Mom.

This whole process has made me feel more connected to her as a young mom, her heart as full as mine is when I agonize over what precious notes to keep or the empty scrapbooks I never had time to fill.

I am just so thankful for what she kept.


Reporter Julie Wurth blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 217-351-5226, jwurth@news-gazette.com or Twitter.com/jawurth.

Sections (1):Living
Topics (1):People


Login or register to post comments