Monday, November 26, 2018

Lost in the Forests of the Past

Sacchi Green

Sorry to be posting ate, and even sorrier to be far from entertaining, but here's what's on my mind when it comes to inheritance.

I thought I had made my way through the heaps and boxes and random envelopes of family photographs five years ago when my mother died. It was far from easy, but I’d done it to help my father, and pretty much made my peace with all the memories evoked and the second-hand memories of stories told about family members gone long before I was born. I had decided what to keep and what to discard, pruning the piles into fairly neat packets and dumping stacks and stacks of duplicates and pictures where heads were cut off, or figures were blurred, or the scenes were so dark as to be indecipherable. It helped that my mother was a terrible photographer as well as a compulsive one; it was easy for me to throw away the majority of the pictures she’d taken, and still have representations left of the people and events and objects she’d wanted to preserve.

I thought I was done with that. I was so wrong.

My father is now in an extended care facility close to me, and on his request I sold his house in October, after I’d spent the summer going back and forth and salvaging whatever contents I thought should be saved. My two brothers went with me a time or two, carrying a few things I couldn’t, but mostly it was just me. Among other things I scooped up boxes and boxes of photos from where I’d expected them to be, although he had inexplicably shifted them around and I couldn’t tell quickly which were the ones I’d sorted before, and more bags and boxes had been added from somewhere. As I dug deeper into closets and the basement I found even more, in odd places, sometimes buried under other entirely different objects. Now there’s a room in my own house where the boxes of various things I retrieved are stacked up on each other, and only the need to make room for a Christmas tree has made me buckle down and get started sorting.

It’s even harder now than it was after my mother died. The pictures of the house, and she took hundreds and hundreds through the years, feel like reminders of a departed family member, now that the house has been sold.  And the boxes from the basement are just musty enough to make me get to coughing after a while. I thought at first that those ones could all be thrown out, and most of the ones I’ve gone through so far are now in the trash, but every now and then, amidst the repetitions of blurry snow scenes and the backs of people’s heads, I find a treasure that somehow was slipped between the others, like the small, framed photo of my mother’s father when he was  young, along with a very faded one of her mother, probably just before they were married. I recognized my grandfather right away, not from when I had known him—he died when I was about four years old—but because his wide grin in the picture made him look just like my younger brother. I’d known there was a resemblance in several ways, including their enthusiasm for new things--in my grandfather’s case having the first indoor bathroom in town, and the first automobile—but it was startling to see that young, adventurous face in the photo. I wish I had known him better, but glad I had a chance to know him at all, which my brothers didn’t.

I’d already found some treasures in unlikely places, such as very old small photos in decorated folding frames tucked into a desk drawer otherwise occupied by pen, pencils, and various unclassified detritus. After some close inspection with the aid of a magnifying glass for small, faded print, I realized that they were of my father’s mother’s mother in her youth, and that great-grandmother’s father. The very best photographic treasure is a series of tiny pictures of my grandfather on my father’s side, my grandmother’s husband. I had never seen pictures of him, and he’d died of Lou Gehrig’s disease before I was born, but there he was, laughing with friends, climbing around on rocks in a park with my grandmother before they were married, and looking very much like my uncle, and somewhat less so like my father. Those were in an old leather suitcase I hadn’t known existed, but my brother, exploring the attic as a kid, had seen the suitcase more than half-buried under a rafter, and now dragged it out for us both to examine. Which brings us to the other challenge I’m facing: the mountains of letters.

People wrote letters back then, and even when I was younger. And in my family they kept them all, but being my family, they kept them in random and sometimes puzzling places. Why were there letters to my mother from her mother stuffed into an old teakettle behind some boxes in the basement, when there were also bags of her letters stored in drawers and closets upstairs? There may be a story there, but I'll never discover it. There are also letters I wrote to my mother when I lived in California in the sixties, but I may never get around to reading those either, and the letters from my parents to each other while he was in the Army during WWII just seem so intimate that I’m not sure I should read them at all. But ah, the letters in that old leather suitcase, bound up in ribbons, from my uncle and my father to my grandmother during the war! Those I should read. I’ll send the ones from my uncle, who died two years ago, to my cousin in Arizona.

Enough, enough. The past should be remembered, and the truth of our forbears lives deserves to be recognized. They were real people, as real as we are. Being responsible for all these photos and letters weighs me down, especially when I reflect that once I’m gone, it may be that no one will care about them. There’s just my one granddaughter in my immediate family. My brother’s son, adopted as a toddler from Russia, is not likely to be interested. But for now, I owe it to the people who wrote and kept these letters, and took these photographs, to keep on sorting and preserving.

And I owe it to myself and my family to get those piles of mementoes from that house sorted and stored away so we can put up a Christmas tree in its usual corner in that room. I suspect, considering that it’s almost December, there’ll be a good deal of storing without sorting first, but at least I’ll try.  


  1. I went through all of my mom's pictures before she passed on...but unfortunately, while she was slipping away from dementia. By the time I finally got all of them into some kind of chronological order, I sat with her, looking through them, and her comment was, "I'm sorry, but I don't know any of these people." Sigh. I'd bugged her for years to organize them, yet there they finally were, in order, and she wasn't able to tell me who some of the folks were.

    Yes, selling the house you grew up in can feel like another death in the family. My parents sold that house when I was in college. But even now, 40 years later, it figures into my dreams once in a while.

    I feel like you are cherishing their memories by doing right by their stuff. And passing along things that might have value to someone else, to the right people. It's a burden, but then, when you love someone, you do what they need you to do.

  2. I understand the burden imposed by this inheritance of photos and letters, but you are also in possession of riches that many of us do not have. Try not to feel pressured - remember that you are honoring these family members by spending time with them, their images, their thoughts.

    As to why stuff gets stored in particular places, I had to laugh. I was thinking about all the different locations where I have photos or letters or cards or other items filed. Might have made sense to me when I put them there, but often I've forgotten now. And if anyone else were to find them (not that there IS anyone else, given I have no children), I'm sure they'd be as puzzled as you are about your parents' things.


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