Family Treasures

By Nancy Oliver

The fact that I still have – five decades later – the pillow I used as a child probably explains it all. The cover disintegrated years ago during a wash, but the guts of that pillow are the guts in a new throw pillow. No, I can’t let go of the past – and this is a good thing as well as a bad thing.

I’m renovating my family home place. I am the third generation to live here, and the project has become one that does not seem to want to end. Much of this lack of drive toward completion lies with me and within me. I get caught-up in the cleanup and the clearing out.

As elderly relatives have died, I have also been the one to volunteer to clean and sort out their houses. I couldn’t bear the thought of having their belongings tossed into trash bins by paid strangers. My sister calls my boxes of collected items “trash,” but I think of it as sacred trash. I can’t let any of it go until I have observed it all, read it all and interpreted its significance.

I have several boxes of my mother’s things. I know these things were special to her because of the way she wrapped them. Baby girl curls are wrapped in layers of crinkled tissue paper and carefully pushed into envelopes. Beautiful candy boxes hold letters from different people. One stack of envelopes is tied together with a ribbon as blue as my mother’s eyes. These letters – disappointingly unromantic in nature – are from a World War II soldier she had befriended. In these numerous 10-to-12-page letters, he writes of the long days, of missing his Alabama family and of how kind and encouraging my mother has been to him with her letters. Also, with these letters is stored the tiniest, most perfect little ceramic jug I have ever seen. It is the size of a three-chambered peanut in its shell.

I pick up a box of my favorite aunt’s belongings. Aunt Irene lived to be 96. Always healthy, she lived on her own until about three weeks before she died. Her box is full of accountings, to-do lists and itemized itineraries of all the different places she and Curtis, my uncle, had visited. On her 1936 honeymoon, she kept a detailed diary of where she and Curtis visited, what they ate and how much it cost.

The entry from her wedding day reads:

Got married at 4 pm. Drove to newspaper office to have wedding pictures made. Early night.

Another entry from the honeymoon itself reads:

Woke up at 7 am. Went to Niagara. Impressive. Had 2 ham sandwiches, 2 Cokes, 2 pieces of pie. 37 cents! Went to bed at 9:30 pm.

I sometimes just stand and look into my father’s boxes. He could be stern and gruff, but he usually had a smile and funny story for everyone he met. On top is a bulletin from his funeral – the place where I learned of so many good deeds that it still makes me tear up to think of how little I really knew about him. Mr. Lee, for example, told me at my father’s funeral how Daddy had gotten out of bed in January 1962 to come jump his car so that he could get to his shift on time. I pick up a note from Mrs. Lillian, telling me how my father disentangled her cat from a windshield wiper. I pick up his well-read, coverless serviceman’s Bible. In this Bible, he stored a long list of relatives’ names, written on 6-by-9 inch lined tablet paper. I’m guessing that – as he sat in his barracks reading his Bible – he was thinking of his parents and siblings at home and wondering about his own place in the universe, as I so often wonder about mine.

I have a keen interest in my family’s genealogy and nothing has fueled it like all these details in all these boxes. In one of my mother’s cookbooks, for example, I have found no fewer than 53 different clipped obituaries. Each of these 53 people – I’m guessing – is related to me somehow. They go into a different box for my family tree database update. And that pound cake recipe she clipped out from somewhere and stuck in the “Cakes” section? She never ended up using it; I still have the well-used handwritten version she has of her mother’s pound cake recipe. The recipe clipping was a no-brainer for the trash. See? I can let some things go.

I know that these objects are all just things, but it is these things that fascinate me. I had never considered my mom to be sentimental, yet those saved downy baby curls tell me otherwise. I had never considered my artistic aunt to be so methodical, but those detailed notebooks from her life tell me otherwise. I had never considered my father a person who practiced random acts of kindness, yet since his death I’ve lost count of the number of acts that have been related to me.

And if it hadn’t been for these things – this “trash” – I would never have known these all-important background details about them. This sacred trash has taught me things about them and, just maybe, a few things about myself.

About this writer

  • Nancy OliverNancy Oliver, is a writer and editor who is currently working on the renovation of her family’s 104-year-old farmhouse in rural North Carolina. When she’s not sanding floors, she’s making notes about the life around her.

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One Response to “Family Treasures”

  1. Chari Dodge says:

    I am the keeper of family treasures, too. I have my grandmother-in-law’s cookbook complete with newspaper clippings and handwritten recipes tucked between the pages and my mother-in-law’s large collection of photographs. Many of those photos have no captions or info about the subjects so we only know they were important to Mom…

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