Honoring the Past…and Cursing the Remains

I’m immersed in the past living in this house, even as I continue to update it. I’ve moved more stuff to the storage room permanently as I empty rooms temporarily for the installation of new flooring. I hold in my hands a pink and white crocheted hot pad, that perhaps my grandmother made, from the dining room buffet drawer and wonder what I’m to do with it.

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I find three small plates in the back corner of the buffet cupboard and read the note my mother wrote eight years and eleven days before she died in her strong script that held no hint of what was to come. Of course she included instructions. The plates don’t bring me joy, but they are heirlooms. Sigh. Three plates, three daughters. At least I only need put one back in the cupboard.

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Knowing they would eventually come down to paint the wall, I removed the award plaques and certificates from my father’s study several weeks ago and crammed them into a cupboard in the basement. I talk to my friend Elizabeth who has been my caregiving pen pal for years as we cared for our mothers on opposite coasts and tried to stay in touch with our sanity. Her mother just died. Finally. She’s cleaning out her mother’s apartment, bringing boxes to her house. She also cleaned out her childhood home when she moved her parents closer to her a few years back, and took boxes to her house.

“Think of all the wood and metal award plaques in this country,” she says. “What are children to do with them in the end times? They mean nothing to anyone but the recipient. [Even that, only at the moment of the handshake.] We’re filling up landfills with things that will last thousands of years!” I hadn’t thought of that. The cheap trophies every child who plays t-ball gets at the end of the season… “They should be banned,” Elizabeth says.

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I am proud to say I haven’t a single plaque or trophy to my name. My children can thank me later for being so unremarkable. The tiny plaster of Paris busts of dead musicians I got as a piano student were long ago sent to the landfill, before I knew to worry about that. I did not inherit the Depression era saver gene—or my parents unknowingly drove it from me.

The margarine containers our mothers didn’t throw out so as not to fill landfills are left to us to discard. (Hopefully when they are put in recycling bins, they actually do turn into something new.) The military uniforms. (The local museum has all they need.)  Eleven 3-inch binders of letters written between 1942 and 1946. (I’m told there is a national museum in Louisiana that might take them when I’m finished with them.) All! This! Stuff! Multiplied by hundreds of thousands of parents who came of age at the confluence of the Great Depression and the beginning of WWII who have or are leaving it all behind at the speed of light.

This is sounding remarkably similar to my post at the beginning of the month. (Read it here if you missed it.) It’s my life right now, and some day my sisters and I really will have to figure out what to do with the pink hot pad and all the rest. But that is not today.


I spent a rare full day Sunday working on my new writing project. Not actually writing, mind you, but preparing. I’m still revising my memoir of years of elder care and accompaniment too. 138,000 words is down to 113,000. It needs to be fewer than 100,000 before I can even hire an editor.

I’m itching to move on to my epic undertaking involving the 11 binders of letters and a collection of stories my father and his siblings wrote about their childhood on the farm if I have any hope of finishing it before I die. And I need full days to immerse myself. But there’s this old house and its stuff and the roof needs to be cleaned off again and there is a blocked trail and at least three large branches down to saw into firewood and spring weeds and blackberry vines are coming soon to the overgrown property and someone needs to be hired to rebuild rotting steps and paint the deck.

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I’m reading my aunt’s letters now, and it’s throwing me back in time to the departed generation of my family long before I knew them. She’s in Africa, Italy, and France in 1943 and 1944, washing clothes in cold water in an army helmet, trying to breathe on frigid days when the wind blows through the pipe of the coal stove and fills the room with smoke and soot, and the hospital unit has moved again and she’s back in a tent with dirt floors. She falls in love, twice. I’m wondering with her what happened to her navy man Roy when letters are returned “whereabouts unknown.”

I unfold a letter to her little brother and a photograph of Bill, her second love, falls out. “The next addition to the Staebler family” is written on the back. I read that they applied for a wedding license, but she doesn’t know if they will still be in the same country when, or if, it comes—or if he will even be alive. I know there is drama to come; he was not my uncle.

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I’m there with my grandmother as she provides shelter for my mother while my father provides weather forecasts for bombardiers in England; imagining her writing hundreds of letters and reading those from her far away children, making notes on envelopes to remind her of what they have asked her to send them: film (if she can find it), popcorn, chocolate, pajamas.

I have a lively communication with two of my cousins who accompany me on this journey through the Staebler archives. David, bless his heart, is executor of our uncle’s estate, which included cleaning out the farm house the family lived in for a century. At least there are no 30-year-old jars of canned tomatoes in my house. His sister Linda sorted through my aunt’s and uncle’s letters to their mother and put them in five of the binders to go with those my father wrote to his young wife and his mother. She’s downsizing her living space soon and is sending me our aunt’s scrapbooks, photographs, and account of her service. (Insert wide-eyed emoticon.) David has found photographs our grandmother took of life on the farm and is scanning them for me. I’m thrilled to receive it all; and…more stuff.

I sit here at my desk now and wonder how I’m going to pull all this together and get it between book covers. And will anybody care? Which reminds me, I still have my mother’s tapes of her life story to transcribe. I care. Maybe all that matters is to know that I honored their living. And that I remember them.

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4 thoughts on “Honoring the Past…and Cursing the Remains

  1. And I care. I look at the crocheted piece and realize my grandmother’s hands and love and creativity are all over it and through it. But alas, it’s ugly. We have a patchwork quilt with no color scheme whatsoever that my husband’s grandmother made and gave us for a wedding gift. There’s a beautiful quilt Mother pieced for our daughter, who has never wanted to have it in her living space. Both quilts live in an antique suitcase in a basement closet, with, I hope, enough silica gel to keep them safe. There’s a pillow top made by the other grandmother, and a God’s-eye that was one of the last crafts she was able to do. And I still grieve that we had to leave behind the buffet Uncle Donald made. But I have Grandma’s table and chairs, which give me a warm and connected feeling every time I look at them. The circle unbroken.

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  2. Gretchen, now that I’m retired and we’re doing renovation of our upstairs so we can rent it out–I’m downsizing to give my daughter, Alexis, a break. What you are doing is monumental; I had 4 sisters carrying the brunt of the load.

    I find I keep my families’ things before my own (both mother-in-law’s and parents’). In Lilia’s blue crystal, I see the color of her eyes. I have Mama’s needle-work and embroidery framed and hung throughout the house and think of what an artist she was. I have the quilt she made and it’s as if her arms are around me when I am under it.

    Ah, what parents we had.

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  3. I’m a history major who cleaned out a 4 generation family home. Luckily we had donated materials to the Noel Archives at LSU-Shreveport. I loaded the cartons with materials, called them and a volunteer brought more empty cartons and took the full one back. No one wants the uniforms but the 8th Air Museum took a load with items not normally saved by the returning vets (thanks Daddy). At that time the museum at Barksdale didn’t have a curator. So nothing went there. I am waiting for some loaned materials to be returned and will probably take the rest of my father’s things to Noel. They already have the WWII correspondence of my parents. So my advice, look for registered archives. The letter writing generation is passing and the current methods of communication leave no trace. Still can’t find a place for three tubs of model airplanes my brother put together.

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