Excavating a Home: An Archeological Dig, Part Ten

I got back to it this week! This time with my sisters. Jo Ann was here from Virginia and Rebecca from the foot of the hill. We needed a week, a month, we got a few hours. But we made progress! It was fun to do it with them rather than solo.

We went through trunks, barrels, and boxes of our childhood that I left for us to do together, including our early art.

Altered back—I was such a bitch.
Brown. Not Rebecca’s color.
She’s not impressed.
Evidence of gender specific roles.
The corruption of Dick, Jane, and Sally, and school children everywhere.
From the elementary school Fun Night archives.

We got bogged down with more old photographs—hundreds of them—Jo Ann added some to her artifacts to keep, I recorded digital evidence, Rebecca said “nope,” some very old ones went into a box for the vintage treasures store proprietor to look at next week (mostly of my mother’s half siblings and their families, people we never met), and most have made their way to the landfill. Which is hard, though many were people we didn’t know, that we had our own copies of, or that were poor quality and shouldn’t have been kept in the first place!

One thing I love about the old photos is the evidence of the decor, fashion, and activities (e.g. the Life magazines beside me on the ugly brown sofa my mother “never liked,” my stretch pants with stirrups, and our familiar places at the table). And again, Rebecca got a stuffed bunny for Easter to take to church, and Jo Ann and I got stupid corsages. Though perhaps at the time they made us feel grown up. Also, Jo Ann got fancy shoes with pompoms on the toes, and I had new saddle shoes—lucky me. Rebecca, of course, is still in the ubiquitous Buster Brown orthopedic shoes children wore back then.

I LOVE this one, that probably Rebecca, still in high school, took.
And this one, he looks so tickled. Visiting his sister in Tucson.
And this of the grands on top of Mt. LeConte, celebrating George & Stellajoe’s 50th wedding anniversary, finding their names in the 1930s guest registries.
The photo on the right (printed as on a button) is my great-grandfather Shadrack Jarnigan.
The story: first photo of him ever taken, by a traveling photographer. He went to live with my grandmother so she could care for him, but he wouldn’t leave his cow behind. He drove it, on foot, over the hills.
Top: my grandfather and his first family.

There are bags of crocheted tablecloths, doilies, arm chair covers, and tatted-edge hankies. All unwanted by any of us. My maternal grandmother’s artistry and skill is evident and perhaps never unappreciated because it was so common at the time and so overlooked now—a craft of a bygone era. But my mother kept it all. Imagining my hard-working grandmother, who died blind at ninety-nine, crocheting into the night after her work was done, kind of boggles my mind. Probably some of it was done after her children were grown and her husband dead and she could lay down her burden. I have no idea what to do with it. Probably my mother didn’t either. (Contact me if you want any!)

A small sampling of the goods. My mother’s note says she “thinks” my grandmother made these during WWI.
The note on the bag of dolls suggested perhaps her #2 grandchild would want them. “She is the only one I know of who has a doll collection.”
They used to be young, their lives ahead. It’s so strange that they are gone, and soon we will be.
Our mother’s omnipresent apron.
The story: my mother was cooking salmon in the pressure cooker (why would one pressure cook salmon?) and went to pick apples in the neighbor’s orchard, forgetting about it.
It boiled dry, filling the house with salmon-scented smoke, and my wedding dress, hanging on the back of a bedroom door, had to be dry cleaned before I could wear it.

My favorite part of this whole excavation has been my mother’s notes, and imagining her going through it all, putting things in plastic produce, shopping, or trash bags, and adding a note. And, no doubt, calling each item taken care of, having left it properly labeled for us to deal with later.

All of the sea and dried flower collection has been returned to the earth.

I also love the newspaper wrapping and padding in the boxes. This one is special.

Stunningly expensive for the times (or even now) face cream. But then, like the girdles to give one the “young Debbie Reynolds look,” it was miraculous.
And this piece cut for a pattern.

The wall cabinet, shown here before I started on it in December, wasn’t what I had my sites set on this go-round, but it’s amazing to have most of it done!

Yet to do, the center and right bottom cupboards, but yay! Upper right shelves hold stuff claimed (for now) and stored (for now) by sisters.

Rebecca made the thrift store/trash run this time, her Outback stuffed to the gills. And there are two trunks (plus) full of items to offer aforementioned proprietor, who will visit next week.

Keep-worthy treasures were few. Though Jo Ann found a good many she couldn’t bear to relegate to landfill or thrift shop. She has the sentimentality I lack. Or perhaps she lacks my practicality—they are moving west next year, she is supposed to be downsizing!.

Still to go, when the big stuff is gone, are thousands more photographs, and oh mah gawd the slides. I added the new discoveries to the legions in the closet under the stairs where I’ve been stashing them. I need viewing technology before I tackle that, though most of them can be thrown out by the boxful. (I really need to go through the nearly 16K photos on my laptop and delete all the ones that have no people in them. I have shared them in context on my blog, they no longer serve a purpose. Maybe a flash drive.)

Also still to do, boxes and boxes of paper: both parents’ calendars, my mother’s notes and who knows what, scrapbooks and stuff for scrapbooks, my dad’s desk and mother’s dresser contents.

It’s looking better! Boxes of paper, Native American baskets, Hmong needlework . . . And that trunk under the shelf.

When this room is done—at the moment, I can almost imagine we can save the next generation from the task—there is still the rest of the house. And the workshop—at least metal is recyclable.

My mother said she wanted to get the house cleaned out, but I’m not sure actually getting it gone was ever her goal. One can only speculate what going through it meant to her: did she want to put hands on it again and remember? Did she want to tell us stories? Did she want to make sure it was all labeled? Did she want to tell us or leave a note about whom she wanted to have things? What I know is, it was maddening to those of us who tried to do it with her. She told few stories (or we never got to the things with stories), and nothing left the house.

We have learned something in hind site about helping a parent clean out a house. When she asked over the years if we wanted something, we should have said, “Yes! Thank you for saving it for me.” Then taken it from her hands—off her hands. It would have made her feel vital, one last piece of good parenting affirmed. We were then free to do with it what we wanted, and it would have been out of the house. Maybe she labeled so many things for one of us or the grandchildren because she knew we would say no if she asked. Labeling things and returning them to box, barrel, or shelf kept her heart from being broken.

What to say about this process? It’s both blessing and curse, burden and bonanza. It’s a reliving of days past, a heart-full of people gone, proof of a mother who loved her children well—and who had a life before and beyond us.

The million dollar question: in saving this task from our children, what will be the loss to them?

P.S. Remember to check out www.gretchenstaebler.com. Subscribe to my e-letter there and read the first two chapters of my memoir: Mother Lode: Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver, coming from She Writes Press in October.

10 thoughts on “Excavating a Home: An Archeological Dig, Part Ten

  1. Dear Gretchen,

    From the wonderful opening photo of you 3 daughters to the last 3 paragraphs I am totally taken in. What an honorable thing! What an important rite of passage. And what powerful questions you leave all of us with who are storing the items, stories, and memories of our beloved, now gone parents.

    What to say about this process? It’s both blessing and curse, burden and bonanza. It’s a reliving of days past, a heart-full of people gone, proof of a mother who loved her children well—and who had a life before and beyond us.

    The million dollar question: in saving this task from our children, what will be the loss to them?

    Thank you for your wisdom, Ann


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Ann. It really is a quandary, and a mixed bag of emotions. It’s one thing to lay to rest your own things, but a huge responsibility to make decisions about someone else’s.


  2. I just love these little day trips back to a very different time. If I’d have known you back then I would have liked you and loved your moxie. I was a big brat, too. Ah, the sisterhood of bratty middle-childness. My favorite photos are, of course, the letter to your mom and I also really love that photo of you all in the dining room. Priceless. While I am giving myself permission to get rid of more “stuff” these days (thanks in part to to this series of posts) I also find myself oddly connected to certain things that make little sense. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, surely value is measured in a blink too. Thanks for the deep dive into family. So good to see the three of you together!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha. I hadn’t realized I was a brat that early on. (It’s actually on the back of the picture I drew for her, not a letter. Sure do wonder what happened that I changed the inscription.) Thanksgiving dinner. Our UW international student guest (Shin Kai Li, who continued to send Christmas cards for several years) took the photo. We hosted a student several years.


  3. What a treasure trove of pics and what fortitude you have. I am truly in awe that you are willing and able to forge ahead through so many small details. My granddaughter would think it’s all a mecca! 🙂 Keep digging!
    ps Shadrack – what a great name.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is a great name. 🙂 He had 11 (?) children. My great-grandmother died when my grandmother (somewhere between the middle and youngest) was 9. She became caregiver to her father and siblings still at home. Then she married a man with six children, most grown, then had four of her own. And took care of her father in his old age. She left husband and moved across the country after my parents and cared for her youngest child’s children. Crazy.

      Liked by 1 person

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