Excavating a Home, Part 11: Burning Down the House

February 4, 2023

It’s been months since I turned the loose knob on the creaky door of the archives room with the intention of returning to the task of lightening the load. Today is the day.

I open the door of the remaining unbreached section of the wall of cupboards and sigh. There’s a reason I haven’t done it: it might be the hardest one.

I pull out the box labeled “WWII: George [my father], Frank [my mother’s brother, and why did she have his stuff?], SJS [my mother].” I’ve been in this box before, looking for information for the family history of the war years book I created. I imagine that until I untied the string around it, it hadn’t been opened since 1946. It holds coated (for marking on) “Foldex” Army maps of Europe and tourist maps from my father’s postwar travels while waiting his turn to come home, Time magazines, and newspapers with blaring headlines in huge block font my mother saved and The Stars and Stripes and issues of Yank my father brought home. I can’t just throw the maps away. I can’t bear to recycle the magazines, which, in their decidedly non-pristine condition, are worth nothing. I am interested in the non-headline news in the newspapers; was anything else newsworthy going on? That’s why they’re still here. But they were so determinedly saved—for almost eighty years now—the world in such a state that must never be forgotten, proof of what they lived through, no concept of future technological preservation of fact. Maybe the historical significance is just that: the days of non-instant news sharing. They wouldn’t talk about it, they wanted to put it behind them; but sure as hell saved it all. I should see if the local veteran’s museum will take any of it.

I set the box aside for now and move on to the one labeled GRS papers. Stuff from my father’s career. His handwriting makes me tear up, even while being a little resentful that his passion for his career took him from his family. As I look at it, my emotions switch to sorrow that we had been estranged the last years of his life; and that in any case, I was too far away to know him after he retired. I wish I’d been here, helped him with the projects he found to occupy his time. I’m sad I moved and stayed so far away. I set that box aside too, without diving in. I can’t unilaterally make a decision on it. Nor do I know what distinguishes this box from the files in the file drawers, which is a whole other can of worms.

And oh my gawd, a box crammed full of newspaper and magazine stories about the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. “Small ash sample” the box says of the contents. There’s a five-gallon paint can of it in the carport shed. I close this box up as well to return to the cupboard, though it will not be so hard to dispose of.

I return later to take the photos below and discover there is actually some pretty interesting stuff in here. Notes my mother wrote of the experience from this property, largely in undecipherable shorthand, but including how the garden was different the following summer and the bee population reduced, due to the ash that fell here fifty miles from the mountain. And a lengthy hand-written journal by my father, beginning a week after she blew (maybe it will solve the mystery my mother couldn’t answer of what he did with the ash he shoveled off the roof), along with photos that perhaps he, a newly retired Weyerhaeuser employee, took of the timber company’s destroyed property.

I got a kick out of the optimistic headline following an eruption the month before the big one that wiped out tourism for years.

I go through the box of pottery serving dishes I knew I would never use and moved years ago from the dining room buffet. I put them in the thrift store box, returning the tiny teapot stamped “Made in Occupied Japan” to the cupboard. A note inside says Uncle Frank bought it in Japan after the war and gave it to my mother. There are several almost exactly like it on eBay. Suffice it to say, it’s worth nothing.

The Ribbon banners and accompanying boxes of slides, notes, and scrapbooks are evidence of my introvert mother’s second coming into radical advocacy. The Ribbon was a national mid-1980s project promoting nuclear disarmament that was her passion for years. After the event in Washington D.C., she went on the road with a collection of banners and a slide show. My father was her champion, recording her and taking photos, perhaps editing her talks. And every slide, print photo, and negative were saved. Every speech and drafts of them, half in shorthand, are in these boxes.

I laugh out loud at the editorial notes on the local newspaper article. “The Daily Comic” my father called the (then) Daily Chronicle. It was a regular recipient of his letters to the editor about the lack of proofreading (and, perhaps, fake facts). To be fair, Time got its share too. I come by my grammar policing honestly.

I remember now that I had gone through this cabinet earlier. And abandoned it. It’s overwhelming. The Methodist church, where my mother was a member, told me after my mother died, they would take the box of banners. I didn’t follow up, then the Pandemic, now I’m kicking myself for not driving it down the hill immediately. That generation of women who knew and worked with my mother are, one way or another, gone.

I’m determined to make some kind of progress today. First I throw out the negatives of the Ribbon print photos, a no-brainer. I follow it up with the slides. There are a million slides in this house, and I’ve collected them and put them all in one place in the closet under the stairs without sorting. I can eliminate these from the three-quarters of them that will be thrown out without opening the yellow Kodak boxes—photos of flowers and trees and mountains—like most of the 15,554 photos on my computer will be. (Which doesn’t count those on flash drives. I’m working on it, saving my children from the task. If there are no people in them, delete, delete, delete. Scenery is of no interest to anyone but me, and I have shared them already. Their usefulness is complete.) Then I toss the snapshots too, mostly pictures of banner sections.

I put the scrapbook, notes, speeches, newspaper clippings back in the box—just one now, instead of three. When my older sister moves back here this spring, we’ll have more sisters-knee-deep-in-memories days and slog through what’s left here. We’ll cry over our parents’ handwriting, grieve their absence, yearn for the past, and ruthlessly discard it all.

I pull out two framed prints, including the huge oval, curved glass one of my mother as an infant I took off the wall a few years ago. I put them back on the stack. I’m pretty sure many of the large frames in the pile are only the frames, made by my father when there was more time than money. I can’t deal with it.

I do find a box of the felt money-pocket Christmas ornaments my beloved Aunt Lena made for each of her fourteen nieces and nephews every year, tucking a dollar bill in each. I thought they were long gone, since they weren’t in the box of old ornaments. Silly me. Someone else will have to throw them out. I miss her so much.

In spite of a full thirty-three gallon trash bag, a paper bag of recycling, and a box for the thrift shop, it doesn’t feel like much progress. I look around the room—a bomb shelter in the original mid-century modern house plan—and know I made huge process over the months I was doggedly going through it all, before I put it on the back burner when my memoir publication and hiking demanded my attention. But there is still so much more, and not just in this room. I sit here trying to type through tear-filled eyes. What. The. Hell. were they thinking, keeping all this stuff? I still haven’t fully worked out if it’s burden or blessing, and which my burning eyes is about. Is everything I do on this old property both?

Is there anything here I would be devastated to lose if the house burned down? I’d get over it. I’m glad I’ve seen it all, touched it. I’d be happy not to have to deal with disposal. I do remain curious about what stood out enough from all the rest to put in the “Do Not Open Until 2025” Charles Chips canister, which is not much, it’s light, perhaps a project started and not completed. We may be disappointed. It kind of blows my mind that they were contemplating, so long ago, a time when they wouldn’t be here. A time of which they had no knowledge of what would transpire politically in this country, in technology, in their family—beyond knowing what had already transpired in their own lifetime—really, there’s nothing new under the sun; everything is recycled.

What would I put in such a time capsule, and what future date would I put on it? What would you? Do you save everything that will provide a history of yourself to the future? Some stuff? Will anyone care? How do you decide?

Mush on.

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10 thoughts on “Excavating a Home, Part 11: Burning Down the House

  1. Gretchen, such a different lived experience I had vis a vis caring for my Mother – and clearing out/selling the family home – when she passed suddenly at age 73 (the age I will be in about 6 weeks!)

    She suffered with COPD for about 5 years as her pneumonia-ravaged lungs and heart slowly/quickly deteriorated. When she was 911’d to the ER the day after our family July 4th celebration in 1999, we – me, my two younger sisters and our baby brother – had no f*cking clue we were witnessing the last week of her life. She died in a local hospital ICU in the middle of the night 5 days later, the night before I was scheduled to bring her home.

    I was the executor, so I concentrated on all the legal and real estate stuff. I went to her now uninhabited house, the house our family lived in since my parents bought it new in 1954, to let contractors in to spruce it up and fix what was broken (they refused to fix my broken spirit) but the task of going thru Mom’s drawers fell to my sisters. Clothes, furniture, personal belongings, knick knacks, the stuff we collect while we live… I took the odd coffee cup, a Revere-Ware SS copper-bottomed frying pan, a worn but sturdy wooden handled bread knife — and every last one of the steno pads in which she wrote her daily life events — and ours.

    But I couldn’t and didn’t deal with all the minutiae … I left that to my sisters, Ann and Lynn. I grabbed her very up to date and well maintained file cabinet (she was an executive secretary for the Corps of Engineers for 40+ yrs). I entered that house which was no longer filled with my vivacious, saucy, irreverent and hysterically wise and funny Mother — but with all the stuff she left behind. I could not go box by box. I could not go room by room… drawer by drawer, closet by closet, packing and giving away all her stuff.

    I don’t know how you did it, Gretchen… ALL of it. I am not now and have never been known for my caregiving abilities because I have none. Not patience. Not warm fuzzy ‘can I get you,’ … unless ‘wine’ is your answer.

    Maybe because Mom was gone before any of us realized her long slow breathless slog was not ‘ a sign of old age (73!!) but COPD, I would love to say I would have morphed into that selfless Florence Nightingale daughter that she might have needed had I brought her home as planned that next morning. But my Mother knew me better than I knew myself. She knew I had not the temperament. She knew it would break my spirit to watch her suffocate in slow motion.

    And she also knew both my other sisters and my brother had married lives and kids and-and-and that focussed their attention elsewhere.

    So I think that night, when she felt her chest tightening and the nurse came at her with another breathing tube, she said, nope. She saved all of us from being Reluctant Caregivers. Or even Dutiful Ones, if they actually exist.

    I don’t have kids, so I hope when I am faced with that last good decision, I can do what I must to leave this world as seamlessly as Mom did. And that I am loved and remembered nearly half as well.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. From what I read of you on FB, you are very well loved. That your mom knew is such a gift. And that you knew yourself and what you could and could not do, both before and after her death is really amazing. Bless you siblings for doing what you could not; and, I expect, they are equally grateful to you for doing the executor tasks. My dad died the day he was to come home from hospital too; he was 78. My mother took care of everything. Didn’t ask for help and none was offered. And, she says, it took a year before she grieved. I feel so bad about my negligence back then. Thank you for your beautiful post here. 💜


  2. I need to get back to the boxes of parental slides and be ruthless as well. On the bright side, I just jetsoned my uncle’s lives and photos from his time in the airlines in Houston. We have a historian at the 1940 Hobby Airport where my uncle worked. He was excited to get them and is working on names. No longer my problem. And I was lucky to have LSU archives interested in my family memorabilia. There is still so much stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh the slides. So many slides. I did make a pass at the printed photos years ago, tossing a garbage bag full. The slides are a trickier business. I’m hoping to take the 1600 letters my parents and dad’s siblings wrote during the war to Chapman U in CA. I wonder if they would want any of this other stuff. I think they only take letters though. I’ll ask! If not, I’ll check with the New Orleans WWII Museum. I suspect they have all the newspapers and magazines they need, but . . . Thank you for writing, Mary.


  3. Anna Quindlen has a lot to say about handwritten letters in her new book (which, by the way, is fabulous!). Pictures are wonderful to have but give me a letter penned in someone’s unique script and that would mean more to me than anything. That said, I think you have some really cool stuff there! I suppose our stories could be told by the things we keep. And if that’s the case, I best get to curating mine a bit better or people will think I was off my nut! A labor of love all that excavating. The proof is in the tears 💕

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I’ll look for her book. I kind of like anything penned in my parents’ hands. My dad wasn’t much for letter writing, unfortunately, so I love seeing even his work papers! I think my mother was a little off her nut, but I do have both their collections calendars; I did get them upstairs, someday I will look at them.


  4. It’s exhausting and bittersweet to go through all the treasures of another generation. Long after I rejected a felt pin cushion, I’d always loved but had no room for, I found out my Dad had stitched it together as a child. Though it’s vivid in my mind, I wish I had kept it.
    Your Christmas ornaments are a gift.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I cannot imagine going through all that. I used to be mad at my mother for saving nothing. There must be a middle ground. Perhaps once you scan the most important things it will be easier to let go of the actual documents. I don’t know, no answers here, just sending hugs as you dig. There’s both a burden and a freedom in knowing the past.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The thing about them saving EVERYTHING is you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find the rose. The frogs are easy to let go, but what to do with the roses? I’m not sure scans can take the place of the real, hold in your hands what they held in their hands stuff. I have taken photos of things, but I imagine they will be lost and not missed.

      Liked by 1 person

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