Boxes in the Attic

Boxes, boxes, so many boxes.

One of the corollaries of being in one’s sixties is a predilection for surveying one’s (often copious) belongings. The inventory of possessions—furniture, clothing, collectibles and antiques, memorabilia, papers, lots of papers, seems massive, daunting.

Our very first antique—the beginning of our material inventory—was purchased in the late 1960’s, before we were even married, from a trailer in Pittsburgh that masqueraded as an antique store, every nook and cranny filled, mostly with junk. There we discovered a 1920’s bridge lamp, with a marble base and a unique leaf-patterned shade for $5. We handed our cash over to the old storekeeper, fiercely guarding his cache of treasures. We still remember the enigmatic smile on his face—he thought he was “pulling one over on us,” getting $5 for a worthless old lamp. But it wasn’t—and isn’t—worthless, not to us.

We can walk through our house and remember, almost item by item, those few artifacts that date to our early years together—when everything we owned could fit into a one-bedroom apartment. That, it suffices to say, is no longer even remotely true.

Where did this looming mass of material possessions come from? Yes, we, Greg and Joan, are inveterate (incurable) collectors—and some of the inventory includes collections of porcelain, pottery, encaustic tiles, glass, and books. These we acquired deliberately, with knowledge of what and why we were collecting. Much of it is (and will be, we hope) documented—maybe for a museum or historical society to receive should our children’s interests diverge from ours.

This accumulation was intentional—but so much of what we have has simply come to us organically, in the inevitable cycle of family life. A grandparent moves; a set of lawyer’s cases, a desk, and a piano are offered—and gratefully accepted. A grandmother dies, and then a month later, a grandfather. Photographs, fishing rods, family bibles, and a myriad of objects imbued with sentiment and fond memory pass from one household to another.

Joan at her grandparents’ piano in 1958. Given to us in 1970. We’ve had it ever since.

As the years raced onward, inexorably, a parent, then two, then three, and unexpectedly a brother, succumb to age and disease. The contents of their lives, too, become our inheritance and responsibility. And we must decide—what to discard, what to keep?

These are hard questions. Especially when they arise at the same time we are faced with the endless details and duties that accompany funeral services and burial arrangements. How should the obituary read? What coffin should be selected? When and where do we hold the calling hours? Who will perform the service? What flower arrangements must be ordered? What stone and design for the memorial? We must phone relatives; choose our loved one’s clothing for burial; write notes thanking those who have sent their condolences. And, always, one must deal with the financial consequences of death. We won’t even begin to tackle that complex subject here.

Everything always seems to happen at once and sometimes on short notice. We need to quickly empty out the contents of our parents’ house and clear out brother Bob’s apartment. And so we furiously triage our loved one’s belongings. Discard the old newspapers and magazines, toss the old worn towels, give away the clothes in the closets and drawers. But so many other belongings are bound up with one’s own childhood and the memory of the home that came before this home, the life that came before this life. So, sometimes in the moment, numb with grief, one just boxes up the remaining contents, Soon there are many more boxes in our attic than there were before, waiting for us to sift through their contents, later, at a time when we are more emotionally ready and able.

Then, of course, if one also has children, they grow up and leave—but they don’t take everything with them when they go. They leave traces of their lives behind, with us. So, there are boxes of children’s drawings, hand-made Mother’s and Father’s Day cards, toys, picture books and school papers. It isn’t that these artifacts of childhood are valuable to the outside world; they are not. It is that they are precious to us, permeated with the emotion and memory of a time now twenty or more years past. These items, too, sit boxed and waiting in the attic for processing; and we ask, again, to keep, to discard?

So, here we are, at age sixty-six, surveying all these boxes, containers, albums, and trunks. We look at one another.

Joan declares adamantly, “I won’t leave all of this for my children to go through!”

So, we begin a determined campaign, an offensive, to move against this well-defended mountain of objects and papers and gain a foothold on its flanks. We will open each box, assess the contents, and begin to move objects out of the house into recycling centers, used bookstores, Goodwill shops and, as little as possible, landfills. (It is surprising how many things one has kept are broken and damaged.) Some we will try to give away to our two daughters and our son and their spouses—a quick picture posted to the intended recipient on Telegram—“you want this?” If the answer is “no,” then the item is banished, never to be seen again.

Going through the boxes and sorting the contents, deciding on their disposition, moving things out of the door—it is painful, but also liberating. There is a feeling of lightness, of a burden lifted. So much of this freight we simply carried around for years—boxes from our first apartments, first and second houses, simply migrated with us, unexamined. We repeatedly moved this weighty inventory around, and it got heavier and heavier with each passing year.

Yet, what we are doing isn’t the haphazard “downsizing” and wholesale tossing of a lifetime’s accumulation of artifacts into the void that you sometimes read about in magazines. “Experts” recommend to those of us in our “golden years” that we let go of these things quickly—they want to make it seem easy. Just last year the AARP compiled “20 Tips To Declutter Your House.” Some of their suggestions we accept—scan your important documents, back them up electronically, store and organize them. Others we reject—burn your parents’ love letters, make pillowcases out of your wedding dress, or sell Grandma’s china on eBay.

Throwing it all out is an abdication of responsibility and, in some cases, has tragic consequences. Many years ago well-meaning relatives cleared out Joan’s grandparents’ apartment and threw away her Grandfather Martin’s detailed diaries—the first diary was written in the late 19th century. Martin was a meticulous and literate observer of his times, and they, were, undoubtedly, true masterpieces of the diarist’s art. Joan has lamented their loss for over forty years.

So, there are real treasures in this trash. Old pictures of relatives, precious as gold to the genealogist in Joan—irreplaceable proof that her marvelous people, sturdy Norwegians and Swedes, lived and thrived. There are also family photograph albums, some very old, the kind where the photographs in black and white and sepia are held on the page by paper corners.

“I’d forgotten we had this!” Joan exclaims—looking through one album of old black and white photos. There she appears as a child, in monochrome, wearing an indisputably 1950’s baby bonnet. She’s in her father’s arms. Her mother stands near her with her siblings. It’s surprising to look at; it’s not so much that she is a child—but that her mother, her father, they look so young. It makes one stop and think, astounded.

The Nelson Family, Ruth, Joan (the baby), Don and brothers Robert and Richard. Summer of 1951.

Digging through the strata of our belongings, other artifacts emerge— a record of a trip Joan’s great grandparents took to Norway in 1932; a bundle of letters written home to his parents by Joan’s dad during the Second World War; letters we wrote during our year “behind the Iron Curtain,” saved for us by friends and relatives as a memoir of our difficult but life-changing months in East Germany between 1985 and 1986. And old love letters!

“God, was anyone ever as smitten as I was?” asks Greg.

There are more treasures to be uncovered. Much to her delight, Joan also discovers her parents’ old love letters, written during World War II after her dad was wounded in Sicily and stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Sometimes we get derailed—stopping to read some random letter or shed a tear when we find a child’s drawing with the words “I love my Mommy and Daddy” scribbled on it. But mostly we push on, through these poignant distractions, determined to make headway, no matter how overwhelming it all seems.

There are diplomas, even old school notes—these latter not so interesting in and of themselves but for the doodles—some very elaborate and cryptic—that appear in the margins. Greg used to draw, and write poetry—he doesn’t so much now—but these old artistic attempts surface too, rising up from the layers of paper in a dusty, collapsing box. These youthful gems are separated out with all the other treasures we are rediscovering (or discovering for the first time) among this mass of stacked and scattered boxes.

Doodling during Biology class at Arizona State University, 1969. An artistic (?) treasure discovered in Greg’s old school notes.

But not everything is to be saved for posterity. Both Joan and Greg were professors. Our old student rosters, teaching handouts, tests, grade books—all these must go. We were also students and homeowners, so the old tuition bills, the old bank statements long since replaced by electronic records—so many marked with social security numbers—must be tossed. Our shredder gets the workout of its life.

We are, one could say, examining, assessing—maybe curating is the best word. Organizing, labeling, assessing the value—to the family at least—of items that represent the history of our clan. These items tell stories—revealing a parent’s career, earnest courtships, and countless deaths and births. They tell of tastes, likes and dislikes, of trips taken, of opportunities accepted and refused. When we throw all of these out without some thought we deprive ourselves, and our descendants, of some important part of their heritage. We are fortunate, to be sure, that we, Greg and Joan, have the time, and the room, to curate our lives—and the lives of our ancestors. We don’t have to move into a nursing home next month and sell our house. We are not yet faced with those contingencies that would force us to yield up our unique material history.

Love letters…confidential…open at own risk! Please read!

So, we get new boxes, sturdy and white, from Office Depot. They have room for labels. We assemble file folders, archival sleeves, and Sharpie pens. The sorted material goes into these boxes and descriptions are written on them—“Greg’s Unpublished Papers,” “Memorabilia—East Germany,” “Shreve Genealogy.” We purchase whimsical decorative storage boxes—boxes that resemble old books and boxes covered in maps of the world. Our postcards from East Germany go in one. Postcards sent to Greg’s maternal family in a World War II Austrian refugee camp have their special place in another. We tie old love letters in small bundles with twine and store them in boxes marked “Confidential.” Will this box pique someone’s curiosity when it is discovered after we are gone? Will its contents reveal who we were to that future reader?

Postcard to Mitzi Zerweiss (sister to Greg’s mother). Posted to the Ebelsberg resettlement camp (Hiller-Kaserne) near Linz Austria, 1942.

Now we know what’s in these new boxes; we know what’s important and what’s not. When the fancy strikes us, we can spend an hour or two perusing the treasure box of our choice. And, if we’ve curated well enough, weeded, and disposed well enough, then some family member who comes after us might recognize their value and care for them too. They might recognize our boxes and the artifacts they contain as a legacy. They might, through these items, because of these boxes, come to know us, their parents, their in-laws, maybe their grandparents, more deeply, more completely, than if we had simply made it all disappear into the past without a second thought.

Darling We Miss Thee

John Lester Kelley, Fincham Cemetery, Randolph County, WV

Addie Fincham, Greg’s paternal great aunt, was born at the turn of the 20th century deep in the West Virginia hills, near a sleepy little bend in the road called Adolph in Randolph County.  Her father, John W. Fincham, owned a modest farm in the bottom land along the clear, cold Middle Fork River. On this farm, which Greg knows well from his childhood, Addie lived and played for a short time with her seven brothers and sisters.

Childhood was cut short when Addie lost her mother Lena before she had even turned seven years old. It was a hardscrabble life in this part of Appalachia, and as a very young woman Addie had to work in other people’s homes for room, board, and some meager wages. She would sometimes earn money as a seamstress, making dresses and other items of clothing for the families of the poor farmers, miners, and lumberjacks that lived in the area. Four months after her nineteenth birthday in 1921, she married Adnigh David Kelly from the nearby town of Mabie. Adnigh was a coal miner for A. Spates Brady Mines.

After they were married Addie and her husband moved north from Randolph County to the little town of Century in Barbour County so that Adnigh could begin work for the Century Coal Company. There, on August 1, 1923, Addie’s first child, John Lester, was born. “Lester,” as he was affectionately called by the family, was a treasured addition. Today’s new parents, posting endless photos of their first babies on Facebook, chronicling every cute smile and every new milestone reached, certainly are no more joyous in their firstborns than Addie and Adnigh were.

In a devastating loss six months later, precious Lester died from influenza. His still little body was carried from Century by plodding horse cart to the train station at Ellamore and then put on a lumber train to be delivered to the quiet, pastoral Fincham Chapel Cemetery adjacent to John W.’s farm. An old railroad line, owned by the Moore-Keppel Lumber Company, used to run along the Middle Fork down to near Adolph. The Chapel cemetery, nestled between the wooded hills on a small slope, holds many of Addie’s ancestors and family.

If you visit the cemetery, hidden along the narrow road between Mill Creek and Adolph, you can find Lester’s poignant tombstone: a lamb reposing on a decorative headstone. The time worn inscription reads:

John Lester

Son of A. D. & Addie Kelley

Aug. 1, 1923

Feb. 1, 1924

At the bottom of the tombstone are the heartbreaking last words of Addie and Adnigh to their dead son:

Darling We Miss Thee

Like her mother and her first child, Addie herself died young. She succumbed in her early thirties to stomach cancer while pregnant with her sixth child. She too is buried in Fincham Chapel Cemetery. Greg’s grandparents, Cora (Fincham) and Jesse Shreve, who lived across the creek from John Fincham’s farm, took the surviving Kelley children into their home for a time and cared for them, even though they were raising eight children of their own. Adnigh David later moved into his father-in-law John’s home with his large family. There Addie’s unmarried sister, Lorena (“Aunt Lixie”), helped care for the children.

Some years after Addie’s death, Cora and Jesse Shreve’s children (Greg’s dad and his siblings) were playing one day at their grandfather John Fincham’s house. In the living room of that home was an old chest of drawers near the door to the back porch. The Shreve boys (Dick, Charlie, Paul, Montgomery, and later, Neal) knew that Lucky Strikes “Greens,” a brand of cigarette popular in the 1930’s and early 1940’s, were kept in that drawer, and they decided to try to pilfer a cigarette. (Their mother Cora frowned on smoking, and her children never, even as adults, smoked in her presence!)

In the drawer next to the cigarettes, the boys found a dried up, shriveled orange.  Their sister Arlene, who had accompanied them on this adolescent foray, picked it up reverently, knowing what it signified. That orange had been their small cousin Lester’s favorite toy. He had played with the orange as any modern infant might play with a small ball or little stuffed animal. When Lester died, his parents couldn’t bear to part with it, and it was kept by the family for years, eventually finding a final resting place in that chest of drawers. The orange, dried and shriveled to half of its former size, remained as a tangible and emotionally charged connection to Addie and Adnigh’s departed son.

As we grow older and begin to lose grandparents, parents, siblings, and friends many of us also accumulate physical reminders of people we have loved but who are no longer with us. Many of us have inherited Grandmother’s dishes, Grandfather’s fishing pole, Mom’s crystal, or Dad’s uniform. We have houses where this piece of furniture has come from Uncle and that knick-knack from Aunt. However, sometimes small, ostensibly insignificant items like Lester’s orange, although outwardly trivial and mundane, are nevertheless especially meaningful. Their value as mementos of our beloved dead derives from something beyond their intrinsic value, great age, or rarity. Their value derives from the emotion we, sometimes inexplicably, invest in them.

For Joan it is a little marble she keeps in her bed stand drawer. She found it among her dad’s things after he died. Looking at it, she remembered how he once told her that he loved playing marbles as a child. Into that small, round object, even smaller than Lester’s orange, she transferred a lifetime’s accumulation of emotion.

We know, of course, these treasured mementos can never replace the person that we love and miss. But when we slide open our drawer and see and touch our own “Lester’s orange,” we smile, perhaps shed a small tear, and then whisper under our breath a tender message to our loved one, “darling we miss thee.”