My home doesn’t have to become a repository of all family history

Many strangers have written to me about my final column as a volunteer Community Voice for the Dallas Morning News. Some comments have been from members of my generation. An equal number have come from my father's generation. The column ran on September twelfth.

Each trip to visit my elderly father makes me contemplate what I can only call our “human accumulation tendencies.” Dad’s basement contained enough National Geographic magazines to construct a small step pyramid in his driveway.

Neither your public library nor Half Price Books want your old magazine collection, so why not build something special with them?

Have you needed to consult your 1953 federal tax returns lately? Anything that was ever marked “Please retain for your records” during the course my parents’ long marriage remains in its archeological stratum. My sister and I have begun the massive work of clearing out our childhood home. We’ve shredded canceled checks from the ’40s, along with those tax returns.

Humor is absolutely required in this job. A sense of wonder helps, too.

We found four coffee makers complete with receipts and instructions in their original boxes, each taped closed with a note, “Doesn’t work.” Why, why, why did they save them? For the same reason they never threw away a ketchup packet from McDonald’s or the twist tie from a loaf of bread, I suppose.

At Dad’s I unearthed what can only be called the “Grudge Dossier.” This file held the complete background information for every family feud, scandal, inheritance injustice or unpaid loan back to the Great Depression. Our family is lighter with that record shredded.

The summer wasn’t all mind-numbing hours with the paper shredder. Did Mom know the fun my sister and I would have finding favorite clothes from our childhood? The evening my niece modeled those outfits for us was a blast. So was our discovery of a box of elbow-length gloves that inspired Supremes imitations of “Stop in the Name of Love.”

I’ll have to cut my grown sons some slack about all the things they have warehoused in my condo. This summer I finally moved my college artwork out of Dad’s house just 32 years after I flew the nest.

In 2039 my sons will gather to clean out my condo and finally cart away their childhood treasures. They won’t care that I have dutifully preserved family photos and documentation of their ancestors who came from Bohemia to make a new life in northeast Nebraska.

When the guys stop by to visit my assisted-living facility, they’ll grill me about where I stored their treasured “good wood rifles.” It’s true. I let my young sons run around the back yard with toy guns. The boys turned out just fine, thank you, and they are sentimental about their toy guns. Those small objects hold the key to their sense of what it was like to be children.

Maybe my daughters-in-law will be interested in the current collector’s value of Grandma’s crystal, but I’ll be preoccupied ranting about the lumpy gravy and cold mashed potatoes in the nursing home. The crystal is precious because of Dad’s stories about the village where it was made, and how he sent it to Nebraska for his dear mother and future wife. I heard those stories sitting around Grandma’s dining table at her famous midnight suppers. Grandma could whomp up “a little something” with homemade steamed tamales and sugar cookies. It was the best eating on earth. Sadly, no one will remember those occasions, or use the expression, “whomp up.”

Maybe it is time to let go of the rocking chairs that belonged to ancestors I barely remember. My home doesn’t have to become a repository. I don’t want cleaning it out to be a burden hanging over my kids’ heads. I just want to save the small keys to their memories seasoned lightly with family history and served with a midnight supper. Let’s see what I can whomp up.

© 2009 Nancy L. Ruder


Christine Thresh said...

What a good piece.
Thank you.

Carol said...

Love this one! Unforuntately, my mom decided to do the cleaning for us and dumped all my childhood stuff years ago without asking. I miss my stuffed lion, my felt board, and my Sister Bell. My sisters and I won't have the pleasure of reliving our past when it is my mom's turn to move on.

Genevieve said...

They won’t care that I have dutifully preserved family photos and documentation of their ancestors who came from Bohemia to make a new life in northeast Nebraska.

Nonetheless, if such photos and documentation exist, they should be preserved for the family member who will care, one of these days. (IMHO)


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