2009-01-07 / Columns
Discovering family history, one creased letter at a time
It seems like when the kids move out, they're never really gone because they leave so much junk behind.
But at our house, it isn't the kids who are responsible for all the accumulated archeological detritus. My wife and I save things as well. Boxes and boxes of photographs. Birthday cards. Important papers. That stuff accumulates in plastic bins stored in the basement, and when we ask ourselves why we save it, the best we can come up with is that some cold day 20 or 30 or 40 years from now, someone in the next generation will take some time to go through it and will be glad it was saved.
I don't know if I believed that, at least until last weekend when my wife came across a box of papers and photographs my mother had saved for me before she died. And in that box, I found our family history.
A few of the treasures:
• Hundreds of old photos. My first Christmas. My mother's high school graduation photo. My father's high school graduation photo. My grandfather and grandmother's graduation photos. More photos than I can count, but there were more astounding treasures.
• My mother's high school diploma. My grandfather's discharge papers from the Army after World War II. My father and uncle's discharge papers from the Navy after World War II.
• A letter from a man who had known my grandfather when he was a young cowboy in Wyoming. The man wrote the letter to my mother after my grandfather died, but here is a description of my grandfather riding up to the man's family ranch in a snowstorm: "He came riding in through snow knee deep on his horse about noon. After some 10 or 15 minutes of talk while remaining in the saddle, he 'reluctantly' dismounted and rubbed his horse and adjusted his rifle scabbard. Finally, we prevailed upon him to tie up his horse and convinced him to come into the house and eat dinner. So we fed his horse in the barn and Lloyd [my grandfather] at the table." Then, the real business got under way as the men and women, who treasured the opportunity to have a guest at their lonely homestead, shared talk for hours about weather, and friends, and ranching and politics. "Before we knew it, the afternoon had slipped away and the kerosene lamp was lighted. Lloyd 'reluctantly' left our table at 11 p.m. and cinched his saddle on his horse, continuing to visit as he did so, and was on his way home in that awful snowstorm. It was 20 miles to his family ranch, but he was a good cowboy and we were comforted that his horse knew the way home."
• A photo of my grandfather teaching at his first rural school. There were three students, dressed in Depression-era clothing, and grandpa rode his horse 15 miles from his home to the school every morning and back again at night. He looks handsome in his black shirt, cowboy hat and spurs.
• My mother and father's marriage certificate. A full-page story on the society page of the Rock Springs Daily Miner detailing their wedding. I dare you to find a newspaper that will print a full-page wedding story today.
• A letter written by my grandfather to his family on the night World War II ended. He was on his Army base, writing by lamplight: "Well, it is now 10 minutes till 8 p.m. and I've been listening to the radio. There is no uproar in camp, but guess the surrounding towns are whooping it up. However, I believe the soldiers are just as glad as the public, but a little more sad about those we lost. I suppose Sheridan [where my mother's family lived] is celebrating tonight. … Folks, the news keeps coming on and I can't concentrate on letter writing so I'd better quit and try it later on. It's a great day for America, and I can't wait to see you all again. Love, Daddy"
• A copy of that poem my Aunt Verda read at the end of every family gathering. The poem was called "Foolish Questions," and it always cracked us up. It begins: "You have heard of foolish questions and perhaps have wondered why, a person who would ask them would expect a sane reply. Almost every morning there is someone round the place, who sees you take the shaving brush and lather up your face. And just as you are ready to give the blade a wave, this fool will ask you, 'Are you going to shave?' Foolish questions, and your answer is, I hope, 'No, I'm not at all prepared for shaving, but I love the taste of soap. I just love to take the shaving brush and paint myself this way. Then I stick my tongue out, and lick it all away.' Suppose you have a caller, some afternoon at five, and while you sit conversing, the doctor should arrive. And when she sights the doctor, instead of being still, this fool asks insanely, 'Pray tell, is someone ill?' Foolish questions, and you answer with a shrug, 'No we often have the doctor in to beat the parlor rug. Or sometimes tune the baby grand when someone wants to play. Or sometimes console our old Mama, when Daddy is away.' Now there's a foolish question you may hear most any day." As I said, it was a real knee slapper, at least when Aunt Verda read it in her quavery voice.
• A copy of my mother's birth certificate that spawned a mystery, because the mother's name on the birth certificate was not my grandmother's. My grandmother's name was Pauline, but the mother on the certificate was named Helen. It wasn't until I found another letter in which it noted that in those days, my grandmother was going by her middle name, Helen, that the mystery was solved.
There was a lot more in that box, and after four hours I had only gotten through a third of it. And somewhere, I'm sure my mother was smiling because she had provided me such a wonderful way to spend a cold winter afternoon — sitting around the wood stove, wrapped in my family's history.
Next time I wonder why we're saving all that stuff for our kids, I'll know the answer. They might even get a kick out of the letters my mother saved from some of my old girlfriends. It might surprise them to know that old Pop was kind of a rake and a rounder in his day. Then again, it just might gross them out. And that would be funny … to me.
Gregory Bean is executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.