Hidden Treasure

I can’t say that I was looking forward to helping my mom prepare for her upcoming move into a retirement community.  I knew that my mom doesn’t make decisions easily, and would therefore need help in deciding exactly what she wanted to take with her into her new apartment.  And I also knew that Mom has a ton of stuff in her house to be sorted through, and that we’re going to have to figure out exactly what to do with all the things that she no longer wants.  Moving from a three-bedroom house to a one-bedroom apartment requires some serious downsizing and a whole lot of time and work.

But while it hasn’t exactly been fun to spend hours on end at Mom’s house emptying out closets, sorting through her kitchen cabinets and opening all the boxes stored in her basement, there’s been an unexpected upside to this whole procedure.  Because while some of those boxes, drawers and closets are full of the stuff that probably should have been donated or thrown away years (if not decades) ago, we’ve also discovered some family things that have made all the effort worthwhile.

I found a scrapbook that my mom made for the 10th anniversary celebration of my dad’s ordination.  Sounds boring, I know, but that scrapbook was filled with photos of our family and articles about us that I hadn’t ever seen because I wasn’t living at home when Mom made the scrapbook.  Or when she decided to put it in a box and leave it in that unopened box during three subsequent moves.  (Now you see why I insist on opening all the boxes for this move.)

dS0lwqSCSwKbwC1WqL+ExwWe also found an invitation to wedding of my great-grandfather to my great-grandmother, which I plan to frame.  And it was great fun looking through the folder my parents had made when we were planning my wedding, especially when we looked at the prices that were being considered.  My dad had written, “I told them to forget it!” next to the name of one venue, so I guess it’s safe to assume that they were a bit more expensive than the $11.95 per person we eventually paid for my reception.

Going through Mom’s stuff has brought back so many memories.  I loved discovering letters written by relatives who died years ago, because it was almost as if I were hearing their voices again.  And finding the copy of my grandfather’s high school report card covered with B’s and C’s was a bit of a surprise, since I had always known him as a smart and successful dentist.  Discovering that he had struggled a little in high school made me realize how hard he must have worked for the success he achieved later in life, when he actually taught at dental school.

Some of the documents I found were sad, like the guest books for both of my great-grandparent’s funerals.  Even sadder were the telegrams to out-of-town relatives, informing them that my oldest sister died shortly after her premature birth, and asking them to reach out to my mother.  But all of it is a record of my family’s past, and therefore also a part of my past.

I am, and always will be, a strict minimalist who firmly believes in the old adage “less is more.”  But when it comes to the photos, documents, letters, etc. that record family history, I have come to believe that there is no such thing as too much.  It may not have a monetary value, but trust me me….it’s true treasure.

Year After Year

I’m a big fan of Christmas traditions.  This is the one time of the year when “doing things the way we’ve always done them” feels not only right, but almost mandatory.  I love trimming my tree with ornaments I’ve had for decades, and I do it while listening to Nat King Cole’s Christmas music, just the way my family did when I was a child.  I find it both meaningful and comforting to carry on old family Christmas traditions….most of the time.  But there are a few traditions that I would love to abandon, if only I could.

I could do without the nasty Christmas cold I manage to come down with every year, and just once I’d like the breakfast casserole I make for Christmas morning to turn out the way the recipe promised.  But it never does.  It’s either under-cooked and soggy, or over-cooked and dry, and it always sticks to the baking dish.  Still, my family chokes it down each year and assures me that it tastes just fine, because (of course) that casserole is a Christmas tradition.

IMG_2768But if I could abandon just one of my Christmas traditions, it would be the annual battle to put the lights on my Christmas tree.  I prefer the large, old-fashioned lights that throw out a warm, cozy glow on a dark night, just like the ones my family has always used.  You’d think that putting a few strands of them on the tree would be easy.  But each and every year year, something goes dreadfully wrong when we try to light up our tree.

Last year the Christmas lights I had been using finally wore out and refused to work, so I embarked on a frantic search for replacement lights.  Which every single store I went to seemed to be sold out of.  I even gave the LED lights a try, but after carefully putting them on the tree I realized that while they are indeed bright to look at, they don’t actually light up a room.  Eventually, after much time and effort, I did find some satisfactory lights and was able to spend my December evenings basking in their glow.

This year I had the lights and figured it would take twenty minutes, tops, to string them and then we could hang the ornaments.  I was wrong.  I put the lights on the tree, but then realized there weren’t nearly enough.  So I took them back off, found another strand in our basement and put them all back on again.  Then the strand in the middle of the tree stopped working, so I took those off while my husband went to the store to get some more.  By the time we finally got the tree lit and looking good, the entire afternoon was shot and we decided to go have pizza and hang the stupid ornaments the next day.

But at least the lights are on the tree, and soon I can add the ornaments.  My Nat King Cole CD is still working (I checked), so I think I’m all set.  By this time tomorrow my tree will be fully decorated and I can just relax and enjoy the rest of the season.  Until, of course, I catch my annual Christmas cold….

A Picture of my Life

I just spent a happy morning at my computer, putting the finishing touches on a photo book of my daughter’s wedding.  Of course I have lots of pictures of the wedding, which are  either framed and displayed around my house or tucked into a huge photo album I bought especially for the occasion, and I’ll be getting a copy of the official wedding album from the professional photographer.  But I wanted to make a photo book using only the photos I selected, and doing it on-line means that I can easily shrink or enlarge the photos, and rearrange them until I am happy with the result.  Plus, photo books are much smaller and lighter than regular photo albums.  They’re so easy to take along when I’m visiting friends or relatives whom I’m sure would like nothing more than to look at at the photos of my daughter’s wedding one more time.

I know lots of mothers are a bit overly-enthusiastic about their daughter’s wedding pictures, but my enthusiasm (aka obsession) isn’t limited to the wedding photos.  I have thirty-one albums filled with photos, seven scrapbooks with pictures pasted in, and I keep my extra photos neatly labeled and organized in eight separate photo boxes.  I always keep some empty photo albums, just waiting to be filled, including the large one bought for my son’s upcoming wedding.  And just in case my print photos should be damaged in some kind of natural disaster or a house fire, I also have full photo cards in my safety deposit box, and keep copies of the pictures on CDs and stored on my computer.

Oddly, I’m not a skilled photographer and have never owned anything more complicated than a simple point-and-shoot camera.  I love photographs, but I don’t have the same passion for actually taking the pictures.  I think what I love about photos is that they remind me (a person with an absolutely rotten memory) of all that I have done in my life, all the places I have been, and all the people that I have known.  I’ve never gotten the hang of keeping a daily journal, but in a way, my photo albums are my journals.  The pictures in them are arranged in chronological order (of course), so if I’m having trouble remembering something from my past, all I have to do is get out the photo album from that year and look it up.  And it’s amazing how many memories come rushing back when I take the time to look through my old pictures.

Bernard and Martha_0013 (2)

I suppose what I’m really doing with my photos is documenting my life.  The old family pictures of relatives who died before I was even born remind me of where I came from,  and that I am a product of families that have been around for a long, long time.  All the photos taken after I was born chart the path of my life, both the good times and the bad.  (Note to self: home permanents are a really, really bad idea.)  Prominent people, of course, don’t have to document their lives, as others are happy to do it for them.  But for the rest of us, those who just muddle along doing ordinary things in ordinary ways, photographs work just fine.

A New Perspective

When I was eighteen years old, I graduated from a small high school in Kansas and headed off to college in Iowa, and at the same time, my parents moved to a new home in Illinois.  I never moved back in with them, and for the next forty years, my parents and I lived in different states, usually several hours away from each other.  But when my father passed away nine years ago, we all agreed that it would be best for my mother to move to St. Louis to be nearer to two of her daughters, and seven years ago, she moved to a house that is about a fifteen minute drive from me.

It seemed so different to suddenly have my mom close by again.  The first few weeks after her move, I was at her house almost every day, helping her unpack and settle into her new home, and helping her find all the necessary connections (a new doctor, the closest grocery store, a new bank, etc.) that moving to a new state entails.  These days, I’m not at her house as often, but we talk several times a week on the phone, eat dinner together often, and I drop by her house regularly to see if she needs anything or just to visit.  We both like to watch HGTV and sometimes I help her with a jigsaw puzzle, but other times we just sit and talk.

MomThe mother-daughter relationship is always a complicated one, and I suspect that each mother-daughter relationship is also unique.  When I was very young, our household was busy and my mother had her hands full with raising her own three kids, plus a niece and a nephew.  Later, she added to her work load by going back to school to get her masters degree in Education so she could support my father when he quit his job to go to Seminary.     My mother was there when I needed her, but we didn’t spend a lot of time together, and we weren’t especially close.  And of course, once I became a teenager, I was far too cool to listen to anything my mother had to say anyway.

So now it seems that in many ways, I have been given a wonderful gift of being able to spend time with her, as two adults, and get to know her more as an individual, rather than simply as my mother.  She tells me stories of her family and her early life (sometimes the same story several times, but repeating stories is a privilege of the aged).  I always knew my mother was a hard worker, but I am still in awe of how active she is in her church, and how willing she is to take on new responsibilities.  I see how much time she makes for the friends in her life, always reaching out to them when she knows they are dealing with something hard.

DSC01665My mother will be turning eighty-six this summer, so I know that our time together is not unlimited.  I know that she will become more dependent on my help as she ages, and that is nothing more than the natural order of life.  But whatever the future brings, what I know most of all is that I am so very grateful that I have her close by now, and that I will always have the memories of these past few years together.

 

Family Legacy

Bernard and Martha_0015I was sorting through some old family photos the other day when I came across my favorite picture of my grandmother.  She’s standing in the backyard of of her modest brick bungalow, dressed in her Sunday best, complete with hat, white gloves and one of those fox stoles that were so popular back in the fifties.  She’s looking off into the distance, unsmiling, formal, and quietly dignified.   Even though I remember her smiling easily and more often than not wearing a casual cotton “house dress” as she went about her daily chores, there’s something about this photo that really captures the true spirit of the woman I remember from my childhood.

I know only the most basic details of my grandmother’s history.  I know that she was born in 1893 to German immigrants, and grew up speaking German at home and English at school.  I know she married my grandfather when she was almost thirty years old, and that shortly afterwards she had two children, a girl first and then a boy (my father).  To my knowledge, she never worked outside of her home after she was married, and like many women of her generation, she never learned to drive a car.  I know that she lived through the Great Depression and counted herself lucky to have “enough” at a time when so many people were hungry and homeless, and how she regularly handed out sandwiches to those who came to her door, asking for food.  She raised her family and lived her entire married life in the small brick house she and my grandfather purchased shorty after they were married.

I was lucky enough to live near my grandparents for the first eleven years of my life, so I spent a lot of time with them both, but especially with my grandmother.  She came to our house often for family gatherings, or to watch my sisters and I while my mother ran errands, and she almost always brought cupcakes, cookies, or brownies with her.  Even better were the times when we went to her house, where she kept the candy jar full and stocked our favorite brand of root beer in the refrigerator.  She rarely took the time to actually play with us, but simply welcomed us into her home and then got on with whatever job needed doing.  Sometimes we helped her work around the house, other times we headed upstairs to the back bedroom where she kept a toy chest filled just for us.

I wish I had taken the time to get to know my grandmother more, but she died just before I turned eighteen, which was well before I was mature enough to be interested in family history.  I know she stayed close to her brother and sister, getting together with her siblings and their families every week, that she was very active in her church, and enjoyed playing bridge and canasta with her friends.  I know that she lived to see her only daughter die a violent death, and can only imagine her heartache and grief.

Bernard and Martha_0015 (2)But I would like to have known if she was happy spending her life at home, raising children and keeping house, or if she had other hopes and dreams that were never fulfilled?  I wonder if she waited until she was almost thirty to marry (unusually old, in that time) because she was still needed to help her parents and siblings at home, or if she simply didn’t meet the right man until my grandfather came along.  I even wonder about the silly, insignificant things, like why she prided herself on never drinking water with her meals, or where she got the idea that drinking white soda pop gave a person kidney stones.  (She let us drink root beer, but not 7-Up.)

Sadly, there are many things I’ll never know about my grandmother.  But I have my photographs, and my memories of a strong, caring woman who had an ingrained sense of duty, who enjoyed her friends and who loved her family dearly.  And I know, without a doubt, that I’m proud to be her granddaughter.

In Remembrance

One of the best things about reaching middle age is having friends that I have known for many decades.  These are the people that knew me when I was just a little kid wearing scuffed saddle oxfords, and have stayed in my life ever since.  We understand exactly where each other came from, because we were there, too.  Their parents were friends with our parents, and now, our kids are often friends with their kids.  They may be “just friends,” but our relationships have lasted so long and our families are so connected that I think of them more as close, personal relatives.

Thanksgiving in NorthfieldI have very good friends that I have met in recent years, but they can’t share the stories of the past the way these long-term, family friends can.  They can’t talk about the time my parents had the neighbors over for a backyard barbecue and it started to rain heavily.  Rather than risk losing his precious pork steaks, my father simply picked up the grill and ran in our back door and down the basement steps with it, leaving a trail of curse words and black smoke behind him.  Or the time when my husband and I had just moved to St. Louis and we all packed into my friend’s father’s van to head to Chicago for Thanksgiving at my parents house, never mind that it was a cargo van with no real seats in the back.  We even took our friend’s dog, who was the only one who seemed comfortable sitting on the floor for the six-hour trip.

But one of the worst things about middle age is losing so many of those life-long, family friends.  Tomorrow I’m going to a funeral for one of those family friends, one from my parent’s generation, who was the father of a very dear, life-long friend of mine.  He was someone I’ve known my whole life, a very smart man who told funny stories, who could make just about anything in his shop, and who gave my husband a part-time accounting job on the side at a time when we desperately needed the extra money.  He was a part of my past, and my family’s past, but now, like so many others, he is gone, and my heart aches for his grieving family.

I do know that as I age, everyone else in my life is aging as well.  I mourned when my beloved grandparents and great aunts and uncles grew old and died, and now we are losing my parents’ generation too, one by one.  Between my husband and I, we have only one parent left.  I understand that this is just the natural progression of life, and that my generation’s turn will come soon enough.  But I’m not going to lie; sometimes it makes very very, very sad.

It’s not that I want to live in the past, or am yearning for a “better time.”   I’m not.  It’s just that it’s hard to lose so many people who I loved or cared about, and that with each loss, there is one less person to “remember when,” one less person who shares my past, one less person who knows not only who I am now, but who I was then.  It’s one more reminder that time is moving relentlessly forward, and that life is, and always has been, both precious and fragile.

A Life Well Lived

It’s been many years since my grandfather died, but today is his birthday, so I suppose it’s only natural that I should find myself thinking about him.  He was a small man with a gentle, unassuming manner, and unlike the rest of my family, he wasn’t much of a talker.  He lived, worked, and raised his family in the same neighborhood he was born in, practicing dentistry for forty-eight years in an office that was across the street from the house he lived in as a child.

image23-1_0077At family gatherings he could usually be found in the kitchen, seated at the table with the grandkids, drawing, playing games, or showing us how to make rows of little soldiers with his manual typewriter.  He was infinitely patient with us, and always encouraging.  If I couldn’t think of something to draw, he would simply look at my blank, white piece of paper and tell me that I had made a fine picture of a polar bear in a snow storm.  He was a natural with children, and always ready to accept an invitation to a make-believe tea party.

Shortly after marrying my grandmother, he moved into a two-bedroom brick bungalow on an unpaved street on what was then the outer edge of the city, where he lived for over fifty years.  Those who knew him then swore they had seen him sitting quietly in the back yard, holding out breadcrumbs for the wild birds, which would actually eat them out of his hand.  By the time I came along, the neighborhood around my grandfather’s house had become very urban, but he still put out bread crumbs each morning for the sparrows who gathered on his back porch, chirping in anticipation.

My grandfather had a very strong, if somewhat old-fashioned, sense of what was proper, and he stuck to it religiously.  He wore a suit every day, even after he retired from his dental practice.  His idea of casual attire was to remove his jacket and roll up his shirt sleeves.  Once, I saw him putting on his hat and suit jacket as he was heading out the back door, and asked him where he was going. He answered,  “I’m going to take out the trash.”  He didn’t understand, or care to understand, the more casual culture that surrounded him in his senior years, and continued to refer to almost everyone as a lady or a gentleman long after those terms had gone out of style.

Dentist officeHis dental practice was very busy, but not exactly profitable, as my grandfather rarely raised his rates.  He knew that most of his patients could not afford to pay very much for their dental care, and he charged them accordingly.  “Doc Jones” was well known and liked in his neighborhood, and for good reason.  I don’t think he ever felt that he was making a personal sacrifice by keeping his rates low, as he lived very modestly by choice.  His life consisted of his dental practice, his family, his friends, and his church, and he seemed quite content.

Sometimes, when my life seems to be a bit too complicated or I am unhappy because I think I need to have more of this or that, I try to think of my grandfather and the simple way that he lived his life, and to use it as an example for my own.  Because I can’t really think of a better role model…..

Precious Memories

Martha at EasterThe church I grew up in and attended when my children were young is closing at the end of this month, and today they had a special “heritage” lunch as a final gathering for everyone.   It was enjoyable, if somewhat bittersweet, to spend time with so many old friends, and see people I knew as little children all grown up with kids of their own.  They had five tables filled with old photographs that people could take if they wanted, and I spent a lot of time sorting through the photos, searching for pictures of my family.  I was thrilled to find lots of photos of my kids, but I was shocked by how many people either didn’t look at the photos at all, or picked up a photo of a member of their family, looked at it with mild interest, then put it back down again, knowing that all the unclaimed pictures were going to be thrown away.  How could they not want those pictures of their grandparents, their parents, their sons and daughters?

Now don’t get me wrong, I understand people not wanting to bring home more “stuff.”  By the time we’ve reached middle age, most of us already have more material possessions than we need or want, and our main problem is how to get rid of it, not how to add to our collections.  But in my opinion, there is simply no such thing as too many photos of family and friends, and the older they are, the better.   I may fill a donation bag with clothing every time my closet gets full, but if I run out of shelf space for my photo albums, I just know it’s time to add another shelf.  Because photographs are a recording of my life up to this point, and that’s not something I’m willing to let go of.

Martha Mollenauer (2)The way I look at it, that’s my history in those photo albums.  Those old family photos remind me of where I came from, and just who I came from.  The pictures of me growing up remind me of all the different stages of my life.  The photos of friends remind me of how many good people I’ve been lucky enough to share my life with, from the time I was a small child right up to today.  And the photos of the pets I’ve had, the houses I’ve lived in, and the places I’ve visited are all reminders of my own life’s journey .

I don’t keep the photos because I’m trying to live in the past.  I’m perfectly happy living in the present, even with my middle-aged face and body.  It’s just that I sometimes enjoy looking at pictures of family members who are gone, or pictures of my children when they were babies.  It brings back memories of a different time in my life, and those memories are special to me. And I believe that they’re certainly precious enough to keep.