My eyes used to glaze over whenever my mother-in-law began recounting her family history. She had worked quite hard to unravel the mysteries of her ancestry. Her quest for answers paid off with a great deal of information that she excitedly related to us in the hopes that we would remember. At the time I suspect that I was a bit too young to truly care about the names and the tales of which she spoke. Now I am duly fascinated by learning not only of her kin but my own. In some ways my husband and I have become the family historians, the keepers of the the tales and artifacts that bring long dead relatives back to life. I now see such responsibility as an honor and I am belatedly scurrying to preserve the information that I know lest it evaporates when I am gone.
I have rooms of my home filled with furniture and objects that once graced the homes of the people from whom my husband and I descended. I treasure them not so much for their value as for the lives of the people that they represent. I try to tell my children and grandchildren who they belonged to and what they meant to those individuals. I’m not certain that they truly understand. Sadly they are still mostly in the state of mind that I had when my dear mother-in-law tried so hard to get me interested. I suppose that something must have stuck in spite of my lack of enthusiasm, because now I am quite driven to learn even more lest we forget. In fact one of my girls recently laughed at me and called me “Granny” the name that she had for my mother-in-law because I was so insistent that she pay attention to the information that I was conveying.
The world is changing rapidly, sometimes far too quickly for my taste, which is a definite sign of age. I recently read that today’s young people view the antiques and collectibles of their parents and grandparents as junk. They prefer more modern furnishings and tend to donate any old things that they inherit to the Salvation Army or Goodwill. They have big estate sales to get rid of the unwanted items. It makes me a bit sad and worried that so much of what presently resides in my home may one day just become a nuisance to those who are left when I am gone. I would like to believe that in between my two daughters and seven grandchildren surely there will be someone who will step up to be the next keeper of the family flame. My treasures are important to me because they represent real people and are part of the hopes and dreams of their lives.
I have a very old pitcher from my great grandmother, Christina. It doesn’t look like much but it feels magical to know that she once held it in her hands. From my great grandfather, John William Seth Smith, I have discharge papers from the Union army at the end of the Civil War. They hold his signature, the only image of him that I have. That scroll across the paper makes him very much alive in my mind. My grandmother Minnie gave me these things when I was still a very young girl and urged me to care for them always, which I have even when I still did not understand their significance.
There is far more from my mother-in-law. We have beautiful furniture that belonged to her mother, aunt and grandmothers. It is truly quite lovely and enhances our home with style and intersting stories of the people who once owned the pieces. I have to admit to being quite happy that my mother-in-law worked so hard to preserve those memories for us. They link us to both our past and our present and are physical signs of the lives of their owners.
I have dishes, linens, and tableware. Sadly there are books about which I worry because the pages are becoming weak and will one day fall apart, which I suppose is the natural way of things. My favorite is a child’s book that once belonged to my father. It may well have been the first thing that he ever read. Perhaps it even began his love affair with reading. I enjoy looking through the pages but I have to be careful because it has become quite delicate. It must be getting close to being one hundred years old.
I can only hope that there will one day be another who cherishes the humble offerings from the past. Perhaps both of my daughters will truly appreciate the photos and stories that I have saved. They loved their grandmothers so and I suspect that they will want to keep their memories alive at least for the time being. It will be interesting to see who among my grandchildren has a bent for sentimentality.
I try to visit the grave sites of my parents and grandparents and those of my husband’s kin as well. We regularly make a day of bringing flowers and spending time remembering the people who were so much a part of our lives. I sense that we are the only ones in our families who do this anymore because there are no signs that anyone else has visited. It makes me a bit sad to think that the time will come when nobody remembers them or goes to honor them.
I know that many people today think that cremation is the best way to handle death. It is not particularly expensive and it is environmentally friendly. They see little reason to set aside land for eternity just to keep the dust of those who died long ago. They may have a point but there is still something a bit reassuring in those everlasting memorials wherever they may be. I was greatly touched by finding the grave site of my great grandmother Christina. I felt a thrill in being beside her ashes or whatever is left of her. I wanted her to know how things had turned out for at least one of her twelve children and their descendants. I stood in a lonely field with the wind blowing across my face. It was deadly silent save for the chirping of nearby birds. I felt a communion with her that I might otherwise never have had. It was a truly moving moment in which I sensed her life and that of all the women before her. I am but a single link in a chain that will hopefully continue infinitely.
Perhaps I am becoming a bit silly as I grow older. I find myself appreciating things that my mother and mother-in-law did and said far more than I once did. I like thinking about the stories that they told and feeling close to them just from recalling those tidbits about their lives. I like visiting with them in the places where they are buried on sunny afternoons and leaving posies to brighten the places where they now rest. I really do hope that the very young come around in their thinking about the artifacts that were left behind by their ancestors just as I finally did. Things are not so important but the people that they represent are the stuff of who we are.