Sunday, January 20, 2013

Treasuring the Message of Family Artifacts, or, How Not to Break A Grandparent's Heart

This post has little to do with anything exclusively Norwegian-American, but everything to do with the importance of treasuring one's heritage through family artifacts.

Family historians thrive on the detective work of eeking out details of their ancestors' lives and placing their experiences within the context of social history.  It is a challenging, but very rewarding effort.  With all the time and work involved in ferreting out past data and fading stories, the results are incomplete, at best.  Primary resources that are actually created by ancestors, such as letters or memoirs, are more valuable than gold.  Not only are they rare, but they offer intimate insight into the ancestor's own thoughts, attitudes, and activities, and give us a much greater connection than we would otherwise have.

Most people, let alone genealogists and family historians, understand the value of keeping safe any kind of personal family memento handed down to them.  These are usually irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind items.  This general rule of thumb stands even more for materials that were written or created by an ancestor and autographed/inscribed for a particular family member.

In my spare time, I research and write about family history, but I also research topics for historical non-fiction projects, especially biography.  It is inevitable that once I start to get familiar with a person as a research subject, I experience many of the same feelings of closeness and empathy for unrelated individuals, as I do for family members and ancestors.  This leads to my story about a recent book purchase, where the author is one of these non-relations.

A few days ago, I ordered a used copy of a book online, because I saw the author had made several references to one of my current research subjects.  When I received the book in the mail from Amazon.com, I happily found the inside cover to be signed by the author himself.  But, what the author had written along with his signature tore at my heart:  "Christmas 2004.  To ('Name') with love, Grandpa B-----."

Here then, were memoirs written and published by a local Seattle man, regarding his passionate, lifelong involvement with a fascinating and unique hobby.  He had inscribed a copy of the book, newly published in 2004, to a grandchild or great grandchild, only to have the copy wind up at Goodwill a few short years after his own death.  This saddens me.  Any of us who engage in personal or family record-keeping live in the hope that our family members, both now and in the future, will handle our dedicated efforts with care and respect, if not full appreciation.

Perhaps I am taking this too personally, because as a little girl, I longed to be close to my grandparents and other elders, but the opportunity did not arise. My one living grandfather resided far enough away that I saw him only occasionally until his death when I was 16, and my maternal grandmother, whom I miss knowing every day, died when my mother was not even two years of age. Perhaps it is easier for people to take things for granted now, when the increasing busy-ness of modern life offers so many distractions. Or, perhaps for those who have extended family in their daily lives, it is common to focus on negatives instead of the good fortune of having the intimacy of family nearby in the first place.  But, I assure you that if I had a book of memoirs written and published by a grandparent that was personally inscribed to me, you'd better believe it would be harbored in the safest place imaginable. 

I realize there may be extenuating circumstances involved, but the family historian in me, and especially the sentimental woman/daughter/granddaughter, etc., just wants to cry out:   "What the hell happened?!"  How is it that this book, signed by the recipient's grandfather, was not held safe, or at least passed along to another family member?  A little "Googling" quickly showed me that extended family does exist, and so, I am being intentionally vague in this post out of privacy concerns.

I suppose it is possible that the recipient of the book experienced a change of circumstances.  Perhaps he/she was moving and wanted to discard any extraneous items, for example.  Although books are often the first to go in such situations, and another copy might eventually have been acquired in the future, it would not be the one that was personally inscribed by the grandparent.  If I knew who originally owned the book, and if a return were requested out of regret, I would gladly give it back.  But, sorry... in my mind, not even moving is a legitimate excuse for discarding the memoirs of a relative, whether published, or not (I hope my children will take note here).

I will probably always be in the dark about why a book of autobiographical essays given to a grandchild as a Christmas present, ended up at a second-hand store so soon after the grandparent's death.  But, I will read and learn from "Grandpa B's" memoirs, and will quote them as appropriate in my own work. The copy will then sit safely on my shelf, beside other collectible books on topics that are of great interest to me.  I hope that "Grandpa B" will rest in peace with the assurance that his voice has been heard, even if his heart's desire could not be protected from the uncertainty of time's passing, and the unpredictability of human nature.

Hold fast to your family treasures, because once they are gone, they are gone... and forever is a very long time.

3 comments:

Luci J Baker Johnson said...

Thank you for the 'touchstone' moment you so eloquently describe. It's a reminder to all of us to take to heart those pieces of ephemera that are dear to us.

Just this past week I came across a hand written letter from my father. It was scrawled on a single sheet of white lined notebook paper (with the Mead logo imprinted in the bottom right corner). The letter had crisscrossed the country, between his (6) siblings, in late 2008. The letter starts out with "Dear family, Life is good and great. We have had a beautiful fall here in Minnesota. The fall colors in the Twin Cities were beautiful, golden brown, yellow, orange, green, whatever color you can think of. Especially along the great Mississippi River. We went for a drive every chance we could..."

It goes on from there describing his enjoyment with Turner Classic Movie (TV) Station, night time dreams, practicing efficiency, reading the New York times and Wall Street Journal at the library, playing cribbage and 500 and the satisfaction he got from 'picking up trash' (as a volunteer) around the church property.

My father passed away this past February (2012). This single piece of notebook paper, with his unique handwriting, is between two pieces of glass and is now hanging on the wall of my study.

One never knows what might become of what one person sees as ‘discardable’ item'. For me, this letter is a treasure!

Luci J Baker Johnson said...

Thank you for the 'touchstone' moment you so eloquently describe. It's a reminder to all of us to take to heart those pieces of ephemera that are dear to us.

Just this past week I came across a hand written letter from my father. It was scrawled on a single sheet of white lined notebook paper (with the Mead logo imprinted in the bottom right corner). The letter had crisscrossed the country, between his (6) siblings, in late 2008. The letter starts out with "Dear family, Life is good and great. We have had a beautiful fall here in Minnesota. The fall colors in the Twin Cities were beautiful, golden brown, yellow, orange, green, whatever color you can think of. Especially along the great Mississippi River. We went for a drive every chance we could..."

It goes on from there describing his enjoyment with Turner Classic Movie (TV) Station, night time dreams, practicing efficiency, reading the New York times and Wall Street Journal at the library, playing cribbage and 500 and the satisfaction he got from 'picking up trash' (as a volunteer) around the church property.

My father passed away this past February (2012). This single piece of notebook paper, with his unique handwriting, is between two pieces of glass and is now hanging on the wall of my study.

One never knows what might become of what one person sees as ‘discardable’ item'. For me, this letter is a treasure!

Chery Kinnick said...

Luci - thank you for your thoughtful comments. I know you understand why I just had to say something about my discovery; I don't even know this family, but it will probably bother me for a long time. I'm glad you have the letter from your father to family... letters are the very best treasures!