As aging parents transition to assisted living or skilled nursing environments, responsibility for getting rid of the “stuff” that remains in residences where, for decades, they lived, loved, and experienced life’s highs and lows often falls to their children or other relatives. Digging up memories may be depressing and stressful, but it can also be cathartic, and you never know what you’ll find.
The wan light bulb at the bottom of the basement steps telegraphs a series of dots and dashes before settling down to a pallid glow. Even before my descent, I am assaulted by the dusty whiff of someone else’s history. I’ve been in this basement dozens of times before, always with the knowledge that, one day, I would have to face it as excavator. Today is Day 1 of that excavation.
This is not a particularly unique story. It is replicated thousands of times daily as parents who can no longer handle the vicissitudes of independent living are moved to safer digs, their sons and daughters left to decide which remnants of their lives matter and which should be cast off to the dustbin. A daunting task to be sure.
Looking around the basement of my in-laws, I try not to think too much, or I would just grab the pull chain of that fixture with the winking bulb and head for the hills. My father-in-law is a pack rat extraordinaire. We don’t call him “Joe, the Junk Man” for nothing. When someone doesn’t feel safe unless he keeps every piece of paper, every empty bottle, and every box that has ever passed through his hands, he lives in an unpredictable world indeed. Clambering through a juggernaut of discarded yet prized remnants of his 90 years, I note that I have already picked up tendrils of cobwebs in my hair that encircle my face like wisps of smoke in slow motion. Trying to bat them away is an exercise in futility.
The floor is littered with desiccated bug carcasses that snap underfoot. Water-stained boxes and bags, rank with mildew, line the walls and spill out across the floor. Dozens of radios and television sets in various stages of disrepair and decomposition demonstrate evolution from vacuum tubes to circuit boards to computer chips. Old telephones, their cords snaking across boxes and bins, lift their dial faces as if inviting fingers to ring up party lines with numbers such as VIctory 2-0577 or TUxedo 4-0206.
Just dig in somewhere, I tell myself, unable to prevent an involuntary shudder. I randomly head for one of many rusting metal shelves that lean against a basement wall, this one tipping precariously to its right. First box, top shelf: income-tax returns from my father-in-law’s father—1929. Now there’s a keeper. Used name tags with names of people I don’t know. A bucket of—dead?—batteries. A sheaf of heavy bond paper interspersed with yellowing, time-scalloped tissue paper. The leg fringe of a parchmented centipede, pressed like a dried flower, disintegrates as I turn a musty page. I gaze upon the youthful face of my mother-in-law, a real hottie in her time. How to reconcile the sassy expression Mary flaunts across the decades with the embattled appearance of the woman who sits now in a wheelchair, arthritis crumpling her body despite boatloads of drugs over the decades.
I turn another stale page. My mother-in-law gazes rapturously up into the eyes of a dashing young soldier clad in a WWII uniform. He is looking at her so tenderly, so sweetly, that their feelings for one another seem to breathe, arcing across the page.
“Who is this with your mother?” I ask my husband, who emerges from some other dank corner of this archival sepulcher. “It doesn’t look like your father.” He scrutinizes the faces closely, and then it dawns on him.
“Oh, my God,” he murmurs softly. “This is my mother’s first husband. I’ve never seen a picture of him before.”
We both study the portrait done in shifting shades of gray. Now that we know who the soldier is, we become acutely aware of the poignancy of the photograph. They were so young—she 18 and he younger than our son is now—that they had to get their parents’ permission to marry before he went off to war, a war from which he would never return.
“Wow!” my husband muses. “If he had come back, I wouldn’t be here.”
Neither of us quite understands how to respond to that spontaneous, albeit truthful, statement. Should we be thankful he didn’t come back? Shouldn’t we be more grateful that his sacrifice back then means we aren’t speaking German or Japanese today? That my husband is here at all, given the proclivities of the Third Reich to discard those they found unacceptable? A time traveler’s conundrum. We shake off the confusion of such thoughts. He returns to his corner, I to mine.
There must be a thousand pens here, all of them dry. A generation whose formative years were shaped by the Great Depression doesn’t throw anything out. You never know when you might need it. They were the original recyclers. My mother would wash and reuse tin foil until it fell apart in her hands. So do I. (My financial planner tells me I have a not-so-latent “bag lady” mentality.)
How many flashlights does one individual need, I wonder, as I dump No. 18 into the designated box. I mentally try to keep track of three kinds of stuff: stuff to throw out, treasured bits of archival family history to keep, and an estate-sale cache to see just what scavengers will pick up for pennies on the dollar. I fill subsequent boxes with assorted tools, office equipment, all sorts of electronic cables and wires, and dozens of plastic bins and receptacles used to store the detritus of all this stuff. Unable to resist the tarnished loving cup awarded to my mother-in-law in 1941 as first-place winner of a dance contest, I put it in the “keeper” pile.
I pick up an old handbill from my father-in-law’s mom and pop store, Joe’s 39th and Prospect Supermarket. No date, but the prices tell the story: pork roast, 25 cents a pound; two pounds of coffee for 99 cents; seven 16-ounce loaves of bread for a dollar. There’s a picture of my father-in-law with his workers: Clayton, a hard worker except when he showed up drunk, and Virgil, who went back to the freezer one day to get a ham for a customer and didn’t come back. Joe subsequently sent his brother-in-law, Butch, to check on Virgil, and he didn't come back either. Irritated, my father-in-law went back to the freezer to see what the hold-up was. It really was a hold-up, with the robber holding both Virgil and Butch at gunpoint in the freezer. What did he think he was going to do? Make off with turkey necks when he could buy them at two pounds for 35 cents?
I rifle through the same box and, sure enough, come up with the infamous blood-stained Daytimer calendar. My father-in-law always kept that Daytimer in the breast pocket of his store coveralls. One day, he was robbed at gunpoint—a different incident—and, due to the vigilance of that Daytimer, the bullet he took was deflected into his shoulder, away from his heart. He tried to cash in with the Daytimer folks to give them the rights to the story—“How a Daytimer Saved My Life”—but they never bit. He once had X-rays taken, and the technician inquired rather nervously, “Excuse me, sir, but are you aware of the fact that you have a bullet in your shoulder?” to which he is said to have replied in mock shock: “Hell, no. How the hell did that get in there?”
It only took one more robbery before my father-in-law decided he had been given too many warnings not to take heed. That time, the thug followed him home from the store, misinterpreting my father-in-law’s precious coupon box for a moneybag. Within a year of that experience, Joe retired.
Taking a break, we return to the nursing home from which we will soon relocate my husband’s parents to an assisted-living facility. As we walk several paces behind my in-laws—he with his walker and she in her wheelchair—I nudge my husband and whisper prophetically, “You and me in 30 years.” He nods. If the past 30 have been any indication, we will be here in a blink.
We return to their home and descend once again into the maws of memories. Must be four-dozen binders representing various organizations and charities my father-in-law chaired or was involved in following retirement. (Before then, he didn’t have much time for community service.) Here are hundreds of pictures of people we don’t know, obviously important to my in-laws. When someone cannot discriminate between what is important and lasting and what is not, everything becomes important. Who am I to decide what to keep and what to cast aside? I’m an amateur archeologist excavating someone else’s historical archive.
I pick up a limp shoebox tied with a ragged ribbon. As I pop the lid, the ribbon falls apart with a sudden spray of dust. On top are congratulatory telegrams to my husband’s parents on the occasion of their marriage. As I thumb through them, I realize that my son doesn’t know what a telegram is. Why would he, when his generation can call anyone on the planet with a phone he takes out of his pocket? One of the yellowed pages is a telegram from my mother-in-law’s previous in-laws, the parents of the dead soldier, congratulating her on her new marriage. It is signed “Mom and Dad.” These were real people, dealing with real sorrow with true dignity. I am the mother of a son at a time when another war is being prosecuted. Humbled, I stifle a brief whimper.
I think of all of them, those upon whose shoulders we stand. As I gaze into the faces of European immigrants who never got out of Nazi-occupied Poland, I come across the translated story of a young man who is pleading for American relatives to send money so he can bribe officials and leave Lublin. “Please,” he begs, “I am disguising myself as a waitress in a restaurant. I live in constant fear they will finally find me out. Please send me money so I can get out.” I wonder what became of him. I am told he was never heard from again.
As the only shiksa—woman who is not Jewish—in this family, I see my in-laws standing on those shoulders. Each generation pushes the next one forward. Perhaps the metaphor is a little cloying, but I see their generation as a parody of the old Moses allegory. He takes his people to the Promised Land, but is unable to enter himself. So, indeed, the generation before us went off to fight in the Big War for world democracy, so we could fight for it here at home: Women’s rights. Civil rights. Ecological conservation in the face of the military-industrial complex.
And so it goes. Moses could not cross over, and neither could they. Yet we stand on their shoulders, and it is just as unlikely I will be able to cross over into my son’s Promised Land. And so forth and so on—the evolution of the consciousness of the universe. I am getting way too ponderous for all this dusty pandemonium at my feet. If I’m not careful, I’ll be humming a few bars from “Sunrise, Sunset” and really strike the fear of God into my husband, who, at this very moment, muffles a quiet cry of surprise.
“What is it?” I ask as I carefully navigate the ruinous archival footage. He is sitting in the middle of boxes filled with pages and pages of irrelevance, only to have come upon this page, dated Jan. 25, 1999:
“Honey, I don’t know what to do for our [51st] anniversary. … As you know, I am not great for flowers and stuff but would like to give you the enclosed so you can buy something you want or something we can share. The past few weeks have been tough with both of us experiencing sickness. When I got ill and had to leave you to go to the hospital, … I really broke down in the car at the thought of not being with you. Thank God I recovered rapidly, and coming back home [to] you was my greatest joy. I only hope and pray that we may have many more years together—many more anniversaries to share in reasonable good health. I love you dearly and always will. Love, Me.”
From our current viewpoint, the note is all the more poignant, as my in-laws have just celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. Barely holding on before all hell broke loose, both had decompensated quickly, requiring multiple emergency-room runs, hospitalizations, and, finally, rehab at a skilled nursing facility. My husband puts the card down and holds his face in his hands. I rub his shoulders as I grab for the film of cobwebs my hair refuses to release and furtively return to my own corner of the excavation site.
The bad news is, my father-in-law never threw anything away. The good news is, my father-in-law never threw anything away.
Author’s note: The foregoing was written in 2008. Since then, both Mary and Joe have passed from this earth, he most recently on Oct. 28, 2014, at almost 97 years of age. This story is dedicated to their memory. Godspeed, you two, and I hope you are now reunited.
Patrice Rancour, MS, RN, PMHCNS-BC, clinical assistant professor in the College of Nursing at The Ohio State University (OSU) and behavioral health and Reiki therapist at The OSU Center for Integrative Medicine, is the author of Tales from the Pager Chronicles