Sunday, June 21, 2009

Scraps of Paper and Old Pictures

Yesterday, we worked on organizing my mother and father in their new house. We were having my brother's graduation party and my son's birthday party there today, so, I offered to come up to help get things in order.

In the course of arranging the furniture in the living room, we had to decide what to do with my grandmother's trunk. It's an ugly thing. At some point, some fashion conscious soul painted it hospital green. I never thought much about the trunk when Grandma left it for me 30 years ago. It was just a place to store stuff. I never really went digging through the papers on the bottom, and really, I think Mom asked me not to.

As time passed, I discovered that the trunk no longer fit my room decor (I was now sharing with my baby sister and didn't have room for it), so I gave it to my Mom. Mom stored afghans in it until they moved out to the country and then she stored board games in it. Over time, it became more battered. The hammered tin was peeled away from the top of the lid by bored, busy kid fingers, the paint peeled away in some places revealing some of the bare tin. The wood lid was cracked by someone trying to use it for extra seating. But, Mom never pitched it. I could never figure out why, except that it belonged to her mother. So, when we had to find a spot for it in the new living room, my sister suggested that we use it to store records in. We all agreed that'd be a good use for it and we opened it up to empty it out.

The first thing to come out were the board games. One was a first edition Trivial Pursuit game that I can remember playing with my mom and brother. I can still remember the rule of thumb about Literature questions: If all else fails, guess William Faulkner. It's usually right. I remember Mom nursing the babies while we'd play the game and Dad would play the piano. It was good family time. That brought a smile to my face. Then we started to find the pieces of my grandmother's life.

There was so much there: Pictures, placemats with pictures of the Arizona desert that she loved so well, homework that my brother and I had done well on that she kept, receipts for the house that she and her 4th husband had been in the process of purchasing when she left him. The receipts were titled Mrs. Katherine Garl. My sister said, "Who's that?"

"That's Grandma," I said.
Mom chimed in, "Frank Garl was her fourth husband."
"Wow," said my sister, "I had no idea she'd been married more than once!"
"Yes," said my mother, "she kept looking for the piece that was missing. I don't know if she ever found it."

We continued to dig through the chest. Mom told us that the chest had been a stagecoach chest (not a steamer trunk, as I had always assumed) and that it had been given to Grandma by another ancestor. Mom estimates that it's about 150 years old. We found a lot of pictures of my great-uncle Jim. He had been a bus driver for Continental Bus Lines. We found not only pictures, but his tie bar and name plate from his bus. I think Grandma told me one time that he had always been her favorite brother.

We also found a 10 peso note marked "Japanese Government" signed by several American servicemen. We're still trying to figure out what it is? Is it Occupation Money or perhaps from the Phillipines? With so much of Great Uncle Jim's things in it, I wondered if the chest had not been his gift to Grandma.

As I cleared out the last of the paper, the old bank statements, the greeting cards that were never sent and the Christmas gift tags that littered the very bottom of the chest, I began to think of the sum of these scraps of paper and old pictures. They tell part of the story, but only part. They don't capture the life and spark of my grandmother. They don't tell us about her heart and soul. But they are strong reminders of a person who, for better or worse, I loved very dearly and they brought her presence to the surface of my memory to share with my sister and my daughter, who never knew her.

I am so grateful that she left that piece of herself with us because it brought her close to me again.

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