Listening for the whisper of the past

This is about how my brother and sister and I just finished a task that my sister rightly described as worthy of Hercules.

Our parents, David Lindorff Sr. and Dorothy Park died a few years ago within a year of each other. Everything that we didn’t quite know what to do with went into a 10 by 20-foot rented storage unit, safely locked and temporarily ignored. A year later we managed to whittle it down to about a third of that and we transferred everything to an 8 by 12-foot unit. Most of the stuff was in boxes. There was some smaller furniture and hard to categorize objects; some of the stuff was 3 – 4 generations old. Most of it whispered stories, but you had to really listen to hear them. And some of it remained mysterious because the story was lost; when that happens you have artifacts and curios like you see in an antique shop, except how can you attach a value to something that so obviously has a story to tell but it’s lost its whisper! You can’t. So, if you are like me, you swallow hard and put it in one of five boxes: “trash”, “recycle”, “thrift store”, “antique”, “keep” (name).

The furniture was easy. If it meant something, we could overlook a creak or a flaw or a rip. The point is, everything was given a chance to make its case.

It was the photos and letters that presented the greatest challenge, and, it goes without saying, the poems, drawings, doodles and diaries of a large extended family — in fact several extended families — that actually communicated over the years and valued creativity and writing. The further back you go, the more people tended to write to each other, in our family at least, and if they didn’t write, everyone turned out something that revealed their personality . . . and if there was nothing creative to show, there were photos.

The older photos (black and white) were portraits, the oldest photos (tintypes) were staged at a studio, but from the 1930s on, there was a burgeoning love of the snapshot. More was better. People wanted to document everything – a picnic, outing, vacation, new car, a departure, an arrival, a baptism, a birthday, and what you have is a patchwork, a personal history, composed of the odd letter, postcards, scraps, mementos, references to an illness or a death, a funeral announcement, congratulations on the birth of someone etc. But, if one were to graph this family history, or give it a shape, it would start out tapered going back a hundred + years ago, then it would widen after say, 1920 (around the time my parents were born), reaching its widest point in the 50s and into the sixties, with slides . . . (Believe it or not, my parents would periodically take out the projector (this would be Fall or Winter), my mother would make popcorn, the lights would go off and we would gather for a slide show, starring us!)

(There is a story of how my our father went on a rampage in the storage area throwing out boxes indiscriminately. He and my mother and sister had been overseas for a year and while they were gone the kids of the family that was house-sitting got into the storage area and pulled everything out and literally turned it upside down. My father was in his late forties with plenty of life behind him but plenty of life ahead, and when they returned home and found the mess, he saw the writing on the wall. What writing? I’m not sure, but whatever it was, he saw it and reacted with gusto and much went to the dump that day.)

. . . And then it would taper again after the mid-60s . . . Not because of lack of documentation but because the extended family began to disperse and fray. No one was keeping track of cousins and uncles and nephews anymore. The 60s etched weird firewalls between families and within families. My mother’s family, in the south, were very religious and supported the military, my father’s family lived in the suburbs outside New York and uncle so-and-so worked for the “phone company”, Ma-Bell. We were liberals living in a university town. You get the picture. We drifted apart. It was a sign of the times. People depended on family less and less. Thanksgivings got smaller. There were fewer pies! Postcards and letters were replaced by phone-calls and then by email.

How much does legacy and memory have to do with artifacts and things? Stories that are passed on without documentation and proof are often only half-true and they don’t do the past justice. But people of the past were real, as real as I am right now, sitting here sipping my coffee, writing this. (At this very moment I am dealing with a crisis involving someone’s cat who disappeared during a move and no one can agree on what to do. I am upset because no one tried to talk with the cat to try to prepare it for the transition and others are just upset period, and someone thinks the cat, wherever it is, is better off being left behind because it only responded to one person who is now living in a place that does not allow cats . . .) This little story is a slice of life. And this is the type of situation that makes a life a life, and it’s the type of thing that would be mentioned in the letters we went through that personalized the past. Who wants sanitized stories of Uncle so-and-so or grandpa or great grandma? The truth of who these people were is in the minutiae.

Sometimes I feel we are all sedated by life. We’re all in transition, all the time! Eventually we all get left behind. But when we’re in the flow, transition is normal and we go with it and sometimes it feels like we are in control, but as we age we get pushed to the side, not necessarily by loved ones, but by life. And we begin to feel that we aren’t essential any more. And the truth is, we aren’t essential! But there is much more to every one of us than what can be stowed in a box!

So, I want to talk about how my brother was going through a box and found a story that he wrote in High School that my mother had filed away in a folder labeled “David” in her generous cursive hand. It was a satire, a hilarious story with a political theme. He was laughing as he read it aloud. We were all laughing but he was laughing the hardest. Then he looked up and said, “I used to write with a sense of humor!”. As soon as I heard him say that, I realized that I did too. But I didn’t say anything. This was his moment of reclamation.

Thanks, box. Thanks Mom. Thanks for salvaging bits of our souls. The least we can do is honor and cherish bits of your life and Dad’s and Grandpa’s and Baba’s and Teddy’s, Uncle Bill’s, Aunt Margery’s, Nanny’s and all the rest. We should not, not a single one of us, be forgotten.

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