By Regena Handy
The letter is decades old, wrinkled and discolored by time, tucked into an envelope marked “keep this.” A note to my grandmother from her sister-in-law, pages of faded handwriting that share stories of lives of relatives now long gone.
This is just one of the priceless artifacts stored away in trunks and boxes in the attic, packed in closets and old wooden chests.
Our story is not unique. Such comes to most of us at some point; many members of my generation have already been in our situation and can empathize with us. It is simply our turn now, this sorting through our parents’ lives, making decisions of what to keep, to give away, to possibly sell, or donate to charities.
When we started cleaning out my late in-law’s house two years ago, I did so almost gingerly, with a feeling of trepidation and a sense of invading their privacy. It just felt wrong, our being there. I could almost feel my mother-in-law’s presence as I opened her neat and meticulously arranged dresser drawers, as if she was looking over my shoulder and questioning my rummaging through her beautiful things.
So now we are cleaning out and preparing to sell my own mom’s house. Technically, it is my parents’ home, though there are only traces now of my father, dead these past 40 years. To most of the grandchildren who never knew him, it is only Grandma’s.
A couple of months ago, we all gathered at the house, coming from Nashville and Pittsburgh, from the Roanoke area and Blacksburg, and from here in Woolwine—the seven surviving grandchildren, offspring of my deceased siblings and my own child. The great-grands ran and played, reminiscent of their young parents who once did the same and who are now sifting through memories of that earlier time.
Though of our original family, only my mother has lived there in the last four decades, there are still touches of us all. Of my father, old business records of the sawmill business he and his brother ran all their adult lives, a journal he kept in 1958 that told of the simple, ordinary yet extraordinary life we lived, and perhaps most heart-rending of all—a pair of bibbed overalls, probably his last as the pocket still held a small wrench.
There are little pieces of me and my brothers, from the quilting scraps Mama saved as leftovers of clothes she made for us to our old school papers, childish scrawls and drawings, special mementos that only a mother keeps. Emotions crowd my throat when I come across a yellowed scrap of newsprint, a poem clipped along ago about a precious baby girl and in the corner, my name written in Mama’s handwriting.
And most of all, my mother is there, every item a piece of her daily existence, the life she bravely made for herself after becoming a widow at age 49 and losing both my brothers in the ensuing years. It is she that came to represent home, her house where we continued to gather and be that which is of utmost importance to the majority of people—a family.
But one of the sure things that we can count on in life is change. And we are at the point where letting go becomes a necessity. Families are smaller, often with no one to automatically assume ownership of the family homeplace or farm. Whether decisions be made due to health or finances or even proximity, holding on to what was simply is not always possible.
Which is why things like the letter to my grandmother are so important to me. Possessions that may mean nothing to someone outside the family but are pieces of history and genealogy, shared moments of life, the very essence which defines us. So that when we have to let go of the big things, we still have small keepsakes that stir our memory and keep us connected to our past.