Once upon a time, a much earlier time, before we embraced advice to be “tidy,” to downsize, to get rid of things we haven’t used since our last pay cheque, there were attics. Under unfinished wood beams of old houses lay great treasure troves, the archives of the family beneath. Boxes of old letters, tarnished Little League trophies, swatches of silk and satin from homemade prom dresses, mismatched and chipped china – all saved for unknown reasons.
In the old farmhouse in Ohio where I grew up, the attic was my rainy-day playground. Long velvet gowns and hats with feathers and wide, beribboned brims provided delightful dress-up fun. My Nanny Nellie, the grandmother I knew to have been a teacher, had also been a milliner for a time in the 1920s. She had saved her finest bonnets and packed them in a cardboard box. Beneath them was a fully beaded flapper dress, a gleaming silver symbol of a time before the era of poodle skirts and saddle shoes, the haute couture of my generation.
It was a large attic, so I could set up a mirror and pose before it in the costumes of that earlier era, caressing the soft folds of the cobalt blue velvet that draped to the floor. I often wondered who had worn the sparkling flapper dress that I would slip over my head and shimmy before the mirror to make the beaded fringe sway, always surprised by the weight of it.
When my mother reached her “downsizing” stage and moved from the old house on six acres to a small efficient apartment, she didn’t warn me or ask for my help in cleaning out the attic. I was devastated by the news that the gowns and hats were now stored in a costume room of the Youngstown Playhouse. She thought I wouldn’t be interested in “that old stuff”.
She did, however, save a box of letters for me. There were hastily written letters I had been required to write from summer camp and much longer ones documenting the year I lived in Germany and travelled to Paris and London on holidays. I wrote about the German family whose house I shared, about giving Edeltraut a copy of the Carson McCullers book I knew she would like, about practising my German proficiency in the little butcher shop where Frau Guentner took me to prepare me for the level of aggression I would need to adopt in order to compete with a line of German women in competition for rostbraten or wurst. I described the neatness and order I found so compelling, even in the forest across the street where workers regularly cleared the walking paths of twigs and leaves so Sunday strollers could navigate easily in their best shoes. I was embarrassed by letters from college in which I pretended success that was later disproved when grades were sent home.
Yellowing articles could be replaced by research on a computer, I’m sure, but the appreciation of time and place is only revealed by the surrounding pages
Then I uncovered a stack of letters held together by a slim red ribbon. Written on thin, opaque Air Mail paper in the strong, precise hand of my father were reports of his life as a Seabee in World War II, first from a training camp in Rhode Island, then from Iwo Jima and Japan. Some displayed a censor’s stamp on the envelope, smudged warnings that seemed not to fit the perfect block print of the engineer’s hand that addressed them.
I carefully pulled the pages from the envelope of the first letter, aware that his hand had held that paper to his desk as he drew a cartoon to amuse me. Wary, uniformed sailors with targets drawn on their arms stood sideways as grinning medics threw dart-like needles to the bull’s-eyes, injecting the recruits against the diseases they would encounter in the Asian war zones where they were being deployed, a perfect example of the clever wit of my beloved father. He was a stocky fellow with a handsome face, black curly hair and twinkly blue eyes, a man who engaged all around him. As I grew older, I became aware of his singular, democratic nature. He was as beloved by bank presidents as he was by the Eastern European immigrants he worked with in the steel mill. He was invited to more weddings than anyone in town, yet preferred to spend weekends on his little tractor working our acre and a half vegetable garden. I, of course, thought he was perfect.
And now his words were in my hands, each envelope revealing his sardonic humour, his precise choice of words and details. The later letters from Japan revealed carefully censored mention of Hiroshima, stunning to read now that history has told the story of the end of that vicious war. And evidence that may explain why he was a much quieter man when he returned.
Currently, in another attic in Virginia, another generation’s archives fill boxes and bins. My own son and daughter, now adults, love visiting their past – old soccer shirts and skating dresses, favorite toys and letters to Santa assuring of their “nice” status. They enjoy their “recollections of things past”. Well, most of the time. David, now a father of three, perhaps regrets pulling out old report cards which his oldest daughter quickly scanned and now uses in arguments about her own, much better grades.
My daughter Lisa loves opening velvet boxes that hold old costume jewellery once worn by my mother and my aunts. She selects pieces to give to the young girls and women in the family to honour special occasions, hoping they will be kept safe and worn even before they attain retro-chic status.
Three cartons of Nirvana memorabilia sit stacked in a corner. Old Rolling Stone magazines and newspaper clippings from all over the world remind of the early reviews and unprecedented success of the band my son played drums for in the 90s. Those yellowing articles could be replaced by research on a computer, I’m sure, but the appreciation of time and place is only revealed by the surrounding pages. Advertisements show fashion trends in clothing and cars. There are photos of bands that were important then and have been forgotten. Articles on social and political topics surround the Nirvana stories and create a cultural perspective. It’s valuable to see all of it, the whole story.
I’m so grateful to have all these memories saved in boxes rather than clouds, to have my father’s handwriting on old paper rather than email – to be able to touch and feel and save a few bits of my history.
I hope I’ve caught you before you pull down your attic stairs to begin downsizing. Surely you won’t be considered a pack-rat for preserving a few moments in time, for holding on to a few pages of the unique volume of your own family’s history.
From Cradle To Stage by Virginia Hanlon Grohl is out now