I love strolling through antique malls. Some may only see a building filled with old junk, but for me, it’s a fabulous opportunity for imaginative spelunking through objects’ unshared stories:

A painting purchased by a lonely housewife temporarily eased her aching heart. A book offered adventures to a young boy who yearned to leave home. A clock traveled thousands of miles from the “old country” accompanied by hopes of a prosperous land. A porcelain Victorian doll was shipped by a WWII sailor to his young niece two weeks before losing his life to a direct torpedo hit. Vinyl albums were played over and over by girlfriends at a slumber party. A mahogany table played host to dinners, holidays, discussions and challenging homework. The art of whittling was learned with a pocketknife gifted from a beloved grandfather. A ring had been carried in a pocket during picnics, movies and walks before the proposal was finally blurted out during a rainstorm. Building blocks hand-me-downs from four older siblings continued to bring joy. Martini glasses filled every Thursday night for ladies’ bridge night.

Photographs of discarded relatives periodically appear in and out of frames: Two brothers – one seated and one standing – agree to the portrait after their mother’s anguish that they are leaving home to fight the Yanks. A teenage girl standing behind a chair with a wide, white collar and hair tied back in a pony tail just learned the boy she has crush on also has a crush on her. A young daughter holds her mother’s brooch, causing the younger brother to cry until his father lets him hold his pocket watch for the family portrait. A group of second grade students in a class picture just learned of two classmates’ deaths due to diphtheria. A middle-aged woman glares, irritated, at the camera, thinking about numerous unfinished chores.

I also love driving or walking through older communities where more stories await: That beautifully landscaped home’s secret cellar witnessed brewing of illegal hooch during Prohibition, which was also sold to neighbors. A victory garden in the backyard in the next block preceded the swimming pool and spa. A battered wife hid her shame and embarrassment in the charming bungalow. The strict piano teacher on the corner produced three successful concert pianists. A president visited his old college chum in the brownstone.

That is why I enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s book, “Behind the Scenes at the Museum,” in which she provides a bird’s eye view of a family history. The reader is led back-and-forth through time through objects, places and people as informative bread crumbs gently and often humorously ultimately bring us to a complete picture. The book’s story, as with  life, is multi-layered.

Pay more attention to what surrounds you. Leave the flat plains of existence and explore the depths and heights that surround you. You won’t be bored. I promise.

A hiking buddy became a dad for the first time, and we were discussing the “firsts” in his baby’s future. I considered the idea of “firsts” later that evening, and how they continue throughout our lives. In fact, metaphysics purports that nothing remains the same, so every nanosecond of your life is yet another first.

Trolling my memory banks, these random “firsts” popped up:

  • Television appearance: I was in grade school when my younger brothers and I appeared on a local children’s show because a friend of the family worked for the station. The three of us sat side-by-side along with seven other children on a two-level bleacher. I absolutely died of embarrassment when I noticed one of my brothers picking his nose.
  • Introduction to the disabled: There was a special education extension to my grade school, and two students my age shared our black top playground. One was a “white” girl with frizzy hair and a leg brace, and the other a “black” blind girl who would constantly swing her head back and forth while shaking her hands up and down. For some reason, somebody decided that the blind girl was cool and the one with the leg brace was not.
  • Skipping: My favorite part of kindergarten.
  • Loss of loved one: A cousin just a couple of years older than I was killed in an auto accident after being thrown out of the vehicle and landing on the back of his head. The open-casket service choice was ill-advised. I can still see the poorly applied toupee sticking up.
  • Spending the night at my grandparents’ house, without my parents: I was only about five years old and woke up in the middle of the night by the sound of a growling bear. I was abjectly terrified and could not go back to sleep. The next morning, when my grandmother asked how I slept, I told her about the bear. Her brow furrowed with deep concentration as she tried to determine what I had actually heard, and then she burst out laughing. “Oliver!” she called out. “Julie heard you snoring and thought you were a bear!”
  • Someone laughing at my joke: Sitting in the back of the car during a long four-hour drive home, my father changed the radio station to one that played country-and-western music. I chirped up, “What is that?” “KRAK.” “Well, you have to be cracked to listen to it,” I grumbled. My parents both cracked up.
  • Loss of pet: An Easter chick gift grew into a homicidal rooster, chasing everyone around the yard and pecking their legs. It disappeared one day after a neighbor became tired of its crowing at dawn’s early light. At least, that’s what my parents told me. My father confessed years later that, his tolerance evaporated, he grabbed an ax and chopped the beast’s head off.
  • Job: As with other teenage girls around the country, my first paying gig was babysitter. I was taught in Campfire Girls that you should never fall asleep when watching someone’s children. I kept splashing my face with cold water trying to stay awake until the parents finally arrived home a little past 2:00 a.m.
  • Speeding ticket: I was 18 years old, driving my first car, a 1963 VW bug, down the freeway at over 70 m.p.h. That’s what the officer told me as he shook his head in amazement that the car could hit that speed. I was mentally shaking my head in confusion, when he started ranting about people dying in Vietnam.
  • Broken bone: On the third date with my future ex-husband, I fell into his bathtub, breaking my elbow joint. Buy me a beer and I’ll tell you the story.

As a personal historian-biographer my questions often include first job, first car, etc. as they are common experiences. Included in my biography projects are interviews with family members.

While interviewing a woman for her grandmother’s biography, she asked me why I would want to make a living listening to people’s stories. After all, she claimed, some of the stories have probably been told over and over again.

Smiling, I responded, “But, it’s the first time I have heard them.”

Organize photos

Traditionally, it’s time to enter white tornado mode: pulling back couches for vacuuming, wiping off door frames and baseboards, and cleaning other places oft ignored during the chilly winter months.

Purging closets may also be on the list; determining what can be tossed, donated, or placed in a garage sale.

There’s a box crammed with photographs, and one filled with Grandma’s stuff. Is that envelope full of Dad’s military memorabilia? As tempting as it may be to just put it all back and deal with it another day, this is another day. You have been curator of family mementos long enough.  It’s time to parcel it out.

Call appropriate people in the family to help you work through it, and set a date and time.  Once it has been scheduled, it will be easier to accomplish.

The day of the organizing session, crank up some old school party music. Have fun with it.

Important:

Do NOT throw anything away without checking with everyone in the family first.  Unbeknownst to you, there may be items with which someone has a sentimental association.

Work through boxes/bags of memorabilia first. Once a determination has been made as to what will be retained, consider how important those items had been for someone to have kept them in the first instance.  It would be a shame to continually hide them away where no one can see them.  Get creative. For example:

–        If you do have some military related items, display them in a shadow box and gift it to someone in the family who would appreciate it the most.

–        Some items might be valuable to the local historical association if they are related to the community’s history.

–        I’ve seen small items converted into drawer handles.

Photographs can be scanned and emailed to relatives who may not have copies.  Otherwise, again, get creative.  Examples:

–        I have seen scanned photos printed onto cloth and integrated into a quilt.

–        Copies of photos can be creatively laminated, ie., lampshades, placemats, mirror frames, etc.

–        There are websites where you can upload images to create personally designed ties, etc.

Antique malls are filled with photographs and memorabilia once considered treasured.

Ensure that your family’s treasures will continue to be enjoyed by future generations.

In 1991, I was working in a law office in Santa Barbara.  My father called me at work one day.

He said, “I had to read this to you over and over and over again.  This is the last time I’m going to read this to you.  ‘I will not eat it I would not, could not, in a box. I could not, would not, with a fox. I will not eat them with a mouse I will not eat them in a house. I will not eat them here or there. I will not eat them anywhere. I do not like them, Sam-I-am.'”

“Uh, okay,” I responded.

He laughed, and informed me that in the San Francisco Chronicle, a columnist had paid homage to the passing of Theodor Seuss Geisel aka Dr. Seuss. He recalled the numerous times I had insisted that he read Dr. Seuss to me.

My father knew how to read to a child – very dramatic, funny, acting out all of the parts.

(The Screen Actors Guild has a wonderful website – http://www.storylineonline.net/ – where actors read children books.)

If there is someone in your family who was the “reader” or storyteller, a video of him or her reading a children’s book would be an endearing legacy.

Was there a particular book that you loved to have read to you when you were little?  If you don’t remember, ask your parents or grandparents.  If you were a repeat book or story requester, it will have undoubtedly stuck in their minds.

For those who love research as much as I do, you may enjoy this talk show.  My next visit to D.C., I’m definitely including a visit to the National Archives to my itinerary.

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/bernicebennett

It’s not uncommon for a grandchild to assist in healing a grandparent’s painful past. It could be re-establishing an old relationship, locating missing documents, or even embarking on a diplomatic mission on behalf of a deceased grandparent.

For example, take Clifton Truman Daniel, President Harry S. Truman’s grandson. He visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not to apologize for his grandfather’s atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, but to be an ambassador, of sorts, of reconciliation and healing.

Photo credit: Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes

Understandably, anger remains in Japan, and some Americans believe that Truman may have had other options. However, there are American service members who believe lives were spared as a result of the bombing, and point out that twelve Americans were killed in the bombing as well.

During Daniel’s visit, he was presented with a small plastic bag containing tree seeds which had fallen from trees which had surviving the bombing, to be planted around the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri. A three-term former mayor of Hiroshima subsequently visited the Truman Library.

Daniel plans on writing a book detailing the bombings, his grandfather’s rationale for them, and how survivors moved forward.

If discord exists in your family due to a historical event in which a senior family member – living or deceased – played a part, you have an opportunity to research the backstory leading up to the event, which may have impacted ultimate decisions. Presenting it from an objective point of view has the potential of healing generations, and allowing the future to move forward.

It seems that retailers, in a rush to sell, sell, sell for Christmas, bury Thanksgiving Day under Christmas musak starting early November,  and layering with the top soil of Black Friday.

Although President George Washington issued a proclamation in 1789 citing November 26th as an official holiday of “sincere and humble thanks,” it was President Abraham Lincoln who proclaimed Thanksgiving Day a national holiday in 1863 – in the midst of the Civil War.  It is, therefore, appropriate that Spielberg’s film, “Lincoln,” be released this week.  (You can view President Lincoln’s actual proclamation on-line courtesy of The National Archives:  http://www.archives.gov/press/press-releases/2009/nr09-25.html)

My childhood Thanksgivings were spent at my grandparents’ place, where I enjoyed two traditions.  First, was watching my grandmother smack my dad’s hand when he tried to sneak a couple of olives before dinner was served.  Second, was watching my grandfather lob dinner rolls across the table, instead of passing the basket around, just to annoy my grandmother.

And, of course, there arrived that grand day when I was “promoted” from the child’s table.

With the sunrise, an unspoken, respectful tone permeated their home, historically created with love, and memories.  Thanksgiving was imbued with a deep, rich, ambiance.

It was a similar tone that Lincoln wanted to provide; a respite from the bitterness and anger amongst citizens, and families, during a tumultuous time in this country’s history.  This day has been set aside to reflect on our gifts; whether you spend the day with friends, families, or solitarily; dine on turkey, ham, or vegan.

The world is a living, breathing, cornucopia of accessibly interesting places, people, and stories.

For that, I am truly grateful.

Last month commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  (http://www.cubanmissilecrisis.org/)

I was five years old during this frightening time in our country’s history.  I asked my father if he remembered it.

“I remember it very well,” he responded.  “I had a basketball game that night, and was standing in the living room watching Kennedy give his speech, thinking I could lose my home, my wife and kids.  Everything I knew and love could disappear.  Well, might as well get a game in.”

Do you or someone in your family have a particular memory about this historical event?

Sometimes, sharing your story can be a very powerful healing tool.  Fr. Michael Lapsley taps into that tool to help those struggling with incredibly painful memories.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tef2AwcIZsw&feature=youtu.be

http://www.healing-memories.org/

Cemeteries and graveyards are quiet communities, which practice (as far as we know) the good neighbor policy.  The residents enjoy visitors, and are always willing to lend an ear.

Shadows cast from gnarly tree limbs, swirling leaves, and lichen covered stones can be irresistible for photographers. Some visitors enjoy the peaceful setting – walking pets around the perimeter, partaking a lunch on a bench or blanket, meditating, or engaging in a “romantic” rendezvous. Last year, “Laid to rest” took on a different meaning for a New Jersey woman, when a tombstone fell over, crushing her leg, during a sexual escapade.  (A resident’s judgment?)

Curiosity is often peaked as to the stories of the silent residents. Were their lives happy, or end tragically?

Find a Grave (http://www.findagrave.com/) sometimes offers clues, which relies on volunteers to post photographs of gravesite markers, and information about the deceased.

Association for Gravestone Studies (http://www.gravestonestudies.org/) offers suggestions on difficult-to-read stones, such as taking a digital photo, and inverting colors on your computer.

While some claim that grave markers should remain untouched, others insist that cleaning them shows respect. On a practical level, cleaning them makes it easier for those researching ancestral roots.

A simple cleaning can be accomplished without damaging the stone.  Spray with water, scrape most of the lichens off with something simple as a Popsicle stick, and rub flat surfaces with a natural bristle brush.  Spray chlorine for the remaining lichen, and brush a little more.  (Some household cleaners will leave a residue that can promote algae growth, so it’s best to avoid them.)

If you’re content to stay at home, and read a good graveyard mystery, check out Amanda Stevens’  “The Graveyard Queen” series.  It has a good balance of interesting information on gravesites, and spooky happenings.

Do you have any good cemetery stories?

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