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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.

Nobody can do for little children what grandparents do.  Grandparents sort of sprinkle stardust over the lives of little children.”

Alex Haley

Grandparent stardust was a staple for my brothers and I, and it is missed very, very much. We were fortunate to know both paternal and maternal grandparents throughout our childhood, and adult years.

Grandparents Day is this weekend, and although they have all passed, I will take this opportunity to acknowledge my grandparents’ influence – love, support, example – and express my gratitude for having had them in my life.

Grammie always dressed well.  She even wore a skirt and cashmere sweater (sleeves carefully pushed up to her elbow) when working in her garden.  Her garden, a shoo-in for Sunset Magazine, included trellises, hanging planters, archways, and gates, built by my grandfather.  She taught me how to play Crazy 8’s, King in the Corner, I Spy, and Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button.  She was an avid reader of history, an amazing cook, and strong walker.  Although she endured several surgeries throughout her life, I never heard her complain.  When she was 93, she looked up from her hospital bed, and told the nurse, “I feel old.”  She died two hours later, peacefully, in her sleep.

Grandma Gerry was a tough cookie.  When she was 16 years old, a Sheriff pulled her out of class one day (a humiliation), telling her she had to go home right away, because her mother had left, and since her father was out working at logging camps, someone had to watch her younger sisters.  She spent the next couple of years cooking, and cleaning house, in addition to taking care of her sisters, but also maintained a high grade point average in school.  She raised three boys, while her husband worked two or three shifts to support the family.  I rarely saw her sit down, as she was always cleaning, barking orders, or reprimands.  But, I never doubted her love, and she was always there when I needed her.

Grampie was a sailor, and carpenter, who liked to call me “Granny.”  He could be close-minded, but always took my side in arguments.  He taught himself how to build a house by talking to carpenters, did pull-ups by his fingertips on door frames, flexed his chest muscles so his ship tattoo rocked its waves, loved his pipe, and the San Francisco Giants.  While his wife enjoyed reading about the past, he was always interested in anything newly invented, global changes, and innovative ideas.  As a man who had always worked with his hands, legal blindness was very difficult for him.  He’d walk down to the assisted care facility’s dining room, twist off his walking cane’s handle, and pour out Old Grandad whiskey from the hidden vial into his morning coffee.  Once a sailor …

Grandpa Bo spent so much time cutting class in school, the teacher didn’t know his name.  He decided there was no point in continuing, and spent the rest of his life working for the lumber mill.  He knew how to have a good time.  There was always a smile on his face when we visited, and a sad wave good-bye when we left.  He could build anything from anything.  He loved getting my grandmother riled up.  Whenever Lawrence Welk or wrestling was on TV, grandkids took a back seat.  When I announced, at age 19, that I would be backpacking across Europe with a 28 year old man, my grandmother immediately counter-announced that I wasn’t going anywhere, with any man.  My grandfather, however, winked, and said, “Send me a postcard.”  He said he would rather die, than quit smoking.  Wish granted. Dammit.

What are your best memories of your grandparents?

My grandparents had been married 70 years when it came time for them to move into an assisted living facility.  Forced to leave their home and losing their independence was obviously difficult for them.

My mother – their daughter – had passed away a couple of decades previous, so it was up to my brothers and I to overlook the moving process. My grandparents sat next to each other watching, with sad, sad eyes as I emptied cupboards and drawers, and would respond quietly, sometimes with a catch in their voices, whenever they were asked if they wished a particular item to be donated, sold at a yard sale, or gifted. 

My grandfather had served in the Navy the first couple of years in their marriage, so moving was not new for them.  However, they had accumulated a lot of memories in the subsequent decades, and many of them were associated with treasured items – drawings and paintings created by my grandmother before arthritis kicked in, her grandmother’s lace bed coverlet and her mother’s plates, a high school textbook, dance cards, my grandfather’s tools from his basement workshop, his sailor’s uniform last worn in 1930, a sword he obtained in Panama, souvenirs from road trips after their children had grown, silhouettes of the grandchildren when they were in grade school, and so forth.

My brothers claim their part was the most difficult – loading up the few heavy pieces of furniture and boxed items that would fit in their small, new apartment.  I disagree.  I drove them away from their home.  As we pulled away from the curb, my grandfather said, “Good-bye, house.  Good-bye, old house” and started singing, “The Last Roundup,” while my grandmother rifled through her purse looking for her heart medication.

When you’re writing your life story, or helping someone else to write his or hers, ask what treasures are sprinkled throughout the home that have a history; a memory.  It will not only serve as a memory trigger, but the story can accompany the item to its new home.

What items in your home are special to you, and what’s the story behind them?

You Are A Classic

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