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The Future of Nostalgia

July 3, 2009
These photos of my paternal great-grandparents were taken to commemorate their wedding.

These photos of my paternal great-grandparents were taken to commemorate their wedding.

As we prepared for my maternal grandmother’s funeral, it was my honor to go through a few boxes of her mementos and write a eulogy.  She and I always had a special relationship, so it was a melancholy and nostalgic journey that lasted well into the early morning hours.  I discovered that she was voted most beautiful in her high school class, and a host of other unknown facts.  I even discovered a piece of her 60 year old wedding cake, carefully wrapped in foil.

As we go through life, acquiring stuff, we rarely think about what will happen to our stuff when we die.  At a certain age, or when we have children, we may create a Will, but for the most part, we rarely think about those little things that clutter the corners of our desk drawers.  It isn’t the photos, valuables, or capital items that we ignore, but the old letters, concert ticket stubs, and not-so cherished knickknacks.

As my grandmother’s health deteriorated, my mother had the unenviable task of downsizing her estate. First she moved from a three-bedroom ranch home (with a very full garage, craft room, kitchen, and attic), to a two-room retirement apartment.  As a child of the depression (she graduated from West Linn High School in 1929), she kept everything – margarine tubs and plastic bags were her specialty.  The task was quite overwhelming for my Mom and the thought of doing the same is daunting for me!

My Dad didn’t really get rid of anything after my Mom died three years ago. However, several boxes or keepsakes and crafts ended up in my brother’s basement.  My Dad isn’t really a sentimental kind of guy.  Stuff means very little to him, but when he moved into a new, smaller place, shortly after my Mom’s death, he recreated her decorating style almost perfectly.  It was amazing – really!  This stuff was important to him, because it had been important to his wife, my Mom, for 49 and a half years.

Temporarily living in a 24-foot travel trailer in our driveway, his stuff was stored in our extra bedroom, garage, and basement.  We’ve enjoyed having my Dad “around” and sharing meals with us – but that living arrangement was not for the claustrophobic.  Last week he found a small place to rent – and I do mean small.  It is a15’x15′ studio house – one room, a tiny bathroom, and a very-small closet.

I asked my brother about the future and what will we do when my Dad dies?

Photo by stuart updegrave - http://www.flickr.com/people/supdegrave/

Photo by stuart updegrave - http://www.flickr.com/people/supdegrave/

Even before my brother and I began to unload the trailer, it was very apparent that all of this stuff was not going to fit. Oh, sure, we could get it all in, but there wouldn’t be any living room left over.  With the trailer only half unloaded, we were already putting things in the primitive carport.  It was obvious that my Dad was going to have to downsize – and we still had another trailer load (or two) at my house.  What to do?

On the 15 minute drive to go get more stuff, I asked my brother about the future and what will we do when my Dad dies?  In the middle of a move is not the time to decide what to keep and what to throw away – or sell.  And my frail, 74 year-old father was already exhausted, stressed, and on his last legs – literally.  I’ve never before seen him hunched over his cane like that.

150 years ago, people didn’t have this much stuff! My ancestors lived in one and two-room cabins.  My Dad was born in the two-room log cabin his grandfather built, after emigrating across the Oregon Trail.  In 1934 when my Dad was born, there was still no electricity, or running water in the house.  Most furniture, in the 1800s, was handmade and was easily discarded when it lost it’s usefulness.  Family heirlooms usually consisted of a single teacup, or a pocket watch.  Photographs and financial portfolios were unheard of.  They didn’t face these dilemmas.  And given that three generations often lived in one house, what little they had was easily passed on without having to “make it fit.

All five of my senses seem to be linked to my memories.

In my house, I now have six ten+ large plastic bins full of photographs that span the last 100 years of my paternal and maternal family. I have books, boxes of heirlooms, paintings, favorite pieces of furniture, and boxes of stuff.  I, being more nostalgic than my brother, have an emotional attachment to this stuff that makes it hard to discard.  But really, what am I going to do with six, mis-matched, antique, China tea-cups?  What would I do with a box of hand-embroidered pillow-cases that my maternal great-grandmother gave my Mom on her wedding day?  I dont’ have enough storage for my own eclectic collections from a life well-lived.

As I stand in the bedroom where half of my Dad’s stuff is still stored, I see remnants of a life that I want to hold onto. I have cherished my parents, my grandparents, and the stories of my ancestry.  I revel in being a fifth-generation Oregonian and the physical mementos let me touch the past.  It is a very real form of time travel for me.

Photo by Gary (gazzat) - http://www.flickr.com/people/gazzat/

Photo by Gary (gazzat) - http://www.flickr.com/people/gazzat/

All five of my senses seem to be linked to my memories. Whether it be a song from my past, a fragrance, or some tactile reminder, it is easy for me to travel back in time.  A taste of a comfort-food, or an old photograph, and my mind can leap into my childhood.  It is a gift, and a curse.

But the question remains, for how many generations can we continue to collect these analog reminders to our past? My solution (when I get around to it!), take photographs and store the memories digitally.

How do you handle the accumulation of family heirlooms, mementos, and stuff?  How will you deal with the disposal of those items, when the time comes?  When you look into the past, what do you see?  How will you let that explain your future?

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