Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Why We Save What We Save

Last night my aunt called. She wanted to tell me she has decided: she’s selling her house and moving into an apartment in a retirement village.

“I’m having a man come over to look at the things in the basement tomorrow.”

The basement. I let that thought sink in. That’s where my grandmother’s trunk is stored—that mysterious box that keeps all the old family photos and mementos. Like the native-handwork blouses my grandfather sent from Guatemala, where he worked for the railroad. That book my mother used to tell me about—the one my great-grandfather’s childhood friend wrote sometime after attending college—it’s supposed to be in there, too.

Not the basement, I thought. My mind was in a blur with the sudden news. Why did she want to do that? Why the rush?

She brushed past my audacious incredulity: Because I’m getting old. She spoke the words slowly, with equal emphasis on each syllable, as if pounding the thought into the ears of someone hard of hearing.

True, she will be turning eighty six this month. But what’s that? Only a number, if your health is holding out. This is the woman who, if you drove down the streets of her neighborhood while she was out for a jog, you might at first glance mistake for a teenager. In such a case, this is too soon to consolidate possessions and downsize to more restrictive living quarters.

It’s the downsizing that has me worried, frankly. When some people latch on to that “de-clutter” mode, there is no stopping them. I hate to think what treasures may be re-imagined as trash.

Yet, we all have to face reality. There is no room for excess stuff. Some things simply must go. While I sympathize, I shudder to think how quickly personal and family history can be vaporized in the flash of a decision.

I see so many reminders of this pressure to face such decisions: what to keep, what to toss. After all, my husband’s aunt just celebrated ninety, herself. Yet, she has found peace in the triage process of sorting memories. The more she has decided to give away, the more she seems to gain, for every keepsake comes with a story and a memory. When the item is given away, the story gets shared, a bond is forged between storyteller and recipient, and insures the memory is perpetuated.

It was thanks to this second aunt’s tenacious saving-then-releasing that I received the collection of family memories I’ve been mulling over for the past year—the personal papers once kept by Agnes Tully Stevens. True, within that pile of papers, there have been wonderful discoveries. Yet now I’m coming to the dregs of the pile—and facing that postponed decision: what to keep, what to toss?

The process of deciding what to save can probably take as many different routes as the people deciding and the items being considered.

I can’t really say what makes a person decide to save something. Take some of the items I’ve yet to discuss of Agnes Tully Stevens’ papers: a curled lock of blonde hair pinned to a paper labeled, “Uncle Neddy’s hair.” Who is Uncle Neddy? Why did Agnes save that?

Or a sadly-worn cabinet card further embellished with a child’s scribble and labeled, barely visibly, “Uncle Will.” I can hardly discern which William this might mean.

Or this company newsletter from The Commonwealth Edison Company: why it remained in Agnes’ personal papers, I cannot fathom. Was it for the picture on the front page of the cast of “Electricity Conquers the World,” complete with arrow pointing at the head of the woman at the far right? A check mark next to the cast member’s name—Martha Gubbins—yields me no clue. I have no such name in this family tree.

Could it be for the mention of the concert on page two, no doubt to be sponsored by the Company, featuring a talented soprano and hundred-member choral society? There is no family name listed there, though a handwritten mark flags the column.

Might it be that one of the two employees eulogized in the issue were relatives? Again, though I found death certificates listing parents’ names for each of these young men suffering such untimely loss, I cannot find any reason why the paper was saved for all these years.

Maybe, a year from now, I’ll stumble upon a hint that lights up the reason why Agnes Tully Stevens chose to save such a paper as this.

Or not.

In the meantime, I’ll note what I can—especially keeping in mind that I now take my own place in the chain reaction that converts recipient into medium of passage—and then choose to save. Or toss.

For whatever reason I take the stand to become the next decision-maker—the judge of what stays and what doesn’t—it will be as circumspectly as can possibly be accepted, for the task of  determining the “why” of what we keep is an awesome one. I—and each one assuming this same position—become the weak link in a chain of personal history that determines what the future generations may receive.

To sift through.

To decide.

To pass up.

Or pass along.


  1. Martha Gubbins meant something to someone. Her name appears fairly frequently in the Suburbanite Economist.

    1. That's interesting that she had so many mentions in that neighborhood paper for a city the size of Chicago. I'll have to take a look. Maybe she was active as an amateur in other local performances.

  2. I hope your aunt was offering you first crack at that basement!

    1. Wendy, the situation is being monitored closely ;)

  3. I hope that trunk finds it way to your place!!

    Martha W Gubbins (b. abt 1897), daughter of Robert B. Gubbins worked as a cashier for an electrical company (surprise!) She later marries W. L. Britt and moves to Delavan, Wisconsin.

    They lived a couple blocks from the Tully-Stevens "ranch" on Garfield. Robert Gubbin and his wife's parents were both from Ireland.

    1. Ah, then this must be a case of neighbors and friends. Very close friends, considering the near-one-hundred years this paper has been saved. Wonder what Agnes had in mind...

      Thanks for the find, Iggy, and for the well-wishes concerning the truck. I may well have to rent a covered wagon ;)

  4. Well at least you heard about it before it happened! Too often we learn that they were sorting way after the fact and much too late to save some things. About eight years after my grandmother died I received a call from someone wanting to know if I wanted her boxes of "stuff". Grandma lived in a different state and ten boxes had been floating from one person to the next, trying to find someone that was willing to sift through the papers and memorabilia and someone that would see value in what they held. I was only too glad to be that someone.

    1. Yes, I guess I should consider myself fortunate. That's amazing that your grandmother's boxes survived intact for all those years. I wish there was an official way that we could have ourselves declared the go-to family archivists for our own families. Just end the doubt and and cut to the chase: "I want all your papers!"

  5. It's now Wednesday as I'm writing this comment. I hope you are at your aunt's home helping to sort through the contents of her basement before anything is thrown away.

    1. I wish, Jana! That's a once-a-year kind of trip for us. Guess where we just went this past August?! We've got lots of long distance communication going on, though. Of course, it's not just about the trunk--so much more to consider. But if I ever coveted anything...


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...