After our parents are gone, we cannot ask them pertinent questions about where important papers are located, what funeral preferences exist, and other everyday questions, which earlier could have been easily answered by a simple phone call. How much broth goes into the dressing? What songs would you like to have at your funeral? Too late! Every person alive right now who has a parent who lived through and remembers such events as the Great Depression or World War II should take notice that your parents are of an age where one had better talk openly about any nagging questions, no matter how trivial they may seem. Otherwise, we are “condemned” to follow whatever paper trail the parents have left for us in places both expected and unexpected. That quest can take strange turns.
My parents could not be called true hoarders, but they DID live through the Depression, which left a great impact on them. They remembered World War II as if it were a recent event. When my family and I went through their things, we found that we could not just grab a box of clipped cartoons, or a tin of rubber bands, or even a stack of old Christmas cards and throw the entire thing into the trash. Invariably, there would be one little “nugget” in each pile of what had appeared to be nothing…a nugget we would have missed if we had not been careful and deliberate. Many times I found myself asking, “WHAT were you THINKING?” of my absent parents. Mama was a great seamstress, and left me the contents of her sewing room. I had three brothers, and I suppose she thought I would be more interested in those items than they would. I sorted through boxes and boxes of fabric, enough to totally outfit an entire cast of any movie set in the 1970’s…a LOT of double knit! I have patterns, thread, fabric, and buttons to last my lifetime and a couple more generations. Daddy was careful to keep “good” rubber bands in a big coffee can. Sure enough, after I had finally decided to throw them away, I actually NEEDED one!
Mama kept little clippings of quotations and favorite phrases, but she also kept the newspaper item showing when my youngest brother’s birthday appeared for the Selective Service draft, as the draft was still ongoing for our “Viet Nam experience.” Tucked away in the drawer of her sewing machine, she left it to remind herself (and now me) that whether or not he was drafted was an ever-present worry on her mind. Daddy had left notes in his handwriting in his Bible, whether they were ideas for his Sunday School class or notes from a sermon he had heard. One was entitled “Work,” and for every question in life, his answer was to work. He was always busy, and never seemed to take a vacation unless it corresponded with work or church responsibilities. My parents kept letters, postcards, and calendars with important names and birth dates indicated. These have proven to be great markers of important life events such as graduations, births, and even hospital visits. I found a tiny card that had been attached to flowers Daddy had sent on the day I was born. I have a Valentine he sent to Mama when they were both in second grade. These items are priceless, but are not considered valuable in monetary terms.
Another group of papers in the nightstand on my mother’s side of the bed shows how important war time had been to my parents. She had kept four war ration cards, one for each person in the family at that time…with some of the stamps for gasoline, sugar, and such still attached. (What were you thinking, Mom?) The notice on the ration cards said, “Do not throw this away. You may need it again someday.” My mother truly believed there might come a day in her lifetime when these ration cards would come in handy. Luckily, they were not needed. Another quote on the government-issued documents said, “Use it up. Wear it out. Make it do, or do without.” Do you know of any person who lives by this mantra today…in the “throw-away” society in which we live? I had to be meticulous going though their things, partly in search of something of value. I watch Antiques Roadshow, but still have not stumbled onto anything of monetary worth. But I also had to be careful, because once something is thrown out, it is GONE…and, like yesterday, it cannot be retrieved. Mama had a clipping in her pattern cabinet from an advice column dated before her own mother had passed away. The advice given was not to grieve for relatives who had died, but to enjoy the holidays and every day. I am happy I found that.
I saved the laundry room shelves for last. After all, what could possibly be up in those shelves other than cleaning solutions, light bulbs, and such? Finally, using a stool and getting on top of the dryer, I reached the top shelf. There was the Hopalong Cassidy lunch box which had been used and abused, and it even had a “replacement” handle made of a coat-hanger. (Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without?)I found cans of Singer sewing machine oil and an unopened box containing a bottle of white shoe polish. Maybe it was a little on the “antique” side, but it wouldn’t be worth much.
At last, at last, I reached for the final item. It appeared to be a shallow, sturdy box with the lid under the bottom so that it was open on top like a boxy tray. It was very light and felt empty. Then I saw that there was something inside. It was the leather-like back of what used to be a Bible, probably a small New Testament. The BACK of a Bible? Why keep that? Then I turned it over and saw, in my mother’s handwriting, a statement she had used raising all four of us kids. This was a statement we all THOUGHT she had invented. I was an adult before I realized it was actually in the Bible. It said, from Numbers 32:23 “BE SURE YOUR SINS WILL FIND YOU OUT.” As I was standing on top of the dryer, all I could say was, “WHERE ARE YOU? OK, I FOUND IT!”
Never take a day for granted. One day your own paper trail will be a quest for those who follow in your footsteps.