Today I decided to clean the garage. Why on earth would I want to spend a Sunday doing that you might ask? I’ve been asking myself the same question for almost three years. And I found any number of answers that easily distracted me from the mission.
When I moved into my house it was a quick move, precipitated by an unexpected divorce. I had enough help that day to move the contents of my previous life into a new one in just forty five minutes. My helpers were directed to various destinations: kitchen, kid’s rooms, sun porch etc. Random boxes were dispatched to the garage where they were carted to the attic and stashed in corners. My intention was to get to them later. It is now later, much later, ten years later. My kids are mostly grown and out so it has begun to occur to me that at some point in the not too distant future I might want to move out of here.
So today was the day...time to begin looking inside those boxes to see if they contained anything I really want to move again.
The first box I dug into contained items belonging to my sister when she was in the gypsy acting phase of her life; letters, wine glasses, custard cups. Suppressing the urge to root through the letters which appeared to be from a long ago boyfriend, I set aside the box thinking that she would want to go through it herself and review the contents.
The next two boxes were assorted junk that belonged to my kids at one time. Old bubble solution, the caps crusted with soap, silly putty and water balloons. The water balloons took me back to a sticky hot summer day in July. It was one of the early years that my daughter played on her softball travel team. There was practice that day. I remember giggling like a kid as my daughters and I filled one hundred of those balloons and loaded them into a big igloo cooler. At the end of practice I lugged the cooler out to the field and my daughter told her team mates she had a cold treat for them. Those little girls all had cannons for arms and within ten minutes everyone was thoroughly soaked coaches and parents included. I dumped the balloons into a garbage bag and moved on.
The next box I opened turned out to be an unexpected surprise. It contained photographs. The mice had been into it I saw, leaving their mousey evidence, shredded paper, poop and bits of fur throughout the box. I looked at the top photo. I recognized it immediately. My dad had the photo framed and hanging on his office wall for years. It is a picture of his father’s football team, taken in 1900. The boys look to be twelve or thirteen years old and are all lined up for the photographer looking as tough as adolescent boys can look. And they were tough. No mouth guards or pads in 1900. My grandfather scowls in the lower right hand corner. Behind him another boy holds his dog; the dog looks pretty tough too. There are thirteen boys on the team. They played offense and defense both. No specialization for these guys, their leather helmets draped carelessly over an arm.
I leafed through more photos and realized I had uncovered the personal pictures that my grandparents had in their home. For a generation that had no phones with cameras, no video, and no digital their lives are remarkably well documented. The earliest photo is one taken of my grandfather and his father, William Francis. I don’t recall ever seeing this picture of my great grandfather with his only son. He must have been considered quite stylish with his handlebar mustache and carefully tied cravat.
There are pictures of my grandparents during their courtship in 1917. They married Christmas Eve of 1918, right before my grandfather left for World War I. There is a picture of him in his uniform, right before he shipped to France. One of the most revealing pictures is a faded photo of my grandmother, head thrown back laughing out loud. I never saw her do that. Ever.
There was my dad, as a baby, looking amazingly like himself. Plus a bit of a bonus, one taken of him when he must have been fifteen or sixteen looking rather rebellious and out of sorts.
There was one particular picture that I was looking for though as I looked down my family tree one by one. I had only seen pictures of her in old age. She lived into her 90’s, long enough to see me, her first great grandchild. She is a family legend, almost a myth. Her name was Ada Reece. And by all reports she was a crackerjack.
I looked at the woman in the picture. She looks to be between forty and fifty. She obviously knows who she is and doesn’t look like she cares to be crossed. But then, at seventeen she rode in a stage coach to Virginia City during the silver strike to meet her first husband who was mining there. When she arrived he wasn’t there. Dead? Bushwhacked as he worked his claim? Or did he simply desert her? She never knew. She returned home to Illinois where she met and married her second husband, my great grandfather William Francis. Being good Irish Catholics they applied for an annulment of her first marriage. A couple of kids later, the Pope said “No.” What does a 19th Century woman do when her marriage is declared illegal and her children bastards? If you are Grandma Ada, you say, “Screw ‘em” and cross the street to the Episcopal Church.
My dad tells stories of his prohibitionist Presbyterian mother going to check on Grandma Ada, to find her drinking tea and playing whist with her friends. What his mother didn’t know was that the teapot was full of Irish whiskey and the ladies were playing poker. She’d ask my dad to just “pour me a wee taste, Jerry” in her Irish lilt. As far as I know, my dad kept her secret.
When she was failing, and the doctor told her that she would not survive but a few days longer, she asked my grandfather to sit her up in a chair because “I will be damned if I will die in my sleep.” They don’t make them like that anymore.
Another photo of a baby caught my eye. It was labled Kaelin Christine, 1 year. That's of me. My grandfather kept it on his nightstand until he died.
Down near the bottom of the box I found a book bound in velvet. The cover appears to be pressed cardboard. The cover is hand painted with purple and pink flowers. “Forget Me Not” it says. Inside are pictures of unknown people. A photo of a middle aged Victorian dowager, a baby, bow in her hair sits prettily for her portrait. Who are they? The only clue is a newspaper picture of my grandmother, taken when she couldn’t have been more than eighteen, taken from the social page of the West Bend Iowa newspaper announcing her visit. Are the photos friends of hers? Family? There are no inscriptions on the back of the photos. The album is a fascinating look back in time. “Forget Me Not” it says. I wonder who they are.