When she was my age, my grandmother wore long shapeless flowered garments that zipped up the front, called housedresses. While she was working at home during the day, she rolled her stockings down below her knees and secured them with fat blue elastic garters. Stockings came in twos back then, one for each leg.
My grandmother didn’t own a pair of jeans or athletic shoes. She wore heavy black thick-heeled lace-up shoes and (nearly always, it seemed) an apron. When she got
dressed up she wore a black coat and a black felt hat with a small brim. She kept it from blowing away by threading a hatpin through it, then through her hair.
After her five children were grown up and settled, they all chipped in one Mother’s Day and bought her a mink wrap. It was made of a half dozen whole pelts -- complete
mink skins strung together in sort of a semicircle. The minks had beady little glass eyes, sharp teeth and leathery ears and noses. Each set of minky teeth was
clamped tightly onto the tail of the animal in front as if they were circus elephants, lined up trunk-to-tail, ready for a parade.
Mink wraps offered wonderful diversions for small children during boring church services. If the lady in the pew in front of you was wearing one of those mink pelt parades, you could wag the little tails and wiggle the little feet and poke your fingers in the little eyes and stick pencils up the little noses.
But I digress.
The unsmiling tintyped couple are probably my relatives. They aren’t particularly attractive or even interesting-looking. I have no idea who they are or why they were preserved in the boxes of stuff that settled in my basement after my parents died. I’m an only child, so I got it all: the good, the bad, the junk, the odd, the ugly. Most of it was unlabeled.
I don’t know what to do with these people. Their dark, shapeless clothing is rumpled. The woman’s hair is parted in the middle and gathered unattractively in little
circlets over her ears, like hairy earphones. She has dark shadows under her eyes. He looks like he needs a shampoo and a shave. Badly.
Should I toss them? Should I keep them? Should I sell them on E-Bay? Should I pass them on to my children, who are yet one more generation removed from knowing who they were?
There is a lesson here. If you have family photos and memorabilia, for God’s sake, label everything you can. Write down the names of the people you know and a short description of where they hang on the family tree, i.e. “The lady with the oversized shoulder pads and the bad complexion is Aunt Fritzie. She was Dad’s mother’s brother’s oldest daughter. Married to Grover, who died young. Fritzie remarried a traveling salesman named Big Al and moved to Walla Walla.”
From that same box of my parents’ treasured belongings, I uncovered an 8mm movie projector and several reels of film labeled simply, “1938.”
I had it transferred to DVD, even though I hadn’t the foggiest idea what it might be. To my surprise, I now own a conglomeration of jumpy, grainy, faded movies taken at
my parents’ wedding. I typed up a commentary for the whole string of scenes, naming all the people I was sure of,the places I could identify and every bit of family history I could recall.
Some day, my children will call this priceless. Maybe my grandchildren will, too.