Many of us desire a connection to our family’s past, especially as we age and say goodbye to another generation. It brings us comfort and a feeling of belonging. It gives us clues to our identity.
For some of us, the draw begins early. I was always fascinated by my grandmother’s old photos. I loved snuggling up with her on the couch as she paged through her albums ticking off the names of the people in the black and white photos. Some had strange or funny names like Aunt Pansy and Aunt Faustie. I loved to look at their clothes – so formal by our standards. I always imagined I could see my likeness in their faces.
The photo albums are now mine and I treasure them just as much, if not more, than I did as a young girl. I started going through boxes in my parents’ garage just days after my mother’s death in 2003, looking for the photo albums. I was desperate for a glimpse of those people long gone – the people my mother now joined. I would cry each time I opened a box and unwrapped a framed picture of my mother as a child. My husband suggested I hold off for a while, that it was too soon – but I had to find those photos. I knew they would give me comfort.
I recently finished reading Objects of Our Affection: Uncovering My Family’s Past, One Chair, Pistol, and Pickle Fork at a Time by Lisa Tracy (Bantam Books, 2010). In the book, the author and her sister auction their mother’s china, antiques, collectibles and the like, ten years after her death. Each chapter covers a specific item, such as the “George Washington Chair,” and the history behind it, which makes for fascinating reading if you enjoy history as I do. However, the last part of the book was rich with personal thoughts – even a little regret. One thing she kept was her mother’s salt shaker – which still had salt in it:
“I stand staring at the salt petrified in its slender glass container. It touched her hands. She ate of it. It is a last, very concrete and yet so ephemeral thread connecting me to the woman who brought me into this world I now inhabit. Like magic, it will disappear if I wet it. The container will be clean and ready for new use.”
I was stunned. Because in my china cabinet sits my grandmother’s salt shaker – still full of salt. My husband tried to clean it a couple of weeks ago, but the cap was practically cemented shut with twenty-five year old salt. After reading Tracy’s book, I now see the beauty in it.
Last weekend my in-laws came for a visit. I showed my sister-in-law another book I’d just finished, Living With What You Love: Decorating With Family Photos, Cherished Heirlooms, and Collectibles by Monica Rich Kosann (Clarkson Potter, 2010). We were both so inspired that we spent all day Sunday hanging photos and artwork (with help from the guys) and I’m thrilled with the results!
One of my favorites is the “baby wall” we hung in the entry way. I love the idea of mixing the old with the new. We are, after all, creating new memories every day. I feel such a sense of warmth and belonging when I walk through the door now. Sometimes I catch my son Michael staring at the faces on the wall – and I wonder if he sees his likeness too…