Documenting the Past

“They really loved each other, didn’t they?” my sister Chris commented. We were looking at postcards that our grandparents had sent each other during the war.

Some of the postcards have a sepia photograph of a soldier in front of a picture of a child that had been partially colored in. Others are decorated with pictures of flowers and contain maudlin verses, and a couple of them have folded sections of handkerchiefs and were promoted by the post office as embroidered valentines. My grandmother saved the postcards she received. What is amazing is that my grandfather also saved his postcards from basic training in Manitoba, to the army base in Folkstone in southern England, to the front lines in France, to the hospital in Westcliffe, and back to Canada.

My grandparents moved many, many times – always seeking better opportunities for their family. By time my mother was 14 year old, her family had moved 13 times, sometimes to a better house or apartment, but other times to entirely new cities. Consequently, she had not been able to keep many mementos.

On her 14th birthday they decided to move once more – from California to Florida. In her memoir she wrote, “All we could take with us was packed on the running boards, which ran along each side of the car.” Somewhere along the plank road that crossed the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, the car had a flat tire and the boxes stored on the running boards were taken off to fix the tire. Evidently when they packed up again, the box containing her meager childhood possessions was left by the side of the road.

Even though my mother’s belongings did not survive the trip, amazingly the World War I postcards made it safely to Florida – and each subsequent move. They were among my grandmother’s possessions when she died, and my mother saved them. Today they are 84 years old.

Since she essentially had lost her childhood, my mother saved everything and became an excellent documenter of the minutiae of my and my sister’s growing up – information that would make a historian salivate.

In the box with the post cards I found a notebook page where my mother kept track of the payments to the doctor prior to my birth – $5 each month when she went for a check-up and $96.16 to the hospital on the day I was born. With it is a list of individuals who received my birth announcement, with notes about gifts that were received. Another list itemizes baby supplies purchased, including 1 gown for $1.03 and four dozen diapers (cloth of course) at $10.25. An interesting commentary on costs during World War II.

It is a weighty burden for someone who has always been of the “when it doubt, throw it out” school of thought. While I am grateful to pour over mementos of my mother’s and grandmother’s lives, somehow, it is hard to view the details of my life in the same way. Will my grand-daughter be grateful that remnants of my early life are available to peruse, or will she be exasperated that such trivia was kept?

For now I put everything back in the box. I’ll make that decision another time.

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