“She figured she loved it for the reason we always love attics, for the reason they figure in our dreams: because they are the hidden rooms where we store our pasts.”
So says a character in Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House, the story of a turn-of-the-last-century estate whose attic plays a prominent role in a tale of family and fate, art and love, surprises and secrets.
I loved my grandparents’ attic. It was above the garage, behind the house that my grandfather had built in the early 1920s. It was large, it had windows to bring in light, and it was filled with their treasures and their junk.
Everything was saved in my grandparent’s day. They, like others of their generation who raised families during the Depression, saved everything and valued their possessions in ways we can barely fathom. I remember my sister and I riding the bikes, with big front baskets attached with leather straps, that had belonged to my mother and her sister. And the attic was filled, not with the bikes, but with things they thought they might use again.
Have I used anything that belonged to my grandparents? My mother gave me my grandmother’s china – not very old, but lovely, a set that my uncle had brought back from Japan after the war – when my kids were young. I cautioned my mother that with young kids I wasn’t about to use china that I had to handle with care, and I didn’t. The plates went into the dishwasher, which over the years, cleaned off the pattern along with the food. (I still have the set of twelve perfect cream soups because, somehow, my life is such that there was no occasion for setting a table with cream soup bowls.)
Have I treasured anything that belonged to my grandparents? I have a wooden candlestick, carved from a tree on my grandfather’s family farm outside of Stockholm, prominently displayed on a shelf in my living room. It’s sturdy and practical like my grandfather, who was a carpenter and a builder, and it reminds me of him.
I also have a delicate gold pin, a gift from my grandfather to my grandmother on birth of their first child. In some ways, the pin reminds me of my grandmother; it’s small and delicate and not ostentatious, a good description of her, a woman barely five feet tall. But in other ways jewelry is not like her, at least not how I saw her, a woman who was so practical that she dyed her wedding dress so she had a dress to wear to church, made all her food from scratch, and sewed so beautifully that she earned her living as a seamstress. Both candlestick and brooch are everyday items but for me they evoke powerful memories.
October is National Family History Month, a fitting time to get family members involved in talking about family history. I feel that I have honored my grandparents by looking through old family photos – prompted, of course, by this blog post – and seeing photos of their house I hadn’t seen in years, by remembering them through a few – just a few – favorite objects that belonged to them, and mostly by sharing stories about them here and with my family.
So here’s to looking though your attic – literally or figuratively – and finding ways to bring the past we’ve stored there into the present, to share family memories.
Below is a list of places, some we’ve mentioned before, that may help you and your family get involved in family history.
Family Tree Magazine
Minnkota Genealogical Society
Practical Archivist: Family Archivist Survival Kit
Adventures in Genealogy
≈Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home design, crafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.
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