Finding My Way in My Grandparents’ Attic

attic 4A

“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 designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Emptying a Family Home: A Wellspring of Emotion

Memories of 9822 

Last month, the New York Times ran a wonderful eight-day series in their Opinionator column, titled “The Task.”

Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist, former Times columnist–and a supremely graceful and sensitive writer–is the author of the series. In it she describes in great detail, with honesty and candor, the deeply emotional and difficult process of dismantling her parents’ home after the death of her father. Step by step she walks her readers through the myriad decisions that needed to be made as she and her brother went through mountains of accumulated “stuff”—54 file drawers in her father’s office alone!  Along the way she explains and indeed shows just how and why these decisions are not so easy to make, and shares the memories and emotions—some beautiful and poignant, some painful—evoked in the process.

Almost as interesting as the posts themselves are the comments published in response to the series, and the conversations it has engendered. So far, more than 800 readers have responded. The vast majority of them express sympathy and solidarity with what Judson was going through; a few advised her to just pitch everything into a dumpster; others warned her not to throw things out too quickly, and some gave helpful suggestions about what to do with some of the things. Quite a few vowed not to leave their children with such a task. Most simply shared their own similar experiences, memories of childhood homes (several very interesting comments recount the prominent role of childhood homes in dreams), dread of going through this process themselves one day, or appreciation of the rewarding discoveries that come along with the drudgery.

Quite a few readers said they were moved to tears while reading Judson’s essays. For me one of the most moving comments was one in which the respondent confessed he had found himself crying as he read, adding “No idea why.”

What was very clear to me in reading this series was that no matter how much we might wish that the process of emptying a beloved home of everything in it could be straightforward and rational, a logistical task that simply requires organizing and executing the transfer of objects from one place to another (or rather, others), it is anything but either simple or straightforward. It is complex and deeply emotional, and for many of us it is heartbreaking in ways we can hardly fathom.

In the final essay Judson tells how she follows the advice of a friend to choose a “memory stone” to help her through the final goodbye to her childhood home. I won’t attempt to retell the story for her: you can read the entire series here, and I recommend that you do read it, essay by essay, in order.

It’s a wonderful tribute to both the beauty and the pain of what one of my favorite poets, James A. Emanuel, referred to as “this load that makes us human.”  And though each of us has to find our own way of saying goodbye to the past, in listening to the stories of how others have done it we can find helpful guidance, and the comforting knowledge that we are not alone.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor,  writing coachtravel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

The Things My Dad Left

When my father moved from the house he had lived in for 50 years, my childhood home, to an apartment, my siblings and I took on the task of sorting through and distributing family mementos and household items.

We felt we had been fairly successful at divvying up things among family members without too much animosity. We sold, donated, gave away, and threw out what we didn’t want or couldn’t use. My father made the transition to apartment living nicely and I cowrote a book about the experience: Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Several years later, my father moved from that apartment to a smaller place in a senior housing facility. So, as the daughter who lived closest, I once again sorted through family stuff. I thought that I didn’t want to do that again.

But as I looked through my father’s high school and college yearbooks, read family letters from relatives long gone, found my parents’ baptismal certificates, gave some of my mother’s favorite serving dishes to my daughter, and pored over album after album of family photographs, I felt a sense of poignancy, a certain satisfaction, of course, and most of all joy. It was a privilege to be a part of that life, a life my parents shared through 52 years of marriage – a privilege not everyone gets, and one that I was grateful for.

This time I brought home too many things I couldn’t part with and over these last few years have lamented about what to do with them.

My father died in January at the age of 92.

Some of the things my father left to us helped me write his obituary. The file of business letters lists the numerous awards he received for being top salesman. His university pennant and fraternity paddle speak of the pride he felt in his alma mater. His puttees and a photo of him in uniform tell of his patriotism. Notices from charities recount his great generosity. And tributes from church declare his faith and stewardship.

But what my father really left to us didn’t come from the stuff he left behind but rather from who he was. He adored my mother and took great care of her. As my brother said: Of all the jobs he had, being a husband was the one he did best. Whether people knew him a long time or had just met him, they always remarked about how nice he was. “He’s such a nice man” is what his children always heard from people.

And, best of all, I see his intelligence and work ethic, his kindness and sense of humor, in my children. What a legacy he has passed on.

This will be my first Father’s Day without my father. I wish a happy and healthy and joyous day to all the dads out there. Cherish the time with your family.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home design, crafts, and foodand coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Keeping the Memories, Getting Rid of the Stuff

“But that’s the chair that Grandma used to love to sit in…”

“That piano is the one Mom learned to play on…”

“How can you give that chest away? It’s been in the family forever…”

These are the kinds of statements that can lead to getting-rid-of-stuff paralysis, a common affliction that occurs when families have to disperse the things in a home that has held many happy memories.

But a surprisingly simple strategy can help break the impasse: that is, recognizing that it is the memories that are important, not the chairs, the pianos, the chest of drawers.

In many cases, pieces of furniture can be passed from generation to generation: loved, enjoyed, treasured. And in such cases they can indeed help keep memories of loved ones who are no longer with us.

But in other cases, the furniture (or whatever) has become a burden. There’s not room for it. It doesn’t fit the lives, or the apartments, of those who have been burdened with it. And now the memories are becoming part of the burden too.

In such cases, isn’t it better to acknowledge the importance of the memories? And to assure that they will endure, by telling them to the next generation? Or better yet, writing them down?

And then to get rid of the burden, by selling the furniture, or giving it away?

Often, families get caught at the first stage of this process: grief or longing for times gone by, the desire to acknowledge how good those times were, and how much they meant to us.

If we can just take the time to look each other in the eyes at such moments and say, for example, “Yes. I remember Grandma sitting in that chair too. In fact, I have a picture of her in that chair that I think you’ll really like.”  (Instead of “You’re being ridiculous. We can’t keep all this stuff!”)

That could help to safeguard the memories, as well as the tender feelings that go with them.

And it might help us get to the next stage in the process also: of getting rid of some big, unwieldy stuff that has outlived its purpose in the family. Instead of spiraling down into bickering and sadness.

With an extra ounce of understanding and compassion for each other, this can happen! Yes, it can!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor,  writing coach travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Five Key Questions to Ask Before You Begin Emptying the House

Whether you are downsizing your own home or you are in charge of the process for someone else, answering a few key questions before you begin dispensing with objects can help the process go more smoothly.

1. Has everyone in the family been consulted, and informed that the process of emptying the house is about to begin?

2. Is there a family plan for how to go about this process? Has everyone agreed to it?

3. Is there a date set for when the process will begin? Is it clear to everyone who will be involved?

4. Has there been a discussion about how to handle any disagreements or disputes that may arise in the process?

5. Have we dealt with any disagreements about any of the above as well as we can? If we are not all in agreement, is there at least agreement that the process should begin?

Depending on the situation, you may have to proceed without having ideal answers to all of these questions. But if you’ve done your best to inform everyone of what’s happening, and have attempted to gain cooperation among all involved parties, you will have done all you can to promote family harmony in what can be a difficult time. You should give yourself credit for that–and so should everyone else!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor,  writing coach travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

The Power of Photographs

A birth certificate shows you were born.
A death certificate shows you have died.
A photo album shows you have lived.

Whoever said that understands the power of photographs.

We all keep photos. Some of us even organize them into photo albums or share them online. But we often forget the impact photos can have on our lives.

For an aunt’s birthday gift, my husband scanned old family negatives too fragile to print conventionally and printed out an assortment of them. We created a collage of photos of our aunt as a teenager, as a young adult, and with her very young children. We honored her 90 years of life with photos.

Before my Dad’s 90th birthday, we drove to Brooklyn where my husband photographed the house where my father grew up. We also photographed a photo of his father’s business stationery that had appeared on a History Channel show about the Crash of 1929. We framed both photos very simply. They are a memorable keepsake of his family history – and a gift that he adored.

Now it’s time for another birthday celebration. Happy 92nd Birthday, Dad! On the way to you are recent photographs of you and the extended family at dinner last Friday night. Here’s to many more photographable occasions.


Five Tips for Minimizing Stress and Maximizing Joy

Here are some of the lessons we learned, both through our own experience, and by talking with the people who interviewed for our book, Moving On.

1. Remember who’s in charge. Whenever possible, the people who are making the move should be the ones also making the decisions if that is their desire. Helpers, whether they are professionals or family members, should always keep in mind that there can be a fine line between offering help that is truly helpful, and simply being a nuisance.

2. Take your time. This is the one piece of advice we heard over and over again, from professionals as well as those who had been through the experience of downsizing a family home. Starting early means you’ll have plenty of time to talk things over as a family (for those who want to); plan ahead; and have some fun along the way. It also gives you the advantage of being able to back away from difficult decisions and approach them again later, which can be very helpful in defusing situations in which family harmony threatens to fall apart.

3. Communicate. Consider scheduling a family meeting—or at least a conference call or video chat—before you start actually getting rid of things. Be sure to discuss not only who will get what but who will do what. How can family members and others be helpful in this process? Who will do what, and when will they do it? Try to remember that this process is difficult for many people, and that no two people feel exactly the same way about it. Have respect for your individual differences, and sympathy for the feelings of others.

4. Get help. Downsizing a home can be daunting physically as well as emotionally. No one can do it alone, and no one should try. Enlist the help of family, friends, and professionals to help you with the biggest parts of the job. But don’t be afraid to let people know if you’re not yet ready for help, or if there are certain tasks you’d rather do by yourself, and privately.

5. Have fun! This can be a great time for capturing family stories, celebrating with friends and family one last time in a home you’ve loved, and sharing memories. Leave room in the schedule to have some fun along the way, so that when you close the door for the last time, you’ll carry some recent happy memories along with you to your new home.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food. Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor,  writing coach  and travel blogger. They are the coauthors of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

October is Family History Month

October is fast approaching and I’ve been thinking about how I want to honor Family History Month.

Maybe I haven’t made any specific plans because the idea of researching family history is just too large a task, too daunting a project. Instead I’ll revel in the times that bringing our family history to life just happened serendipitously.

A school assignment years ago to create a family tree (now more accommodatingly called a family constellation to allow for the many variations in family configurations) brought up questions that sent us hastening to our best resource: the grandparents. With their help the tree started to take shape. Layers of time floated around us as we moved back and forth among the generations filling in names and dates and adding photos.

We learned some serious facts of life: that more people died at a younger age years ago. And we learned fun things: that our ancestors had some “interesting” names we were glad had not been passed along to us.

Sorting through papers while emptying my family home, I found my grandmother’s early writing where she admitted to feeling a bit like a country mouse when she was being courted by her soon-to-be husband. Really? We thought of her as an urban, sophisticated person who had married the son of recent immigrants. She went from her rural beginnings (New York City’s boroughs did have farms at the beginning of the last century) to become, due to early widowhood, a polished working woman supporting two children.

We learned that birth certificates detailing dates and places tell one story but that diary entries can tell quite another.

Another school assignment was to interview someone who had come to America from another country. Choosing to talk with an aunt who had emigrated from Romania at the age of 12, one of my kids eagerly formulated questions important to a child: What toys did you play with? Where did you go to school? What chores did you do?

We learned that in a hardscrabble life in Eastern Europe at that time a doll was two sticks tied together and covered with a ragged piece of cloth. We learned that immigrants can be the most determined, hardest-working group in America. We also came to see what gratitude for a wonderful life in America looks like.

A high school assignment to interview someone who had lived through most of the twentieth century led one of my kids to discover that my father as a very young child had gone to Prospect Park with his father to welcome Charles Lindbergh back to the United States after his solo flight to Paris. We found out that my father can remember the very spot he was standing when he heard that Pearl Harbor was bombed. We now know he was in the stands in Ebbets Field the first time Jackie Robinson played there.

We learned that history is not just events and dates but that real people are participants in and witnesses to it. We will never again see Lindbergh’s flight, Pearl Harbor, or the Brooklyn Dodgers in quite the same way.

When I discovered that my father’s father was born just blocks (or one neighborhood) away from where we live, we took my father to the very street corner to photograph him in front of the building. What had been a part of the city that was home to recent immigrants at the turn of the last century is now a gentrified neighborhood sought out by young sophisticates, so much so that my daughter said she couldn’t believe her great grandfather was born in such a nice building (well, an older building that had been nicely renovated).

We saw the sociology of urban planning come alive: We learned that neighborhoods change as individual families as well as groups of people move on, leaving the neighborhood to newcomers who create a new community.

What opportunities we were handed to investigate our family history – in bits and pieces, in ways that fit naturally into our lives – and to share the stories, some that were new to us and some that we had heard many times before.

We learned not to underestimate the significance of sharing our family history, of sharing our family stories. That stories are more important than any object left to us. They are the memories that we will hold onto, the memories that will stay in our hearts for all time.


Somewhere in Brooklyn

It’s been said that one in four people in the United States can trace their family roots back to Brooklyn. So perhaps you or someone you know can help out the Brooklyn Museum.

According to an article in The New York Times (second story in the article), the Brooklyn Museum is posting images of Brooklyn taken in the late 1800s – streetscapes, family groups, house interiors – and asking for help in identifying where in Brooklyn they were taken.

The goal is to get as many images as possible identified before they are posted on Historypin, a site that explores history through photographs. On this site a reader will be able to find photos by topic, location, or date, and can even compare how a location looks today with the way it looked years ago.

Perhaps the museum’s quest to identify their photos will inspire you to label your own photos in the same way. Here are some suggestions to help you do that.

For prints:

–       Use a soft #2 pencil and write softly to avoid damaging the photo.

–       Include as much information as you can: names, dates, location, type of event, and anything else of significance.

–       Be as specific as possible. Rather than – or in addition to – Grandma and Grandpa, use their first and last names. Include the names of your children’s playmates or your cousin’s children who are in the photo with your child.

–       Include dates and events: Family picnic, vacation in New Hampshire, Grandpa Jack’s 70th birthday party, or even “somewhere in Brooklyn” helps when the photos are viewed by future generations.

For digital photos:

–       Make a folder for each event.

–       Be specific with the folder title, including date and event.

–       Label each photo with people’s full names.

–       Every year – or more often if you have lots of photos – create a CD for each of your children labeled with the child’s name and the year the photos were taken.

Photographs bring generations together; they are a record of what we are doing today and allow us a to peak into our past. Labeling your photos can help keep the connections going.


Might As Well Laugh…

For a while when we were searching for a title for our book I thought it should be called “Help for the Worst Days of Your Life.” (Fortunately, sounder minds prevailed, and it became Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.)

The thing is, for most people there are plenty of moments when the overwhelming job of emptying out a family home, especially one that has been lived in for many years, can feel like the worst days of your life (if, that is, you are lucky enough to have escaped other even worst fates, such as serious illness, or war).

BUT. There are also moments of comic relief from time to time, and somehow knowing that other people have felt just as overwhelmed as you and your family have felt can be oddly comforting (not to mention occasionally laugh-out-loud funny).

That’s why I’m hoping we can pool a collection of stories about funny moments in downsizing the family home, to share with others.

I remember one of the people I interviewed for the book telling me that after ALL the boxes in the house were packed and sealed, and just before the movers were supposed to arrive, her Dad suddenly realized that he didn’t know where his keys to the new house were. After some retracing of steps, and frantic remembering of when he had last had them, he realized that the sad probability was that somehow the keys had been packed into one of the boxes in the kitchen.

After a discouraging, and unfruitful search through many of the boxes, the keys were discovered in the kitchen, all right–in the refrigerator!

Go figure.

One of the funniest things that happened in our family had to do with the fate of a sampler of a Model T Ford that my mother had cross-stitched and framed. My brother-in-law, who grew up with very few possessions, had been very helpful as we were going through all the things in our Dad’s house before it was sold. We kept telling him he should take something he would like, something to remember our parents by, and he kept saying there wasn’t really anything he wanted. Finally, looking at the sampler of the Model T, he said, “Well, maybe I would like that.”  So we set it aside in what we thought was a safe corner of the living room for him.

The next day, in an almost unbelievably unlucky move, my brother, who was moving out of the way to let someone pass by him, stepped back and suddenly we all heard that disheartening sound of crunching glass–under his foot!

You guessed it. It was the sampler of the Model T–salvageable yes, but not nearly as nice as it had been the day before, and now needing work before it could be enjoyed.

I’ve never heard my brother-in-law hoot in just exactly the same kind of way either before or since.

Those are two of the most evocative stories I know of–not really laugh-out-loud funny, but certainly funny enough to bring about a rueful smile and a feeling of recognition for those who are out there right now in Downsizing Land, tripping over boxes, losing keys, smashing the frames of pictures that have just been given to long-suffering brothers-in-law who asked for only one little thing, and that was it.

What stories do YOU have to share with those people who need cheering up right about now? We’re offering a free copy of our book to the person who provides the story that makes us laugh the hardest.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor,  writing coach travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

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