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Family artifacts are tiny time machines

Posted April 26

Time is a funny thing.

It can slip away and move you like a current if you’re not paying attention. One day you look around, and all of a sudden you’re standing in a different decade. The changes are so subtle you hardly realize what’s happening, and then somehow a picture of a stranger from high school shows up on your phone and you realize that stranger is you.

Sometimes I wonder if it really is me. Sometimes I feel I am an incarnation of different decades — me as a kid, me in high school, me before kids, me with a baby. Sometimes the fabric of those decades wrinkles, and the present me brushes against the ghost of me from decades ago, and I am stunned.

I think researching my family history is one of those channels that reaches through time and brings me face to face with my past — even if it is a past that belongs to a distant relative, it is part of my history.

About a year ago, my parents left the country. On their way out, they shipped me 17 boxes of their most precious belongings — items they didn’t want to leave behind to the hazards of long-term storage. The boxes are filled with journals, photos and notebooks, and I thought it would be interesting to peruse the boxes, with my parents’ permission.

There is a price to pay for saving the kinds of relics that can reach through time. Paper yellows, bindings break and photographs peel, until a box of memories is filled with the kind of dust that creeps up your nose until you wish you were wearing gloves and a mask as you sneeze your head off. It’s cumbersome, transporting boxes around. The postal worker in my neighborhood had to carry bunches of those boxes up to my doorstep with at least five different deliveries.

Then there is the fact that if you have something to hold, you have to find a place for it to live. The 17 boxes in my care are stacked against the back wall of my garage. They’re turned so the labels are facing out: 1970s journal, 1930 Gretchen’s parents, Charlemagne, etc.

I opened a couple of boxes a week or so ago, unsure of what I would find. In the first box, there was a set of very old journals, an accordion folder with legal documents, a few copies of National Geographic from 1979 and a handful of old paperback novels — including one from the Playboy press.

Interesting.

I tried to read through some of the old journals, dated from 1929, but I had no idea who authored the books, and I learned a very important lesson: Write your name in your journal, because less than 100 years later, someone might find that carefully recorded document and have no idea whose tale it is telling.

I opened a second box that was supposed to contain my father’s journals from before I was born, but again, I was surprised. There were some photo albums and another folder in this box, and a couple more paperbacks. I opened the folder and found Christmas cards sent to my parents from the early '90s. Some of the cards had letters in them, but many were only signed with a name. I learned another lesson: Write a personal note when sending a card; otherwise, less than 30 years later, it’s just paper.

I did find a treasure in this box. Among the empty Christmas cards, I found a stack of letters my grandmother Lenore mailed my family for years. We only lived an hour or two away from her, but she wrote us religiously. She wrote to my mother about the Christmas presents she was picking out for us. She wrote to me when I was too young to read. She told me she heard I had new yellow overalls, and she asked if I liked them.

I didn’t know she wrote those letters. Or maybe I knew and I forgot. But reading her words and inspecting her handwriting pulled me through time to look back and see her differently. I cried.

There was another treasure in that box, hidden in the back of a very old, partly faded envelope with tiny Polaroid photos: a picture of my mother — in a bikini.

My mother never allowed us to be so scantily clad, and I could not believe she had once been so daring. She must have been 23, with a chic headscarf and oversized sunglasses that hid everything but her nose and lips. She had palm trees and a beach behind her. It was so romantic, so surprising.

Of course my mother denies that the picture is of her. She never had sunglasses like that, she says, but I’m unconvinced. Time can be a funny thing. It can sweep you into another decade before you even know it. Then, when you peer at that old picture of yourself from a lifetime ago, you realize it was never you at all. It was always just a stranger.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother Fleeta.

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