Grams was a Dust Bowl/Depression kid in the Great Plains, so she knew not to waste. She was also the daughter of a seamstress, so making, remaking, and conserving were in her blood. Plus maybe a touch of the hoarding.
I was out of town for Gram's funeral. She was a materialist (and not just the quilting kind) and a realist, and, like my grandfather who died the year before, would have found a funeral to be an unnecessary fuss. Of course, we know that funerals are for the survivors, so since it wouldn't have resonated with me, and wouldn't have meant much to her, I didn't make it. That was the weekend I went to Chicago and had one of the best weekends of the past decade, and there's no question in my mind that she'd have rather had me go do that.
At my birthday party the following July, my sisters brought me a hat box full of Grandma stuff, cherry-picked from her crafting stash. I mistakenly called it, with all good humor and appreciation, a "box of random stuff" and was corrected that no, my sisters picked these things out for me intentionally. Which made it a gift not only of/from my grandmother, but also of/from my sisters. Any time you select something with me in mind, and make the effort of getting it into my hands, it's very special to me, be it a diamond ring or a wad of embroidery floss.
The party was in full swing, so after lightly looking through the bits and bobs in the hat box, I set it aside with my (increasingly out of control) crafting stash. It's been there since, visible and safe but not really explored, until last night.
Cleaning and organizing after a sewing project, I looked at the big round box and decided it was time to dig in and see what was really inside.
I have to start with the box itself. It looks like the sort of pressed paperboard affair you'd get at a big craft store, papered on the outside with copies of old hand-written letters. Americana at its finest. And that's what it is — except these old hand-written letters were put there by my grandmother herself, photocopied from her collection of our family's history.
She wasn't only a natural lodestone for history; she went out and did the research herself. As a kid, I remember a regular topic of conversation being what new things Grandma had discovered about our family. And really, most of it not even her family, but rather my grandfather's line, the one she'd married into. But it mattered to her not because it was her blood in the past, but because it was important to her blood in the future.
I don't know much else about the way-back of my family, but because of her work, I do know I have unbroken documentation back to the American Revolution, when a young Hessian soldier named Kasper, hired by the British, decided these Colonials were on to something, and defected. He changed his name, married an American girl, and settled in to family life in Tennessee.
Just like that, we became German.
Before Gram's research, we'd thought for generations that we were Scottish — the current form of my last name is Scottish. But a couple centuries of re- and mis-spellings back, our last name was about as German as it gets without umlauts.
The letters on the outside of this box are, as much as I can read them, mundane letters between family members — mundane until I take a moment to reflect that one of them is from 1881, and the original was in my grandmother's possession. I'm embarrassed to say that I'd never taken much interest in the research and documentation that she did, but I'm also happy to be able to say that she did it, we have it, and you can bet I'll be looking through all of it soon.
True to the labeling on the outside, the box mostly held embroidery floss and silk ribbon. I already have too much of the stuff myself, and none of it was especially precious. I set that aside and dug for better treasure.
Gramma did a lot of beadweaving, what she called "tatting" from the old lace-making practice she and her mother both enjoyed. Over the years, she'd given me pounds and pounds of her excess beads, especially when she got older and working with the tiny seed beads I love became increasingly difficult. In the box were not only a few small zipper bags of glass beads, but a couple small strips of worked netting and right-angle weave. There's no real indication where these pieces were going, so I don't know if they were projects that were forgotten, or maybe just bits of practice. In my beadweaving days, it wasn't unusual for me to aimlessly fiddle with bead and thread to practice, learn, or keep myself busy. I've never had to wonder where I got this tendency from, but holding those pieces in my hand was a solid reminder.
I found one of these unfinished objects, a long, light blue netted strip, in what I recognized as a box made from a greeting card. Reduce, reuse, remake, I told ya. As any crafter would, Gram had her share of specialty plastic storage, but I can't count how many small bundles of beads I got from her closed up in little boxes she made from Christmas and birthday cards she'd gotten. After fondling the silky netted strip (my love of the feel of woven glass beads continues!) I looked inside the boxlid and noticed handwriting in pencil. So I unfolded it:
Thank you very much for the picture and the lucky $2 bill. I will cherish it, carry it where I go, and never spend it. I wish I could explain how thankful I am, and how much I love you. I will tell my mom to take me to visit you, very soon. I love you!
This changed the timbre of everything I was doing.
Up to this point, I was really just organizing my stash, pushing things around, seeing how much of the stuff in this box I could actually use. Then, there in my hand was what in a hundred years someone would consider another mundane letter between family members — except that these family members span four generations, and they're my family, the family I know.
"Junior" is my nephew, although doesn't call himself Junior any more. He's Daniel now, and is in his 20s. He wrote this card as a young teenager, maybe a little before (there's no date anywhere on the card).
"G.G." is, of course, my grandmother, his great-grandmother: his mother's mother's mother.
I took a quick iPhone pic of the note and MMSed it to my sister. She messaged me a few minutes later, after she also sent the picture to Daniel. "He still has the $2," she told me.
Of course he does.
I asked my sister if she wanted the card, which seemed pretty obvious to me. We don't see each other often, although we only live about 20 miles apart. I offered to put it in the mail for her, which seemed to me the most efficient way to effect the transfer. She responded, "What are you doing for lunch Friday?"
• • •
Last week, I spent some time in Philadelphia, marveling at historical documents by people — families — who shaped that city, and ultimately the country, our culture. People I had never heard of, yet instinctively respected as I looked at the thin lines from their fountain pens.
My family has a record, too, written and unwritten, which shapes our country and culture: from a young soldier who followed his conscience, to a teenaged boy who unreservedly told his GG how much she meant to him.
The materials from Gram's stash box will get used. I learned enough from her to know that I shouldn't let anything go to waste.
And Friday, I'm having lunch with my sister for the very same reason.