Last week two boxes of family artifacts arrived unceremoniously from my father’s wife. I had half been expecting something as my sister had called a few days earlier to say she’d received a package of Dad’s coffee mugs in the mail. We laughed at that. Neither of us had rated these cups on our respective lists of important memories. We both realized how beholden we were to a woman who, while sharing 27 years of our father’s history with us, did so with apprehension. It was she who now filtered our history for us. I was hoping my bar mitzvah photographs were included in the shipment. I valued these above all else my father held over the years. They had been number one on my list.
About 15 years ago I’d asked him for these images and he swiftly declined. His refusal was strong and immediate. On the one hand, I was glad Dad felt so strongly about keeping them. He could be sentimental, but mostly he shared those feelings with no one. But as he grew older and as we grew apart, more and more I felt the desire to gather and protect these aspects of our lives.
When I was 24 and my father married my stepmother he sold our house, the home I grew up in, without ever asking us if we wanted anything from it. Many of my own possessions, let alone things from our family, were thrown away or sold. I was afraid that might happen again.
My wife called me at work to tell me of the boxes’ arrival. I got home early in hopes that I might have some time alone to go through them before the children and chaos returned. When I saw that powder blue padded photo album I felt a sense of relief. I could now protect these memories.
I hadn’t seen these images in years. I remembered them but, seeing them before me now, I was able to view them filtered by recent events and recollections. And things had changed since my last viewing. I had my own family now. And I was older.
Even the most mundane photographs become important when enough time has passed. These images were almost 40 years old. Certainly each held critical importance to me. It was my coming of age and my family. Yet time might also elevate their interest to others as icons of a history growing more distant. Where these two interests intersected might prove fruitful ground for some art.
In addition, I had been focused recently on the rituals of our family, such as they were. I was primarily interested in our familial interactions. These photographs signified a great deal, simulacra, if you will, of relationships, illness, happiness and sadness. I was reading a lot into these pictures as I turned the pages of that album in solitude. The mixture of quiet and memory gave my emotions a chance to surface.
I looked further into the box to see what other feelings it held. There was an envelope with my name written on it in my stepmother’s handwriting. This was the extent of our communication. Inside was a runaway note and a will I had written when I was about 10. I suddenly laughed so loud it startled me, my reaction being so different from just moments before. I can’t remember the exact circumstances of these documents. I don’t think they were related to each other. I was glad my father chose to save them.
There was my mother’s birth certificate, my birth certificate, my parents’ marriage licence and even the receipt for its payment. There was my father’s teaching credential from the 1950s along with his first teaching contract (Dad had loved teaching but couldn’t make a living on what they paid so he went to work for Lockheed). I continued to dig through the boxes. A pocket watch. It looked old but whose was it and what memories did it hold?
The second box contained the tie my father wore at my wedding and a sweater he wore at a photography exhibition I had had in L.A. a few years ago. Did my stepmother know I attached meaning to these things? It’s hard to tell. The tie was one of many ambiguous ones she sent. Along side were various golf trophies, most in a state of disrepair. And, of course, some of his coffee mugs.