It was 39 degrees, windy, and cloudy as we pull the skeleton key out from under the linoleum tile that covers the old dresser on the back porch. We wiggle it in the lock, push open the door and enter a kitchen that was added to the house in 1883. (The original house was built in 1867.)
We have entered the family farm house in southern Iowa. It is colder inside than out since my cousin had not been able to light the gas stove sitting in the corner of the kitchen. We are here with a couple other cousins to clean out the junk that has been here since the beginning of time, which for this house is 150 years.
No one has lived in the house since 2002 when my Aunt Inez passed away. She was the last of my mothers siblings to live in the house but the house remained furnished and ready for use all these years. About a year ago a few of us began to clear out items of emotional value. We sorted, took pictures and asked the larger family what pieces they might like to have. Dressers went, some dishes went, a few old, old items from the attic left each time we had a farm meeting. Slowly we were providing new homes for very old family things.
This trip was about the stuff – the old junk that no ones wants. The sticky Tupperware, chipped drinking glasses, old knives, rusty tools, lots and lots of plastic flowers and vases were left behind for us to throw. We made quick work of what was left in the kitchen and then with frozen fingers climbed to the second floor. I continued on up to the top attic and began to hand down the vases, Christmas decorations, text books belonging to my Grandfather and Aunts. Foot warmers, tin cans that at one time held paint but had been cleaned and saved in case they might be needed were also there. The list goes on and on. I watched for mouse dropping although in honesty they were mainly in the second floor attic. The top attic really only had bird skeletons.
Most of this stuff I passed down the narrow steps with a laugh and a shake of my head. So much stuff saved over so many years. As I worked around the attic I came to a row of heavy winter quilts draped over a support beam. I pulled them down and realized I was holding blankets that my Great Grand parents, my Grandparents and my Mother plus aunts and uncles had all slept under. They were not in the best of shape but to realize these squares had been hand sewn by my distant family was startling. They had been tied and knotted and used on the beds still in the rooms below me and to cover families legs on the horse drawn carriage during the cold Iowa winters.
My eyes began to tear and I found myself choked up. I stood marveling at the history I held in my hands. The cousins below me called up to see if I was ok as I was not handing things down and it was clear I was struggling with something, I quickly assured them it was just the dust getting to my lungs but I was fine. I had mixed emotions about tearing up old woolen quilts. Who wants these and yet I couldn’t quite let them go. I just stood holding them as my history slipped into my hands.
I finally, slowly handed down six or seven of these heavy quilts. Why the mice had not gotten to them I do not know but I continued on my journey of looking in trunks and boxes and handing them down the steps. I was nearing the end and had handed down a beautiful black bowler hat in perfect condition, at least 5 boxes of Christmas plastic Ivy and 6 to 8 antique suitcases when I found a grain bag laying on the floor.
This burlap bag was not sealed in any way and so I peered in but in the dark of the attic it was hard to see. I walked over to the small window facing the front of the house and reached in to pull out what looked like yarn skeins. My hands had on my black stretch gloves to keep them a bit warm so I was not able to feel the texture to the item I had picked up. Once out of the bag I knew immediately that I was holding my Grand Grandmother’s hair. Also maybe hair of my Great Aunts. It was a blondie grey in color and twisted into perfect pony tails.
I knew that my family had made a hair wreath and framed it years ago. It now hangs in the Swedish Museum across the street. I did not know that they had kept a large bag full of hair up in the attic. At this point I was not sure it I was grossed out or emotional overwhelmed with the fact that I could literally touch my distant relatives.
This item I brought down the steps myself to share with the two husbands and cousins who were joking, sorting and hanging out on the second floor bedrooms. They also stopped short to just stare. Amazing what my family had chosen to save over the last 150 years.
We slowly worked at recovering from this exploration into the family history of things, the customs and traditions of our family stored in the attic over all these years. Our lungs full of mold, dust and whatever comes off of mouse dropping and dead birds we staggered out into the rainy cold afternoon.
Lots of items went into bags and on to the back of a rusted out old pick up truck to be gotten rid of. Other items now sit sorted out on the bedrooms to be taken to junk shops, Value Village or who ever else we can find that might use these items of long ago.
The heavy old quilts, the black bowler hat and an antique woman’s vibrating machine ( I am not even going to begin to explain that one) was left in the back bedroom. We couldn’t let go of them but didn’t know what to do with them. So they will stay there until next spring when the world thaws out, the rock garden in the side yard begins to bloom and we can once again think about what to do with all this history.
I walked away with a small slate board that my grandfather must has used in elementary school, a fourth grade reading that belonged to one of my aunts ( copyright 1911) and more memories and emotions I am not sure what to do with. I am not an overly sentimental person but it is a wonder to hold your family history in your hands, to feel the labor of past in the stitches of blankets, to hold the worn and beat up slate board and to read the passages my family has read before.
History that is personal stirs up so many thoughts – the past lives of family, our current lives and the future. What will my kids and maybe grandkids think as they go through our things?
What things do we save? We are currently working hard to clean out and hand off items for others to use. It makes we wonder what personal history are we leaving behind.