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Ralph Gardner Jr: Saving Family History From The Dumpster

Photo contributed by Ralph Gardner Jr.
Ralph Gardner Sr. with Helen Keller (center) and companion Polly Thomson

What’s our responsibility to our elders once they’re gone? That’s something I’ve been wrestling with over the last few months. It has nothing to do with the pandemic, at least not directly; even though mortality can’t help but focus the imagination. However, my mother passed away in 2019, my father fourteen years before that. 

One of the things that triggered my ruminations was a room at our house that my father, a former newspaper man with the New York Times and Horatio Alger’s biographer, created as something of an homage to, well, himself. It’s filled with photographs of some of the movers and shakers he ran across over the course of his career – among them Albert Einstein and Helen Keller. He joins them in some of the images, in others not.

There are also photographs from his war years, as well as him proudly standing alongside a nine-foot sailfish he caught on vacation in Acapulco in 1954 and a certificate attesting to the length and weight of his catch.

Regarding my mother, when I cleaned out her apartment last year, in addition to a thousand other things – that number isn’t an exaggeration; if anything I’m low-balling it – I found every letter, postcard and Christmas card; every wedding and bar mitzvah invitation; every report card; every thank you note and condolence acknowledgement that she and my father or my brothers and I ever received.

Again, that’s not an exaggeration. She never threw anything out with the possible exception of junk mail and sometimes not even that. Poring through those boxes is like entering a time machine and setting the dial for any decade from the late 1930’s, when she and her family immigrated to the United States ahead of World War II, up through the Eisenhower years, the tumultuous Sixties – the birthday cards and party invitations turning appropriately psychedelic or paisley – through the Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Obama eras up to almost the present moment.

They make for curious cultural as well as family history. If the pandemic plays any role it’s only that, sheltering in place and social distancing, I have more time to sort through the stuff than I would if life was normal.

But the question, regarding both the boxes of correspondence and the room of photographs, is what to keep and what to discard or at least relegate to the basement? There’s no question that my father’s private sanctuary stays, even though we’re planning eventually to paint the room, replacing the period wallpaper with something more tasteful, as well as continuing to update the photographs so that other family members have a presence. But you can’t beat a small room lined with wall-to-wall photographs for creating a mood of enveloping coziness.

As regards my mother’s correspondence there’s no good reason for preserving much of it. However, I’m keeping anything that sheds light on their life and times.

So back to that question about what’s our responsibility to our elders, not to mention our ancestors? I also have photographs in drawers and filing cabinets for both sides of the family dating back to the 19th Century.

The answer, in my opinion, is that we have no responsibility. Or at least the responsibility is whatever we decide it is, whatever makes us feels good. The people are gone; based on science, one’s spirituality or religious beliefs they’ve returned to a more elemental form of being or perhaps a higher one, in any case liberated of the burden of a body not to mention deciding what to do with all the things they left behind.

My family – siblings, wife, children -- doesn’t seem to share my sense of mission. I try to explain to them, with only limited success, that I’m not living in the past, appearances to the contrary. I prefer to think of it as history and nobody denies that history serves a useful purpose. It helps illuminate the present; it occasionally even reveals the seeds of how you grew into whatever you are today.

Also, my parents led gracious lives in interesting times. One example: I just came across an envelope filled with colorful flyers and ticket stubs from summers in the Fifties when they followed the bulls, attending bullfights in Mexico and Spain and befriending matadors.

My father was fairly pessimistic, believing that once you’re gone you’re gone. On the other hand what was creating a wall of fame all about? He apparently thought his brushes with greatness lent him a little majesty. Perhaps he hoped for a smidgen of immortality himself.

My mother’s inability to toss anything out is more complicated. Procrastination was one of the poles of her personality. After she redecorated her bathroom in the 1960’s two large holes for light fixtures remained for decades because she couldn’t find the perfect sconces.

In the end I suppose it boiled down to control. Keeping things was a form of control even if the objects had been relegated to closets or storage lockers and she hadn’t seen them in years.

Perhaps I inherited some of that. Curating my father’s photos or my mother’s letters is exerting a form of control. But I prefer to think of it more as a puzzle whose satisfaction comes from watching the pieces fall into place. In the end, I doubt it will result in any revelations or resolve into a striking picture that was always sitting there in front of me but that I failed to recognize before. It’s more about the process. The discovery. You never know what information the next letter will reveal, what synapse it will spark, what memory it will unearth.

Once the last box is open and the last letter read I suspect I’ll be disappointed that it’s all over. 

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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