So my uncle unloaded a bunch of stuff at my house when he moved to Hawaii.
I think we may have covered this a few weeks back. The records. But wait. There’s more. Along with the records, I took custodianship of several boxes of family artifacts.
I’ve been the family artifact hoarder since I can remember. But even before I came to an age where people would willingly give me sentimentally priceless but monetarily hollow family junk to archive, and store, and maintain a mental record of narratives for – before I can even remember – I have loved old things.
When my grandfather, my father’s father, was still alive but before he entered a care facility, my father and I would go to his house on weeknights and my father would help him get ready for bed before tucking him in. It was usually a three-to-four hour evening, starting after our own dinnertime and trailing into what felt at the age of six or eight like some wicked and mysterious hinterland between days, but was probably only about 10 p.m.
During those hours I’d mostly entertain myself as my dad did CNA things, and the majority of them I’d entertain myself by watching the Nick at Night lineup of what amounted to obsolete sitcoms in the 1990’s. The night would start out with an episode of The Munsters, followed by one of The Addams Family. I always preferred the latter to the former, but preferred Herman to Gomez.
Because that’s important for you to know.
After The Addams Family, I’d usually take a quick bathroom break, as that was when the personal hygiene portion of my father’s evening would conclude and I could sneak in while he was helping Grandpa don pajamas. I’d always hurry though, because it was kind of like a night at the theatre, or the mad dash between opening act and major rock band at any given concert at any given time in history. I was really just biding my time with Grandpa Munster and Wednesday until the first warbling notes of Funeral March of a Marionette came piping from the speakers of the ancient floor model Zenith. Even as a child I loved anything weird, and Hitchcock was for sure on track to get me there. Even then, though, I’d nearly tremble when the feature of the evening broke through the hushed atmosphere of my Grandpa’s darkened living room. The Twilight Zone.
Oh my God, you guys, Rod Serling was my original man crush.
The first season of The Twilight Zone? To this day nothing can comfort me in the same way as Serling’s voice setting up “Where Is Everybody,” or “Mr. Denton on Doomsday.”
“The Mosnters are Due on Maple Street?”
Do not even get me started about how much of a crush I still have on Rod Serling’s brain.
Still, it was only a few weeks at a time where I’d ride the wave of episodes I’d not yet seen. By this point they were all reruns, except to me, the voracious little Twilight Zone virgin soaking up every creepy synchronicity and vicious twist of the delightfully unpredictable plots. In those sad moments when I’d recognize the first lines of narration or the opening graphite scene-setting I’d leave the sound on, because voices are my thing and Rod Serling’s was catnip to my budding writer’s ears, but I’d turn my attention and focus to a little contraption that had sat in its wicker basket beside my grandfather’s chair since I could remember.
The “wooden glasses,” as I knew them in childhood, were actually a Victorian stereoscope that came equipped with probably a hundred old cardboard scenes one could load into the front of the eyewear and then gaze through to see in what must have been the most marvelous three-dimensional effect ever conceived.
For Victorian people.
Or rural Pennsylvania kiddos.
It wasn’t just the cards themselves, the stories they told in terse, one-sentence snapshots from around the world. I would spend as much time staring in rapt amazement at the cards as I would Rod Serling’s face.
He’s still hot, I don’t even care.
Anyhow, as I aged my grandparents passed away, and their things were collected by the next generation of adults and I lost interest in it as swiftly as I lost track of it.
It would be another ten or twelve years before I’d make my way back to Pennsylvania from my Aunt and Uncle’s Virginia home after a long weekend with four boxes of family lore in my trunk.
Over the course of the intervening years, I’ve moved two or three times, always with those four boxes of things in tow.
I’ve only been through about half of them, but occasionally I am called upon to perform a deep dive into the sea of ephemera and totems to retrieve this or that. Some random object that has surfaced, from the depths of memory, for one or another of my relatives, and which they must hold, or consider, or be present with in order to unlock some personal existential achievement I can’t understand but respect greatly.
And a week ago now – maybe a week and some change – my aunt reached out to me from an ocean away to ask whether I might be able to locate and bring to the surface a 1950 silver dollar given to my Uncle John as a literal birth day present from his Grandmother Bell. His father’s mother.
And this one begat that one and that one begat…
It truly is no wonder I’ve become a scribe in this, fading summer of life. My brain has been documenting and cataloging things since I got here.
He’d been reminiscing, my aunt told me, about this particular coin and a note attached, on a sheet of stationary, or an index card maybe, saying she hoped he never had to go to war and given to his mother.
My father’s mother.
I can’t stop.
It took me several days to even get to the task, and she actually texted me again as I sat gazing into the plastic vessel that had haunted my entryway closet for years, and my spare bedroom crawlspace for years prior to that. “Any luck with the coin?” As luck would have it, no, I told her, but I also told her that hope was not lost. I had managed to select, off the top of my head, the box containing all of my uncle’s birthday cards up to age four, as well as the greetings and telegrams that arrived in a hennish frenzy for my grandma the day she brought him home. In addition, a shoebox full of old coins had been serendipitously placed next to them in their tote, and had remained unopened for over a decade, just waiting to be called upon.
I was certain, flipping through the powdery, delicate mound of paper and documents from 1950-54, that between these two vessels I’d find what I was now after like a bloodhound on a mission.
In the end, it wasn’t to be. And while I’m still committed to finding the coin, I’ve been confronted with my own dilemma.
These little trinkets and forgotten grocery lists, the yearbooks and the voyage logs, and the actual, honest-to-god tintype portraits, you guys? They need to be properly archived, and catalogued, and recognized.
Honestly, intentionally seen.
This is why I haven’t opened even one of the Pandora’s boxes in years. Because I can’t just open one, look for what I need, and move on with my life of some random Thursday evening. Just like the sharp scent of copper wheat pennies and disintegrating lace handkerchiefs, the invisible airborne stories waft out too, equally unbidden. I can’t not spend 37 minutes just staring at a dusky three by three silver gelatin photo of a bunch of black-clothed people gathered around something in a German town square, backs to cameras and focused, intent, on some unknowable wonder in the street, taken from a second or third story window a few hundred yards away.
Transfixed, and transported, into a scene I can only grasp at the most random of explanations and plot points and catalysts for.
It is so easy for me to become distracted, in any context of my life, but it is dangerous for me to get distracted in an old photo of god knows who, or what, or where.
There is no way for me to spend the time it would take to truly know all of these people who have lived lives that have led up to the living of my own.
The people who know the stories are gone either in body, or spirit, or both.
I cannot just look at the rows and columns of baby food jar lids, all displaying which country the coins inside are from. I’ll want to handle each individual coin. Roll it over in my fingers and inspect its date, rubbing generations of grime and residue off its surface to determine whether it has a mint mark. What was going on in the world the day it was born?
Is it a silver dollar?
Is it from 1950?
Is it the one my uncle wants, and what must my grandmother (my father’s mother) have thought, five years after serving in the wartime effort herself, when her mother-in-law handed that note to her? As she read it, cradling her infant son in her arms? Did they get along? Would she have given my daughters a 2012 silver dollar if she’d lived to see them?
Did my Uncle John ever go to war or was he spared?
Would my Great-Grandmother Bell have believed it was the luck and genuine goodwill she’d infused it with, as she taped its silver face to the paper, that had spared him?
Wasn’t it Great-Grandmother Bell who was a registered medium?
And, isn’t there a box of hers somewhere in one of these time capsules?
I think there is.
Hang on, let me just go see if I can find it.