By John Marks, Curator of Collections & Exhibits
I’m cleaning out my parents’ house as we get ready to sell it. Mom passed away last fall and Dad left the house a week later to move into assisted living. Like many houses, the attic is packed with...stuff. For years before this, “what to do with the attic” periodically came up in conversation. Mom didn’t want to talk about it, Dad wrung his hands and worried about the burden on us kids, and my sister volunteered once to take care of it because “you’ll be dead someday – might as well empty it now.” My response was always, “No one touches the attic – I’m the curator.”
There were plenty of things in the rest of the house as well. We did an initial massive cleanout at the time of the funeral – something to keep busy - but it was mostly empty boxes and 40 years of old magazines. My brother returned to Illinois, leaving the housework to me, my sister, and our spouses. We boxed 54 years of clothes, books, knick knacks, and housewares. As I always promised, I saved the attic for myself.
I’ve spent many hours in the attic during my life: retrieving suitcases, Christmas decorations, and seasonal clothes. This is different, deciding what to keep and what to toss. Decades of mice and silverfish have made some decisions for me. While magazines from the 1960s are interesting, I feel okay about discarding them. Anything with a family connection becomes much harder.
I’ve only gone through about half of the attic, but so far I’ve found:
- Dad’s report cards
- His siblings report cards; they have all passed away, but their children survive
- Dad’s high school yearbooks
- His yearbooks from the first school at which he taught
- Dad’s World War II service photos, uniform insignia, and separation papers
- His family photos of previous generations, not all identified
- Much of the same for Mom (minus World War II service): infant and toddler photos,high school and college photos, lesson plans from college when she was in teacher training.
The emotional aspect is that I’m seeing many of these things for the first time and, in Mom’s case, too late. Growing up, I heard more about Dad’s family than Mom’s; I was a teenager before I knew she was a much younger half-sister to my aunts and uncles. She told some stories but never brought out the photos from the attic. She must have had her reasons, but I feel like I’m learning about my mother “backwards” through these photos.
|Gini Lavery, 1940s, Delmar, NY|
Back to my title: One of the most common things I hear in my job (after “I was on my way to the landfill with this and I thought of you…”) is, “My kids don’t care about this stuff.” After this experience, I wonder (but would never say directly to a patron), “Have you tried? What about grandkids? Sometimes interest skips a generation.” Maybe stories at the dinner table don’t grab attention, but bring everything out of the drawers, closets, and attic and leave them out where the family can see them and see what happens. Better yet, absolutely forbid the kids from touching your stuff, then leave the room – you know it will be the first thing they do.
|Truck my grandfather drove produce to Albany markets|
The ultimate question is, “Does any of this matter? How long do you keep all this stuff? No one will care after you’re dead.” The answer is up to you. Do you care more about how much money your father earned in his life, or the fact that he was in the high school drama club? It’s our interests and talents that make us interesting people, and that forge connections among generations as we learn these things. Bring your stuff out of the attic and keep sharing it; if one family member takes an interest, it’s worth keeping.
|Charlie Marks on a hotel porch in Italy, 1946|