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Unearthing Family History

February 5, 2012

One of the most difficult tasks adult children face upon the death of a parent is sorting through their belongings, determining ‘who gets what’, and deciding what to do with everything that’s left at the end. It can be a heart-wrenching process.  It can also be enlightening.

Night on the Town (late 1990s)In 2004 my parents ‘downsized’ significantly when they moved from a fairly large retirement home in a resort community 120 miles away to a much smaller condominium in the town where my brother and I live with our families.  Only ‘essential’ furniture was transferred, closets were purged, and miscellaneous items were disposed of. The most significant items from their 65 years of shared history, however, made the transition. Four years later, when my father went into a long term care facility, my mother downsized again as she prepared to move into a single (although quite generously-sized) room at my brother’s house.  More furniture was ‘redistributed’, items with little or no significant sentimental value were sold or given away, and the bulk of the memorabilia was packed in boxes, tucked in drawers, or stored on shelves in her room. Little did we, her children, know what treasures were hidden there.

Silver Soup Tureen

Mom used to serve spaghetti in this; current value: $1,600!

My mother was a very organized and forward-thinking woman. During each move, she made sure that items that were coveted by various family members, or that held special meaning to them, were given to those who would most cherish them.  For example, I got her antique doll collection (she and I went through a doll-collecting phase in the late eighties), and my grandmother’s diamond engagement ring; my oldest brother got my father’s oak desk, and the grandfather clock; my younger brother got the world’s ugliest silver soup tureen, and the Swiss-made cuckoo clock. 

One of Mom's ListsIn addition to the traditional ‘last will and testament’, Mom compiled extensive lists indicating which of the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren were to get items she personally wanted each of us to have (things like jewellery, silver, Royal Doulton figurines, books, etc.) upon her death.  Those lists, she knew, (which each of us have had copies of for years) would make it easier for those responsible to distribute her ‘precious things’ (and avoid arguments about who ‘deserved’ which items).  What weren’t on those lists, however, were some things none of us were aware even existed.

Dad, circa 1938

Dad, circa 1938

Mom, circa 1938

Mom, circa 1938

About five years ago, Mom took a significant amount of time to go through old photos and historical family records and put together two albums – one chronicling her family history, and one of my Dad’s. These are precious journals that record both the narrative and photographic details of our ancestry, and while most of us knew some of the particulars, I don’t think any of us were aware of (or could possibly remember) every detail. Having it all gathered together in albums for each branch of the family tree is priceless.  (In the not-too-distant future, I plan to take each of these albums – together with some other recently-discovered materials – and scan their contents in order to create an electronic family album so that each of us – and all those who follow – never forget where we came from).  

Because Mom had been so detailed, so organized, I suppose none of us expected to find anything surprising when we went through the contents of her room (that hadn’t already been allocated, sorted, and packaged) this past week.  There were a few small pieces of costume jewellery; some assorted knick-knacks; five years worth of birthday, Christmas, Mother’s Day, and condolence cards; a wicker basket full of purple teddy bears (purple being my mother’s signature colour); and a closet full of clothes, hats, scarves, and shoes.  It wasn’t until my sister-in-law and I opened Mom’s cedar chest that we found what can only be described as buried treasure.

Dad's Knit Set (1914)A small white rectangular box contained a tiny woollen tam, and a pink and white knitted bonnet and booty set. The label (yes, my mother labelled everything!) indicated that the tam had belonged to my (soon-to-turn-seventy) brother; the bonnet and booties had been my Dad’s (he was born in 1915).  Precious things, preserved all this time! (Also still in the family: the teddy bear Dad had when he was a young boy, and Mom’s Eaton Beauty porcelain doll from [approximately] 1925).  We also unearthed a short story Dad had written in 1931 (he would have been 16) that had been published in the high school year book (my father was known for writing scathing letters to the editor and politically-oriented news columns; none of us were aware that he’d ever tried his hand at writing fiction).  By far the most enlightening find, however, was a very old Christmas box (about 6” x 4”) containing letters (tied with a purple bow) that my father had written to my mother. Most of them were postmarked in June and July of 1936 (there were a half dozen others, written much later, but the earlier ones were certainly the most fascinating).

Wedding Day, 1939

Wedding Day, 1939

My parents married in 1939 and started their family in 1942; most of their shared history from that point forward is common family knowledge. But to find written evidence of their courtship was an unexpected thrill. To think that my father (who was never what any of us would have called a romantic) had written to my mother every few days (while she was working at a resort in Grand Bend for the summer and he remained at home, running the De Luxe Service Station in Clarkson), was astonishing.  The letters provide insights not only into their relationship (most of it extremely innocent, but there’s no mistaking that it was Dad who wrote them), but also into what life was like in 1936. 

For example, postage at the time was 3 cents, and all that was required for a letter to be delivered to someone in another town was (in this case) Mom’s [maiden] name, c/o the family she was staying with, and the town/province.

DeLuxe Service Station (Clarkson) 1936

DeLuxe Service Station (Clarkson) 1936

It seems the service station business was extremely difficult, and there was a good deal of competition; income barely covered expenses – most of the money Dad made came from the ‘tourist trade’ along (old) Highway 2 (between Toronto and Hamilton) or people running out of gas in the middle of the night (he details how one night he charged the outrageous amount of $3 to tow a fellow’s car back to the station from ‘the edge of town’ and fill it with gas!) .  One of Dad’s friends bought ‘a honey of a Pontiac roadster’ from him that summer; Dad wrote ‘it goes 20 miles an hour and will run four miles without boiling over’.  Beer seemed to be the social beverage of choice, but if you wanted real excitement you had to drive to Buffalo.  Local girls who waitressed at the Honey Dew Drive In were apparently always looking for dates, but (according to a couple of Dad’s friends) all the ‘smart girls’ lived in Georgetown.

There were ten letters written that summer (at least, that she kept), and what a delight they were to read!

Dad and Mom, 1970I’m not sure how many of us truly know (or stop to think about) who our parents were before they became our parents.  When I think of my parents as being ‘young’, I mostly picutre how they looked in their ‘middle’ years (the 1970s).  I knew my Dad had managed at least two service stations (and driven a bus, and worked as a caddy at Jasper Lake Lodge) in his ‘previous’ life, and that Mom had grown up on a farm, and later worked at her uncle’s restaurant in Toronto and a rooming house / restaurant in the town where she lived.  But I’m a little foggy on how and where they met, and I didn’t know they’d ‘dated’ for at least three years before they got married. I almost wish I’d found these letters sooner, so I could have asked Mom a little bit more about her girlhood hopes and dreams and experiences. 

Life is always throwing us curve balls, isn’t it? Surprising us with things we never expected to discover.  If this experience has taught me anything, it’s that I should write down a little more of my own history to share with my boys, and that I should never take life, love, or precious memories for granted.  Family history should be treasured, shared, and recorded … and probably long before we reach … the other side of 55.

Families by Erma Bombeck

  1. Madeline Lund permalink
    February 7, 2012 9:44 am

    Margo–thank you so much for sharing! I too have had the delight and burden to discover the past this way. Family story is a story that should be told. Over and over is needed in order to pass it on. Bless you for capturing it–the next generations will thank you.

    • February 7, 2012 10:06 am

      Thank you, Madeline. It’s unfortunate that we don’t realize the value of some things (like the stories our parents and grandparents can tell us) until they’re (almost) gone.


  2. February 7, 2012 8:03 am

    Thanks for posting this Auntie Margo!
    I can’t wait to read through more of those letters myself. When I was little I used to be jealous of my friends who had families deep rooted in war history…I used to love listening to all the stories about it…The thrill, the different cultures, the heartache, the love letters sent back home…even the scary stories (although heartbreaking and terrifying) just made for such an amazing family history. Stories of heros and survival.

    Now that I’m older I can see that it doesn’t take BIG stories to make for a big family history. I used to love going through the family history albums with Grammy. It was one of my favourite things in the world. Listening to her speak about her past (and Grampa’s) was so exciting! It was so amazing that she could recount dates from 60+ years ago like it was yesterday. She had great advice for living a long, happy life with the love of your life. I’ll miss those chats more than anything I think.

    Grammy is the reason I’m so into photography. I’ve grown up looking through her albums constantly and always knew that when I was older I wanted to be able to show my kids & grandkids just how life was when I was young. I can’t wait to continue on our family history, and pass down these stories so that my kids (whenever I have them lol) will know just how amazing of a woman Grammy was, and how important she was to me.

    • February 7, 2012 10:27 am

      Lori – We’ll definately have to make sure we add all OUR stories (your generations and mine) to the history of our family for future generations, and share it with them. We each have amazing stories to tell; even if they aren’t ‘big’ or ‘adventurous’, they are what make us who we are (and collectively they’re what make our family unique). I’m currently going through 20 years (YIKES!) of photos I hadn’t sorted or put into albums and I’m more determined than ever now to get it done. I still ‘force’ the boys to sit and go through their ‘baby’ albums when they come over to visit and we laugh and tell stories about them; I want to get the rest of their lives into albums so when THEY have children I’ll be the Grammy with all the photo albums that everyone goes through!
      Remember always that Grammy’s love is all around us and a part of her will live on in you, your children (and grandchildren).
      Love Auntie Margo

  3. yvonne harris permalink
    February 6, 2012 11:56 am

    what a lovely tribute to your parents – bless them both – they were definitely originals!

  4. February 6, 2012 9:15 am

    It appears your mother did a great job of putting her affairs in order. Still, it’s a daunting task to oversee the disposition of a household. Almost, each post I write is a little story that contains a nugget of what I want the kids, nieces, nephews and cousins to remember. Thank goodness for wp. Thank you for sharing your most treasured thoughts and memories.

    • February 6, 2012 10:43 am

      I try to encourage my kids to read my blog posts … but I think they’re sometimes embarrassed to do so. I have HUGE photo albums of their ‘growing up years’ and I’m going to start showing them the ones I have from before they were born. There’s so much of our own history that we just take for granted!


  5. Colleen permalink
    February 6, 2012 8:38 am

    Isn’t it nice how parents can surprise us, even after they’re gone?

    • February 6, 2012 10:42 am

      I imagine they’ll keep surprising us, too (I often hear my Dad and/or my Mom’s voice in my head … and in things I say out loud to my kids!)


  6. February 5, 2012 6:46 pm

    This is a very touching post. I am so glad that your mother left you this box of memories. But you’re right–why is it that we don’t realize how important it is to talk to our parents and other elders before they’re gone? And we only wish after-the-fact that we had been smart enough to mine for the diamonds stored in their memories while they were still recoverable.
    Great post!

    • February 5, 2012 7:36 pm

      I’m definately going to start writing things down and talking (more) to my kids about the past. I think we just assume they know all about us because our history is such a part of us; we forget they’ve only known us from the time they were born. This has been an real eye-opening experience for me.



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