Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Relics of Our Lives

I happened to open a box in the garage the other day and glimpsed history: it contained some mementos from my parents.

There was the slinky black dress with sequined roses on the bodice, circa 1940, that was my father's first gift to my mother. And a double portrait of my parents in their high-flying youth -- my mother as a flight attendant for American Airlines, my father as an Army-Air Force pilot.



There were the letters and cards they sent each other during their courtship -- during the young and hopeful times I never knew.

There was my mother's career scrapbook, with clips of news stories, publicity photos (including one with and autographed by Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady at the time) and ads where my mother -- one of the first American Airlines flight attendants hired in the 1930's -- gave product endorsements for everything from milk to hair conditioner -- and changed her name from Ethel to Caron in the process.


                                         Publicity shot of my mother Caron (1) and stewardess pals
                                                   Aggie Spence (c) and Mae Leslie (r)

By mid-life, we accumulate not only the keepsakes of our lives, but start to inherit others' treasures.

When I was in my twenties, my mother used to remind me about my high school and earlier treasures clogging a closet at my parents' house. Now my parents' keepsakes have found a home in my closets and garage.

It's so interesting what we choose to keep, which souvenirs from the lives of those we have loved and lost, stay with us.

One of my most cherished souvenirs from Aunt Molly's life is a plastic parrot alarm clock. She loved anything with a parrot motif -- and I gave her that little alarm clock for Christmas many years ago. Even though she was retired by then with little use for an alarm, she was delighted. She would hold the parrot on her lap and push the button to trigger the alarm: "Awk! Wake up! Wake up! Uh-oh! WAKE UP!! Ohhh! Good morning!" And she would throw back her head and bray with laughter. I can push that little button now, watch the parrot squawk and flap its wings and remember her laughter with love.


Some of Aunt Molly's souvenirs tell tales of sad family history.  Molly was only four years old when her father died in Mexico, seeking treatment for a debilitating illness. Her mother, whose grip on sanity and sobriety loosened considerably after she lost her husband, couldn't tell Molly or 8-year-old Jim, my father, that their Daddy was dead. She told them that he was on an extended business trip -- then packed up the family and moved from Tucson to L.A. so that Jim could work as a child actor in movies and in vaudeville to support the family. (Alcoholism killed her while Jim and Molly were teenagers and my father worked multiple jobs to put both himself and Molly through college at UCLA.)

In an old trunk from Molly's attic, I found a letter from her to her Daddy, written in childish script from Los Angeles, when she was eight years old:

"Dear Daddy: I love you and miss you so much! Please come home soon from your business trip. I'm writing our new address for you so you'll be able to find us. Love and kisses, Molly"

It would be another year before Molly learned that her beloved Daddy was never coming home.

When my brother, sister and I were kids, we heard a lot of fascinating stories about their much loved Daddy.  They told us about their father winning a Carnegie Hero Medal for rescuing a man from a well filled with poison gas. They said that he didn't feel he deserved the honor because the man died a day later, and  so he evaded the Carnegie awards committee, traveling to China, South America, through Mexico and finally to Tucson, AZ where the committee finally caught up with him and gave him the medal plus $1,000 to buy a home. He settled down and married the next year, starting a law practice in Tucson that was dedicated to fighting for the rights of under-served minorities like Native Americans and immigrant Chinese. We used to take all these tales with a grain of salt, thinking that this was probably the fantasy of children who had lost their father much too soon.

But, while Bob and I were cleaning out Aunt Molly's house after her death in 2004, we opened another trunk from her attic and found evidence that those tales about their father were true.  There were 100 year old newspaper clippings reporting his brave deed and flight from the Carnegie Commission. The clippings described him as a law student at Northwestern University -- my alma mater. I had never known that he went there for both undergraduate studies and law school.  Then I found a picture of him and was shocked. He looked eerily like my brother Michael -- tall and lean with facial features that were startlingly similar. Then, under the photos and clippings, I found a little box and opened it. It was the Carnegie Hero Medal, finally awarded in 1911.  I gave it to Michael. Somehow it just seemed fitting.

                                          Henry Patrick McCoy  (age 33) with baby Jim in 1913

                                               His look-alike grandson Mike McCoy (age 62) with baby Maggie - 2011

Mementos from Bob's parents surround us. They were wonderful at needlepoint and made us beautiful holiday ornaments that we treasure to this day -- hanging them high on the tree so that none of our three cats can steal and savage them. Paintings done by Bob's father and framed needlepoints from his mother hang on the walls of our new house -- as they did for decades in our California home. Both have been gone for so many years now. But their memories linger daily in their beautiful craftwork.

                                       Christmas 2010 with ornaments made by Bob's parents

                                                    Painting by Bob's father, Bob Stover, Sr.

                                                    Needlepoint by Bob's mother Alberta in its place of honor

I wonder who in the future will treasure these momentos as we do? Who will hang Bob and Alberta's Christmas ornaments on their Christmas trees? Will anyone claim and keep The Dress? My mother's career scrapbook? Aunt Molly's plastic parrot?

And sometimes I wonder: what will I leave behind that someone else will treasure? Will it be a funny artifact of my life? Some pictures? Some of the books I've written? My treasured LP's that Aunt Molly gave me for Christmas when I was 10 -- of Cyril Ritchard, whom I adored, reading "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass"?  Or perhaps the childish novels I wrote about happy orphans in my father's unused desk diaries when I was six or seven? Or the audio recording my father made of me at the age of three, telling him family stories and talking him into such a stupor that he fell asleep during the recording, snoring loudly? Or none of the above?

Maybe the best memories I could leave behind are moments of kindness, caring and love. When I really think about that, memories of what we do are so much more precious than the stuff we leave behind.

Quite beyond the artifacts I keep of those I've loved and lost, I remember my mother's loving arms, her endless patience and contagious optimism, my father's funny and poignant stories and his encouraging me to write my own stories as soon as I learned to read.

I remember Bob, Sr. and Alberta Stover as the best in-laws I (or anyone) could have had. Their loving acceptance, even though they sometimes found me puzzling (like when I chose to keep my maiden name rather than assume theirs) was unwavering. Although marital happiness eluded them, they rejoiced in ours.

 I have so many loving memories of Aunt Molly -- dashing with her into the sea, pulling each other into the surf and laughing, sitting by her side on the beach or just relaxing on the porch in the summer as she made up witty poetry that I memorized at the time and, years later, wrote down to surprise her one Christmas, having every holiday, every day she shared with us somehow brighter because she was there.

                                         Aunt Molly and me - Christmas 1981 - as she rediscovers some
                                         of her old "just for fun" poetry composed when I was a child        

Maybe the best mementos aren't stored in boxes or hung on the walls. Maybe the best life relics of all are the warm memories of love and pain and laughter shared, memories we keep in our hearts forever.


  1. Yep...the best relics are the memories, but sometimes finding one of those forgotten mementos in the back of a desk drawer or closet can trigger the memories. When my mother died I let go of a lot of physical stuff and tried to keep just a few meaningful (to me) items. But, I couldn't bring myself to toss some of the small items that my mother had saved. They aren't my memories, but when I see them I think of my mother. So that's why a threadbare, ancient teddybear sits on the bed in the back bedroom. He's unattractive, but my mother loved him.

    What an interesting family you have. This was a nice post.

  2. This was a lovely post. I think that your post made me think that it is the memories that these treasure trigger that are important. I find that to be true with the things I have from those who have gone on before me.

    Perhaps the family history items, stories and photos could be donated to a museum. I think the fact that your mom was an early flight attendant is such a good story. Museums would like this type of thing, I think.

  3. I've so enjoyed reading this post and seeing the photographs -- I very much like the painting by Bob Stover, Sr.! I have a few family heirlooms that I plan to pass on, along with a written history of why these items are family treasures. But the most important treasures are, I agree, loving memories of times shared with those we love and who love us.

  4. A lovely post, Kathy! I'm surprised at all you have saved and moved with you. Hubby and I are the opposite of you and your hubby. We gave our stuff to our children before we retired, everything. They are the repository of whatever history and memory we had collected through the years. I wrote a memoir on a blog for a while, and this too became a present for them to keep and treasure.

    Each of your relative can become a character in a longer story, should you wish to pursue the thread of his/her life more in depth. I found that to recreate my grandparents' lives in my memoir, I had to invent a few things, circumstances researched and plausible, yet, still invented by me to go with the original narrative passed down to me. It was a remarkable learning experience for me too.

  5. This was beautiful, as were the pictures you posted with it. This rings so true, my beloved mother and aunt passed away three years ago, and I have hung on to those items of particular significance to me. I, too wonder if, and what, my family will choose to keep after I pass. I treasure looking at old photographs and stories in old family scrapbooks as well and it brings our family history alive for me.
    The needlepoing and drawings were just beautiful. Thank you for sharing this.

  6. This blog post was SO special, your telling of the personal stories of your family just oozed with the love you had for them. I love to look at old photographs and try to read what I can into them - the background, what they are wearing, the expressions and body language can tell a story. Even though I live in a small space I have included items, such as my grandma's wooden sewing box, in my limited space.
    Thanks for this wonderful blog!

  7. Thanks you for this lovely post, Kathy. Like you I've mused about the way keepsakes can recreate the past and bring our loved ones so vividly to mind. I still have a tiny box in which my grandmother kept my mother's first baby shoe (she was her only living child) her tiny, jointed doll and also a curl of her baby hair. Not my keepsakes but hers and my mother's, but I treasure them for their sakes.

  8. Thanks so much for your comments! We do come to treasure odd things, don't we, that bring up so many feelings and memories of those we've loved and lost.

    Sally, I like your suggestion about donating my mother's American Airlines relics to a museum. I'll certainly explore that option. Broad and Terry, thanks for your kind words about my in-laws' painting and needlepoint. They really were so talented and I love those examples of their work, too. I think of them everytime I look at them.

    Yes, I feel my family was and is special. But so is everyone's -- and it's such a pleasure to hear about your relics and the relationships they represent. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences!

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