Four of my closest relatives and I had a difficult, yet important, experience together last weekend. We cleaned out the family home of our GoGA (Grandmother of Great Age), who you may recall died last March at age 98. Just a year ago Wife, Moose, and I visited her home for a week-long visit and had a good time. Dealing with her end has been a long and drawn-out process, mostly due to the physical distance among my cousins and between our homes and hers.
You may have heard the cliché, “she kept everything.” Well, this is no cliché with our grandmother: she truly kept everything. Not only did we four grandchildren uncover just about every letter we had ever written to her during our lives, but we found everything from our great-grandmother’s Shabbat notebook from 1897 to auto registrations from the 1940s and plans for parties my grandparents held in the 1960s. I learned many things through this experience. For example, the format of tax returns have not changed very much since 1937. And, did you know that if you wanted timely delivery on a letter, one needed to indicate “via air mail” on an envelope traveling from New York to Chicago as recent as the late 1960s?
Document analysis is a qualitative data-collection technique that researchers use when wanting to learn more about a certain entity. I’ve used this data collection form in the past when assessing the effectiveness of a program or when learning more about the history of a college. I realized early on that we were performing a large document analysis on the long life of my grandmother. This was a gift, in some ways, though I admit I wasn’t really very pleased with my grandmother for essentially forcing us to take a week off and go through her files, some of which were ridden with long-gone mouse nests and years of mold (Cape Cod is rather humid, so mold accumulation is a regular experience) (ew). The gift part of this experience comes into play when considering that we essentially were able to relive parts of her life through the last century, and there were many of these moments we did not realize existed.
I cannot and will not outline all of her life experiences here in this blog. Suffice it to say, however, that any major life event I was aware of in her life were documented somewhere in her house. For example, whenever she started a story about a place where she lived, she would give us the street address; we found unused personalized stationery from every residence where she had ever lived. She would describe the cars she drove across the country to go to her summer home; we found the bill of sale for when she purchased these cars. Through these documents we saw her life at its height when she was an activist for human rights in Chicago (the mayor would ask her to lunch on a regular basis to discuss these issues). We watched her life age when her handwriting became illegible and her filing system moved from organized files toward a series of piled papers along her desk and bedroom floor.
Soon after her death, I wrote that I thought it was odd I was missing, of all things, her house. Now I think I understand this a bit better. Her house was a symbol of family gatherings, both good and difficult. We’ll never be able to replace this symbol once we sell the place. Five generations of my family have enjoyed this house, all people related to GoGA in some way. Her mother would join her during summers in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. My grandparents of course spent countless months enjoying the home and the beaches across the road. My parents, and aunt & uncle, would visit with my cousins and/or me and my sister in tow. Other extended family members would see us all gathered there both in the summer and winter months for informal family reunions. And more recently I, my sister, and one of my cousins would bring our own children to visit their great-grandmother. Selling a home that’s been in the family for about 50 years is a grueling process. Going through the files and other personal items is strange and tiring. But the emotional aspect of losing family history in a physical place is unfathomable for me at times. It’s amazing to think my grandmother lived in this house for only half of her life…50 years seems like a long time to live in one place. Perhaps I will get used to the fact that another family will stake claim to the sand dune we referred to as “Gram’s house” for so many years.
I have mixed feelings, though about the sale of her house. I admit there’s a large part of me that’s glad to see the place go, as I had some very difficult times there that I’d rather not remember. But another part of me will always wonder how many more years I and my relatives would have carried on the tradition of these family gatherings. Sort of seems like a waste to sell the place after all these years.
Someday I may take some of the documents I saved and write a book about my grandmother’s life. It may make for an interesting story.