In Memento Mori

It was a good weekend. It’s been a long time since I had the time to really deep clean the house – I don’t want to throw shade on my family, they do help around the house and most of the time we keep chugging along happily. It’s just that there are things only I can do, or at least that’s how we feel about it. Stuff like clearing out and rearranging the pantry. Sometimes, they really are things only I can do, which is where this post came from.

See, we moved into this house six months ago. I managed with lots of help from the First Reader and kids to get all the boxes unpacked and everything (mostly) assigned a home. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I went down to see Mom and came home with more boxes. Stuff the Junior Mad Scientist had left with her, and stuff my grandmother had sent from Oregon with Mom’s moving truck to be passed on to me or my kids. They made it as far as the living room (side note: in my house, the kitchen is really the living room. The room with the couches is not used all that often, and even then, by the kids) and there they sat for far too long.

I’m going to backtrack even further here. All the way back… By the time I was 18, I’d had 19 different addresses. I’d lived in, or traveled through, 43 states of the Union. It’s not just that I was a military brat, although that was certainly an influence. But my parents had itchy feet, and until we settled in NH, we’d made a lot of moves. After I became a bride and young mother, there were several more moves. With every move you make, there’s a layer stripped away of ‘stuff’ which isn’t always a bad thing. I miss some things. Ok, I miss a lot of things from the last move in particular, but that’s a wound I don’t need to rip open today. What I’ve never really had are heirlooms.

Great-great Grandpa Albert Haring, holding my mother when she was about six. Next to him is my Great-great Grandma Gladys Haring holding my Uncle Mark. Then my Great-grandma Ella Vanderburg, and my Grandma holding my Uncle Doug.

I’m by no means a minimalist. For whatever reason, I have a bit of (hah, I can hear the First Reader muttering at me now. I have a lot) of insecurity over my belongings. He’s a true minimalist. When I joined lives with him, he owned about ten books. This is a man who loves reading, reads constantly, and loves books. But… it’s an example of how he is about ‘stuff’ in contrast to me, who sold half my library to ship him the other half in advance of my moving to him because I was worried (rightly) about what would happen to it if I tried to store it against my return. I worry about not having what I need when I need it. Part of this is because when I was younger, we might not have had the money to buy whatever, or it simply might not have been available. So I’m a magpie. A magpie who just didn’t own a lot of things, because space, time, money, various constraints prevented me from holding on to the important stuff and finally I lost even the family photos.

The Alaska niche in my house now, with the items Grandma sent me. The photo was taken by my cousin Christy, a gifted wildlife photographer, and shows river otters playing around a hole in the ice. The moccasins were made and beaded by an Athabaskan woman living in Northway AK for my Great-Grandma Ella. The abstract was painted by my youngest sister.

Until this weekend. My maternal grandmother had sent me a suitcase full of Alaska bits and pieces. Some of them just mementoes of home, others family heirlooms. Along with this, items that had belonged to my great-grandmother, pieces made by my great-grandparents, and even a set that belonged to my great-great grandmother. I have blogged here about some of the things gifted to me by family in the past, but this was a positive treasure trove of delight and artifacts. I kept showing things to the family and telling them stories about where they had come from, what they made me think of…

My great-grandpa Warren Vanderburg, and Grandma Ella, used to make and sell Diamond Willow pieces. I’ve wanted one of their lamps pretty much always, and now I have one, along with a bunch of kitchen utensils that have willow handles. Treasures!

And that’s when I realized they were giving me back something I didn’t even fully realize I’d lost, and how much that had hurt. It’s not the things. I could record them and store them digitally, able to retrieve whenever and wherever I wanted (and near timeless, if I paid attention to my digital storage and formats). It’s the connection to family, to places I have walked away from. The family may be far away, or gone beyond the veil to never more speak in life. The places are so distant as to be nigh impossible – and even if I did manage the time and expense of traveling there, there are rare places that do not change with the passage of time. You really can’t go home again. Of the two houses I spent my formative years in, one is literal dust and I have stood on the mound of it’s grave. The other I have no idea what remains. I do know that cabin was never intended to be a permanent structure, but like so many other things in Alaska, it was made to keep going on and on long past the expected life span. It’s been almost 30 years. I know if I returned I’d likely not recognize it. Even the bridge over the river where my uncle told me stories when we drove over it, was destroyed recently to make space for a new, modern bridge, and I mourned a little. I’m sure the new one is safer and better. But everything in life passes.

Grandma left notes with almost everything – the antique textbooks she sent are going to be a whole post of their own!

When life erodes around us like dust blowing away in the wind, having some few touchstones to remind you of where you have been, who you loved there, and what you did, is a comfort. I am shaped by my past, but I cannot return to it. I can only bring it forward and pass it on by telling my children. And I can feel closer to my family again when I look at the small things I have been given, or have managed to hold onto through all these years and all this distance.

I remember. I cannot forget whose hands held these things, because now my hands hold them close.

These were a small mystery. Mom didn’t remember where they had come from. I posted on social media asking for help, and learned that the tall urn with lid is Indiana Glass Company Diamond Point. Later my grandmother explained that they did belong to my Great-Great Grandma Gladys, likely a gift, as she would not have bought them.
Me, brandishing the epically sized rolling pin Grandma packed, along with the note pictured below. She explained later it was found about 20 feet from the camp, like it was tossed aside when camp was broken. But it’s perfectly usable!
The note with the rolling pin.
And last, but not least – I laughed until I cried when I found the moose poop jewelry. Yes, this really is a thing. Yes, people do buy pendants and earrings made out of what look like chocolate covered almonds, but trust me on this… you don’t want to eat them!


9 thoughts on “In Memento Mori

    1. Don’t bother running! She can really throw it long distance! (And it returns to her hand). 👿

  1. Cedar, you got Uncle Doug and Uncle Mark mixed up in the picture of all of us — Uncle Mark was the baby.

    Maranatha has been helping me put pictures up on the walls today — it’s really nice to have those familiar faces to look at again! I’ll try to get the pictures that need scanned done tomorrow and sent to you.

  2. I can almost relate. I own some of my mother’s paintings, her mother’s china and black stem ware and a water pitcher that allegedly belonged to my great-grandmother. I look at them and remember these women. 🙂

    1. It’s not a species, it’s a thing… Basically the willows are a favored browse for moose, who rip off the small twigs and branches, The resulting scars on the trunks where the willow is trying to heal are roughly diamond-shaped – hence the name. Easy enough to not know what Diamond Willow is, since you’ll only see it where there are the right conditions of willow and moose browsing!

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