Thursday, December 17, 2009

Artifacts vs. Legacies

As genealogists, we spent an ample amount of time in cemeteries. Here we see the last tangible evidence of many of our ancestors.

But this morning, I am thinking about the other things we leave behind. You see, we are installing a new garage door. The other one lasted for more than a quarter of a century and held several memories. An old wooden door with four windows, it had been the recipient of an unkindly bouncing basketball which dimmed one of its lights. For several years, a scrap piece of fabric provided a patch (and a rather odd appearance) before I finally realized that heavy plastic would not be as good as the original glass but would at least look better from a distance.

So as we were working on the new door this morning, I was observing the floor of the garage. There was evidence of several painting jobs, one of which had probably caused a few bad words to fly when a substantial spill somehow exited the bucket. The floor at the front still holds remnants of oil and other fluids which leaked from our fleet of previously owned cars over the years, ones often needing the attention of the household mechanic.

My husband’s skills made it possible for us to have the house in the first place. We never could have afforded it otherwise. We broke ground five months before our first child was born and moved in two weeks after our second child. Many late nights, Johnie would come out and work on the house after having put in a full day’s work as a private contractor. He reflected later how frustrating it was for him to see several houses in the neighborhood start and finish during the time it took to build ours. And when I later sold Avon through that same neighborhood and described where we lived, the comment was often, “Oh yes, the house that took so long to build.”

That second daughter arrived two weeks before her due date. Because of her unexpected appearance, we weren’t completely prepared to move in. For one thing, my husband hadn’t had time to install the window screens. For the first week in August of a very sultry Virginia summer, that was not a good thing. I feel like I already know what the plague of flies is going to be like, though perhaps on a slightly smaller scale!

The first winter we were in the house, we heated the entire edifice with an Earth Stove in the basement. We closed in the laundry room around it, thus creating a plenum of sorts. We burned the stove hard, the heat rising through holes in the floor which would eventually become part of the a/c system. As you can imagine, it was not a very efficient set-up. We found that the heat just didn’t make it to the family room. So we hung a blanket over the doorway for the duration of the winter. And I’ll never forget the night of a very severe freeze when I could see the concern on my husband’s face. The idea of bursting pipes in a new house simply wasn’t very comforting to him.

Now we have lived here for 27 years and raised five children and a cat—the former of which were very much planned for; the latter of which, not so much. We had reached the point where we could leave the door to the basement stairs open when the two older girls returned home from a sojourn out west, bringing the feline with them. I guess it’s just as well, because now that same benefactor who brought the cat (and has since moved on without him) has graced us with a granddaughter and is expecting another one in February. We may never be able to leave the basement door open again! But that’s OK. The grandchildren are worth any inconvenience.

The old bureau which I had bought from a former roommate for $10 was the practice slate for our children when they hadn’t yet learned the lesson that pencils went only with paper. Of course, before painting the dresser and the walls of the room in which it was housed, we had to take pictures of the stick people with very large bodies and even longer legs, little messages prompted by irritations over having three girls in one room prior to the finishing of the basement, and even labels for what belonged where during a period of super organization (which probably didn’t last too long).

If they ever demolish our home, they’ll find measurements on the two-by-fours, notice a ton of nails (the inspector said he’d seen overbuilt houses before, but nothing like ours!), and maybe even observe that the bathroom/hallway wall wasn’t totally plumb because my dad had helped put it up during a visit and Johnie had left it. I doubt that much of that will count as a valuable artifact to those living at that time. And all the memories will have left with the last member of our family to inhabit the home.

But what may remain, even though housed in another residence, will be some of the habits, the principles, and the little traditions that get passed down from one generation to the next. It is important to me that my cupboards be organized because my mother had the same policy. (I haven’t snooped through my married daughter’s kitchen yet, but I suspect I know basically what I would find.) I imagine that the cadence with which I read a book to my granddaughter is similar to my mother’s, and possibly her mother before her. And it is very touching to me that the bathing dialogue my daughter uses with her daughter sounds very similar to the one I remember using with her.

Will they take the time to read the volumes of journals and personal histories I will have hopefully prepared by the time I’m no longer here? Maybe not. I’m not even sure what they’ll do with the file drawers filled with multitudes of folders filled with papers that are very important to me (organized or not!).

But there will be a legacy nonetheless—a legacy written in “the fleshy tablets of the heart.” That, after all, will probably not only suffice but wind up being the most important one.

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