inspiration for writing / interviews / memoir / writing about memories

Downsizing, Simplifying, Passing Things On

I’m going through some old files of blog posts I wrote years ago on a site which no longer exists (Do you remember the GeoCities platform?). Turns out some of those old posts are truly “evergreen.” Here’s hoping you’ll enjoy this one!

Oct 17, 2008

Downsizing, Simplifying, Passing Things On

My husband is a First Nations Canadian, Coast Salish on his mom’s side, and Haida on his dad’s side. So all our children are of course also native by descent. As they grew up, we tried hard to give them opportunities to learn and experience both their native culture and my culture (2nd or 6th generation Canadian, depending on which side you look at, and English-Irish-Scottish before that). Along the way, we gathered quite a “library” of books and materials on native culture, art, issues, and so on.

Now all our kids are grown and starting families of their own. And also, we are planning to move, and deciding what to pack along with us, and what to get rid of. We have lived in one place now for five years, a record length of time for us, and while some aspects of moving are a bit of a pain in the neck, I have missed the golden opportunity to downsize and simplify regularly.

I am a book addict (in fact, my Education degree is in not only Social Studies–Historical Geography–but also in librarianship). So whenever we move, the first thing I tackle (while I still have the courage and strength) is downsizing my current book collection. I had already done the “easy-for-me-to-dispose-of” books earlier this summer but am still faced with two big collections – my cookbooks and my native books. So yesterday, hubby and I sat down and went through the First Nations books. We picked out the ones we are really attached to–and then I wrote up a detailed list of all the rest and emailed a copy of the list to each of our children to choose from.

My parents have both passed away in the past two years–and in the process, I “inherited” a great many pictures, old letters, a stamp collection, high school year books from the 1940s, and other similar items. As I love history as much as I love books, you can imagine that I have been enjoying going through these items. It is amazing to read letters written between your parents and grandparents (and even between your grandparents and great-grandparents) long before you were born. It is so interesting to witness their daily lives, experience their joys and sorrows, understand their beliefs and values – and realize that you, yourself, are who you are, in many ways, because of those people. It is also really interesting to see pictures of your forebears out on their prairie homesteads, breaking the sod, living with 10 children in a little farmhouse, riding on horseback and by buggy.

The only problem is, some of the most interesting letters are from people who are obviously very close friends of the family, or even relatives, but I don’t know exactly who they are and how they are connected to the family. And while with most of the pictures I have been able to deduce approximately when and where they were taken, more often than not, I am not sure who all the folks are, and what events led to the pictures (for example, there are flood pictures which I am sure were taken in either southern Saskatchewan or North Dakota: the family homestead straddled the border; an interesting story in itself)–and probably the flood waters came from the Red River–but what year was that? How did my forebears survive? How did it affect their farm and livelihood?

What Is the Story?

That is the question I keep asking myself, over and over.

Know what I wish? I wish my mom and dad had passed some of this stuff on years ago. I didn’t even know a lot of this stuff existed. My dad was a fountain of “facts” while my mom was a great “story-teller.” And, fortunately, my dad left copious factual details about all the slides he took (all 18,000 of them!) but unfortunately, he didn’t record the “stories,” oh well) … but my mom didn’t write down so much. So I wish I were able to sit down with her, and look at those old pictures, and read those old letters, and listen to her stories … and record them! My mom’s whole family were great story-tellers, and my uncle (her youngest sibling) would tell you that they had a talent for embellishing their stories. So what? Even if the “facts” were maybe a bit skewed, the general flow, the heart of my forebears, would clearly come through!

As it is, I have personally determined to write as many of “our stories” as I can. (You can check some them out at my Penandpapermamatoo.com website if you are so inclined) And I’m going through those old pictures and labeling them as well as I can. And I need to sit down with my aunts and uncles who are still with us, before it’s too late, and listen to their stories, too.

Well, I’m rambling here, and I need to get busy with my downsizing and simplifying–and passing things on. I hope my kids can make use of those cookbooks and First Nations books, and I hope that they’ll be able to use them to pass onto their kids (I have 3 grandchildren so far [Make that 9 now!]) some of the taste and flavor of their forebears.

And, if your folks are still with you, ask questions! Find out what “history” they might have hidden away in boxes in the garage. Pull out those old pictures, and listen to the stories. Time passes too quickly, and things happen that you don’t expect. My dad was healthy and strong one day, and less than 3 months later, he was gone from cancer that grabbed him and took him away. Mom, with her bright mind and beautiful caring personality and great stories, drifted away into the sad and hazy world of dementia, and before we realized what was happening, her stories drifted away too.

You are who you are because of the lives of those who came before you. Ask, and listen, and record! You’ll be glad you did, and so will those who come after you.

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