Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Family Archaeology

One problem with being old, and being the child of a family of packrats, is that one not only accumulates a large amount of stuff, but the stuff is not only one's own--it's often the legacy of others.

And then there's the problem of having an overactive imagination, one that's constantly coming up with ideas about what can be done with this or that bit of stuff. So that stuff gets collected. And so do things that can be recycled into other things.

Ultimately it all ends up in one or two places in my house. Visits to IKEA have produced a few strong cardboard boxes in nice colors to hold some of it. Those items sit attractively on shelves in bookcases. The rest ends up in closets--specifically one in the study, and in another we've dubbed The Museum of Unfinished Projects. This latter spot is a wonderful space, designed almost like a pantry, with room for a dresser or storage unit under shelves that start about halfway up the wall on two sides. I've got a small bookcase on one wall, which holds an almost complete collection of Martha Stewart Living, several years' worth of Old House Journal, and a more random stack of This Old House. Martha will no longer arrive at my house when my subscription runs out next year, but I find it difficult to toss what I've got.

In the back of the closet, under the deep shelves, I've got two rolling wire carts that hold hanging files. One of these belonged to my husband during his bachelor days, and another was a gift from him and my children on the first Mother's Day we were together. Now they hold tearsheets from magazines--one for articles on food and recipes, another for "ideas"--home repair, craft instructions, inspiration, etc.

Boxes on the shelves contain memorabilia (mostly from my children's growing-up years) and fabric for quilts long since abandoned. Other unfinished efforts include a stuffed pteradactyl, some paper dragons I was going to hang in my son's room after I'd painted them, bereft baskets of embroidery, tins of buttons, bags of pillow stuffing, and boxes of reparable items of too much sentimental value to be discarded.

The closet in the study holds boxes of old photographs and letters, most of these from my mother's family, but a large bag of photos was added about five years ago, when my father sat down with me and went through stacks of family pictures before he died. Since I wasn't ready to admit that he was actually dying at the time, I neglected to ask as many questions as I should have done.

One of the things I've noticed about blogging is that it helps to focus one's energies on tasks at hand. Because the Museum of Unfinished Projects houses a number of collections, it will probably provide blog fodder for at least a few months, and if nothing else, blogging about hunting and gathering should encourage me to sort and consider its contents. If this in fact occurs, I may accomplish something even more important: ensuring that my children aren't left with the task after I've shuffled off.

On the other hand, the very act of sorting through the family midden is an exercise in connection, context, and history. Old photographs, memorabilia from experiences not our own, correspondence, well-loved objects--all of these generate memory, stir the imagination, and provide hints about where we are and how we got here.

In his novel, Howard's End, E. M. Forster utters the memorable injunction, "Only connect"--connect the prose with the passon, connect the fragments, create wholeness. This is in part what we do when we look back at the material remains of our pasts and the pasts of our ancestors. It's probably what makes archaeology a necessary profession in a world otherwise consumed with modernity. It may also explain interest in museums and Wunderkammern: images and objects that connect the very distant past (both on a human and a geological scale) with the present. Excavation and classificaton are acts of history, memory, and connection.

Let the dig begin.

Photo: The Museum of Unfinished Projects

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