Friday, September 11, 2015

The Traces We Leave Behind

 I come from a well documented family and one that keeps things.  As I sort through my parents' papers, I find that  I am on the other side of keeping, evaluating what to discard, what to pass on and what to hold close. As a family historian I bring a unique sensibility to this endeavor. My dad was a bit like me in this regard as he kept material dating back to high school and his early career his entire life.   It had historic value to him, reminding him of the path he wove through life.  I am sure he hoped it would have historic value to his children.

When I ran across my dad's high school transcript, I thought about how thrilled I would be to discover that in a genealogical search. Then there are those things that hint at the person within. Let me give you a flavor... I've found his original letter from 1956 to the university where he subsequently worked for over 30 years. In it he laid out his vision of what he hoped to accomplish in starting a new department. He was 30 years old at the time with a touch of arrogance, at least so it may have appeared then as one considered this yet unproven young man.   In his letter he laid out his philosophy and noted that he’d like to attempt to implement it at a school not inhibited by traditional lethargy. He hastened to add that he did not wish to imply that hair-brained ideas and actions were his specialty, always a little tempering with humor. The school wisely saw past the rhetoric of this rather cocky young man and hired him to accomplish great things which indeed he did, quite beyond what they may have imagined.

Much of his paper trail relates to his career. Like many men of that era, his work was his focus and he found his engaging and rewarding. My dad started a public television station in Central Illinois, but before he got to that stage he introduced educational television. I read through a report in 1964 to the board proposing the development of a professional quality educational television studio. Now to put this in perspective, TV first was introduced in that community just about ten years earlier. I remember watching Captain Kangaroo in black and white on an old mahogany Magnovox with doors that clicked into place. In this proposal my father was recommending the purchase of a broadcast quality VCR, then around $35,000.

I laughed out loud when I read this. My father loved technology, but had a special fondness for video equipment. He recorded everything he considered worthwhile and one of our biggest projects in disposing of the contents of the house are video tapes, about 2500 of them. We also disposed of 20 VCRs. Old habits die hard. I’m sure he thought they were a deal after that quite costly initial investment.

As I go through my mother’s material I find different things that speak to me. Our connection was often through books so I felt as if I hit the mother lode when I discovered a file titled Notes on Books Read. The sheer variety of what she read and responded to was amazing. In addition to literature, there were notes on finance, history, medicine and the Talmud.  My mother was a curious person with wide ranging interests.  It is in this territory that we converged, finding our common ground. Many of the quotes she recorded related to dealing with fear, finding meaning in life and ultimately confronting death.  She took her lessons from books and she learned well, recognizing and valuing insights.  Her path through life was paved with books.   I consider how fortunate I was to have her as my guide in life.

The other thing my parents considered worth keeping were my words. I think they kept every email I ever sent them, emails for which I no longer have an electronic copy. A large file titled "Susan's Emails on Family Ancestry" held the first email I sent them asking for information as I began my journey into family history. Hmm, I think I'll read that at a genealogy talk I give this month. A good illustration of where to start.  We so often forget our baby steps once launched.  It is fitting that I should be reminded of mine by my parents.

It is a strange exercise going through this material. I feel as if it is an honoring of my parents. I turn the pages with their familiar handwriting, my mother’s perfectly formed first grade teacher letters, my father’s minute script. I would recognize their writing anywhere and feel their presence in it.  As I turn those pages I am taking pleasure in who they were at their core, their lives as thoughtful, contemplative beings. And I am grateful.

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