By Bob Holeman
Exiled to our home during this current lockdown, beaten down by information overload on TV from anyone with any opinion on the virus, we had to come up with a diversionary project. Diane decided we ought to paint the inside of our bedroom closets.
The first step was emptying them. Included were nine large file boxes with hand-written labels like “Margaret Bronson” and “Holeman-Wilson” and “Zimbabwe” and “Australia” and more. When we had closed Mom’s house several years back, each of the four brothers accepted a similar box with our name written on it. Each contained photos of us, letters we’d written home and other growing-up memorabilia. But no one was interested in these others. Guilt jumped on me with the thought of these family collections going into a dumpster so we brought them all to Winnfield.
I declared to my brothers that I’d keep the Holeman Family Archives and placed the boxes out of harm’s way on the top shelves of the two closets.
As it turns out, there appears to be one archivist in every family. They may gather and file stuff, as my mother did. Or they may search the internet or travel to Europe in quest of old branches on the family tree, as Diane’s aunt did. Some probably set out to be archivists on purpose, others by default. Mom may have been both since the Holemans were like the end of the line for several tree branches. She gathered, stacked, banded and bagged photos, letters and journals and sorted them by families in those boxes.
That doesn’t even count the two late-1800’s travel cases we also brought home, the larger marked “Old History of T. Wilson” (my grandfather) while the smaller is “Letters Mostly Between Josephine and Frances” (my great aunt in the Philippines and grandmother in Cuba). These form the base of a side table by my reading chair, the tabletop being a printer’s drawer filled with tiny family keepsakes.
So Mom was our archivist with a purpose. I may be there by default but purpose emerges. It won’t surprise readers to hear that Diane ended up holding the archives of the Lanius and Gass clans.
So what do you do? When we’re gone and Chris and Laura are going through our closets, do they want these boxes? Newspapers with coverage of the 1969 lunar landing might be of passing interest. But what of ancestor photos without identification on the back? Or pictures of your mother as a child that are too dark or faded? Have we just kicked it down to the next generation to make the dumpster decision?
Diane executed an excellent campaign. She sorted through her collection and retained everything worthwhile of an unofficial family archive. Then she sorted any sibling-specific items into four stacks for her brothers and sisters. The remaining photos, duplicates of archived items, she dealt like playing cards into stacks 1-2-3-4. Then, unannounced, she mailed the packages.
Great idea but we made the mistake of revealing this same plan to my brothers during a conference call. Fear and trembling. Maybe there’s a better way. So the boxes went back up into the closets.
But the lockdown continued and I’ve got to do something. The boxes come back down and the sorting begins. OK, readers, finally to the point of this story. Sorted stacks of photos and more cover the dining room table and surrounding floor. I’m holding a stack of small, pretty faded photos, many being copies of better ones I’ve already sorted. Most are hitting the “discard” pile.
The bottom photo seems to be a faded harbor scene, with no particular point of interest. If there’s no identification, it’s gone for sure. But I flip it over to see “the wreck of the Maine photographed in Havana Harbor 1909 by Frances Jackson. The wreck was shortly afterwards raised and towed to sea and sunk.”
The Wilson family (my mother’s father) was already in Cuba on missionary work. The Jackson family (my mother’s mother) after the Spanish-American War was among the many American families who believed Cuba was the next great frontier and opportunity for a new and prosperous life.
After I found the photo of the Maine, I recalled a photo of my grandmother that I’d tossed into the “Frances Wilson” stack and retrieved it. The photo, same size and sepia tones with similar age blotches, shows a finely dressed young lady looking over a steamship railing. The back reads, “Frances Jackson on board steamer in Havana Harbor 1909 on way from Altamont, Kansas, to Canet, Las Missas.”
When cabin fever sets in, perhaps it’s time that you come up with a diversionary project. Clean out your closets and perhaps recapture some of your own family history.