Our stories

Part of the reason that it is taking us time to sort through our belongings in preparation for moving is that we aren’t the first generation of our family to have kept a few items. As we sort, we find ourselves going through boxes, bins and other containers of things that were kept by our parents. They, in turn, had items that came from previous generations. It becomes the job of each generation not only to make decisions about what to keep and what to discard from their own life experiences, but also what to keep and what to discard from the wider story of an extended family system. In doing so, we are learning that there is a distinction between our story and history. For example a World War II vintage silk reserve parachute is a common item in museums. There were a lot of them made, and fewer of them were used than the main parachutes that were also issued to the pilots of the US Army Air Corps. A museum may not need another such parachute in order to have a complete collection and tell the story of that era of our history. On the other hand, this particular parachute is the one that our father wore when he bailed out of a disabled airplane near the end of the war. His main chute opened correctly and saved his life. The reserve chute was carried on the front of the pilot and sat in his lap as he flew the airplane. Its rip cord was pulled only if there was a failure of the main parachute. To this day, sky divers and other parachutists jump with two parachutes. It was the practice to inspect, re-pack and re-use parachutes during the main fighting of the war, but towards the end of the war there were so many parachutes that those used in actual airplane failures were retired. That particular parachute has been opened and we’ve even played with it in the wind before repacking it. It has little value as an article of history. It is, however, a part of our story.

There are smaller mementoes, kept by the generations of our family. For example, among the papers relating to the closing of the estate of a great aunt are copies of her birth certificate. Some family members never knew her middle name and since at least one of her siblings had no middle name, they thought that perhaps she had none. Others thought that her name was Elizabeth. a name that appears in family records from the previous generation. The birth certificate, however, says Bella. Is it possible that somewhere in the family there was an Isabella? We’ll never know and knowing the given name at birth doesn’t tell us much of our family history that wasn’t previously known. It certainly doesn’t change our image of the independent woman who never married and who signed her own contracts to teach year after year using just her first and last name.

However, also among those papers kept in a file with her birth certificate are her college transcripts. To our knowledge, no one in our generation of the family ever knew that she just barely made it through college. If you had known her as a retired teacher as we remember her, you would have never guessed that she only earned a C in English Literature. And she would never have admitted to getting a D in Nature Studies. The people who were elders when we were young were real human beings and even though we didn’t imagine that she could have been distracted at a time when very few women went to college and she was a pioneer, it appears that her studies weren’t her only focus in those years.

There are other interesting items among the records of our family. A wedding certificate showing a date six months later than the celebrated anniversary does nothing to change the loving family that raised wonderful children. Back then, as now, people fell in love before the date of the wedding. As one of our professors once said, “The date of making deep commitments and the date of the formal ceremony aren’t always the same date.”

I picked up the metal helmet worn by my father through 25 years of flying light airplanes in mountainous terrain. It is full of dents and dings. As I held the helmet, I ran my other hand through what is left of my hair and felt the bumps and scrapes on my own head. My father, it seems, was as prone to bumping his head as am I. Maybe I come by this particular trait naturally. The helmet has a story to tell, even if you don’t know the details. However, it does not tell the whole story of a man who also in his life was a John Deere farm machinery dealer, owned a Purina Chows feed store, developed a leasing company, raised seven children, loved to fish, hunted to feed his family, aspired at one point in his life to be a test pilot, and went to work full-time doing building maintenance for church-related institutions when he retired.

The reality is that we have more boxes of papers to sort than we have time. In the process a few precious gems of our family story will be lost, as has happens to all families. A few more will be discovered. And, as much as we are trying to keep this from being the case, a few files and papers will be packed up unsorted and moved along to the next place of our residence. Even more interesting to me are a few pieces of furniture and a few other items that have served various parts of our family in various locations that will end up in a thrift store or a furniture ministry and find their way into someone else’s home. Those things will carry an untold story even as they become part of another family’s story.

Not all legacies are fully known. Some secrets of the past remain secret.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!