August 16, 2010
I am not one to live in the past, but for a few hours this weekend I let myself wander back in time more than 100 years.
This weekend I spent a few hours hanging out with my mother, looking through a box of old documents that belonged to my great-grandmother, her husband, her parents and her son, my grandfather. The papers ranged from official government documents like mortgages, wills, land transfers, birth certificates, citizenship papers, and marriage and death certificates, to personal documents like home repair bills and thank you letters.
There were also military records, admission tickets from the U.S. Army, to the 13th and 14th annual Veterans Day celebrations and even some invitations to parties at the White House. (My great grandfather's first wife was a secretary for Cal Coolidge.)
The box of papers, all filed neatly in clear plastic sleeves, were passed on to my mom from one of her sisters. The material had been passed down from my great grandmother to my grandfather. My uncle took possession of the stuff when Grandpa died. After his death, the boxes of papers were distributed to my uncle's remaining five siblings.
Among all the official documents, there were copies of some letters that I found very funny. First was a typed letter from my great grandfather send to the Army regarding his request for re-enlistment. He was worried that the Army wouldn't take him because he had lied to them years earlier. He had first enlisted in the army at age 15 by lying and saying he was 18. He was honorably discharged seven months later when his mother found out and told on him.
Another letter was a hand-written letter from my grandmother to a one of the many foster children who has stayed with the family. My grandparents were good Catholics and always had a house-full of children -- their own and foster kids. Each time a foster child left to live with an adopted family, grandma wrote the child a letter.
This letter was written to Jimmy Shakewell. Jimmy got his name, according to my mother, because he was abandoned at the house with a bottle with the words, "Jimmy. Shake Well." One of my mom's sisters found the bottle and exclaimed, "Look, they put his name on his bottle. It says Jimmy Shakewell." And the name stuck.
Reading both letters brought the past to life, and for a few hours this weekend, as I sifted through that box of documents, I felt connected to a part of the past I was am too young to remember.