Recording memories for future generations

The Lost Legacy

In speaking with several people this week about documenting our parents’ and grandparents’ military history, I could not urge them more to get it all down quickly.

If you wait until it’s almost too late – when fading health issues are in the forefront – then it may already be too late.

Once they’re gone, their cherished stories fade into history.  What we learn in school or read in books can not provide the clarity, determination, courage or fear of our military servicemen and women when they served our country. Missing are all the great inside stories.

I can’t help but think about a conversation I had with the grown son of a neighbor who lived across the street from the home I grew up in.  After more than 40 years, my neighbor was downsizing her home and moving to Colorado to live with a daughter. Her husband had passed away a few years earlier.

She called me to see if I wanted four cases of antique blue glass Ball canning jars with the zinc lids. There were at least 200 of them. Jammed into the crawl space of her home, they hadn’t been used in years and were covered in dust and dead bugs.

My new hobby of growing a fat herb garden had taken over my home and I needed canning jars.  This was a quite a find.

The real treasure hunt, however, was beyond the cases. A dusty dark footlocker with stickers and a tag was tucked into the far corner of the darkened crawl space. In still-stark white letters I could see her name painted onto its side. It probably hadn’t budged from that spot since the family moved into the neighborhood in the late 1950’s.

It was her footlocker from when she served as an Army nurse in World War II. For a period of time, all her worldly possessions fit into a 2’ x 4’ wooden box that smelled like camp.  In it were bundles of letters between her and her husband when they were dating and both serving the military overseas.  She described them as schmaltzy love letters, but they also detailed what was going on in their lives and in their assignments at that time. There were other Army artifacts in the trunk.

Bas relief sculpture designed by Kaskey Studio in 2003 for the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

When her oldest son arrived I was excited to talk about this find with him.

“That old thing is going right to the curb.”

“Why? It’s full of history, your family’s history. Plus it’s an antique. Don’t you want it?”

“I don’t care about that stuff. It’s old junk.”

He was indignant and annoyed that I would even suggest it be saved. We talked briefly about all the things in the still-unopened trunk. I had to leave it at that.

My neighbor was one of those women who I was fortunate to meet in life and who became another mother to me. I could always go to her. She and her husband always supported me in my school and extracurricular activities. They checked in to see what was going on in my life. They helped me celebrate the good and the bad. I truly loved them and couldn’t be more thankful for all that they did for me. They were like a bonus aunt and uncle.

It was difficult for me to understand why someone closer to them – a son – wouldn’t care about preserving an important piece of his family’s history. Were they not important enough to him? Had he listened to their stories so often that he had them down pat or just ignored them? Is he the kind of guy who has one room with one chair in it: no extra stuff?

Maybe it was the exhaustion of helping Mom downsize her home that was speaking. I couldn’t help but be sad for that big piece of lost history. Maybe he didn’t want the old Army trunk, but his children and nieces and nephews may want it now. Any research they acquire online will be absent of their grandparents’ voice and the love that carried them through a war.

That’s a lost legacy.

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