“There will be time for that, I thought. I guess you always think there will be time.”
As I said the words aloud, I realized I was harboring some regret. I graduated college with a degree in digital media production and since then, documenting my family’s story has always, in some capacity, been on my mind. My grandparents’ history had a huge impact on my life and inadvertently, through the objects I would rummage through in their home, my career path. I remember finding their old cameras, playing with their slide and film projectors, learning how to work them, and asking incessant questions about the images that were projected.
So many of their answers came with stories that for the life of me I wish I could remember, but the truth is I’m lucky if I recall the major points. You don’t realize you’ll look back one day and wish you would have captured those moments, those stories, and all the tiny details that make them come alive. They say time is short, and people think that’s so cliché, but when it happens to you and you lose someone you love, you realize so much of their story dies with them, except the parts you remember.
The same could be said for my maternal grandparents. My other grandfather, was born in Chicago and lost both his parents at an early age after the ship they were on, the Eastland, capsized in the Chicago River. That travesty would not only leave him an orphan, but it would result in more casualties than the Titanic, though today it is all but forgotten, swept under the rug of time passed. I intended to get a first hand account of his story, but he passed away before I could.
Grandma was born in South Dakota and her parents migrated to America from Sweden in the bow of a ship, arriving poor, but I imagine full of hope for a better life. No matter how much they acclimated to their new home, the family kept a strong affinity for their Swedish culture. I kept meaning to sit down with her to get the full narrative of their migration and learn more about her roots. I also thought maybe she could shine some light on my grandfather’s story as well, but sadly she passed within a year of my grandfather, before I was able to do so.
They were all part of the Greatest Generation; they survived the Great Depression, fought in World War II, contributed to establishing the foundation of our country as we know it, and lived to see the birth of smartphones. How did I not make it a priority to record more of their history, their legacy? It was around this time that I decided I needed to gather what I could from my parents. Being once removed would have to do.
My Mom and Dad’s friendship began when they were five, and they even played the role of bride and groom on a church float. Finally, they married in 1969. Shortly after I began my career at a digital media studio, Mom was diagnosed with a sudden onset ALS. After a couple of years, she lost her ability to speak and soon after, she passed. With her went the colorful details of her life as a baby boomer and working mother of two. Gone, too, was my opportunity to interview her about her parents’ lives that she spent so much time researching. What remains are hazy details I struggle to recall.
Through the loss of my loved ones, I’ve inherited certain pieces of their history to remember them by. A few of my favorites are displayed in my studio like my Gradparents 8mm film camera that captured images of of my parents together as kids. I kept Mom’s Polaroid camera that she took to San Francisco where she had fun people watching the flower children. Dad won a camera in an art contest at twelve years old, he drew a picture of Mom and ironically enough, he became an artist.
What I consider to be a family relic is a perfectly preserved ediphone, passed down from my maternal great grandpa’s parents, which my son dances along to almost daily. It dates back so far that my computer is trying to autocorrect the word “ediphone” as I type it. Grandma understood my love of music and its history that she had it restored to working condition before she passed away. It now serves as a cherished reminder of my family and an unexpected conversation piece with my friends and clients.
This is just a highlight of the mementos I’ve inherited, but reflecting on them makes me think of the heirlooms in other families that get left behind. Hopefully they are passed on with love, though often they’ll end up at estate sales, antique shops, donation bins or garbage dumps. These are the artifacts that hold the story of the lives of previous generations, but without the story they become forgotten. And that’s where the legacy ends.
Unless we take the time to capture it, to ask questions, sit and listen to the tales of those who have lived, and piece it together in a way that helps us understand who they are, what they’ve learned, and what they lived to tell. In doing this it will fill in the blanks of our own existence, honor those we look up to, and help their stories carry on long after they are with us.
Our last Christmas with Mom and Grandpa
This is why, in honor of my family, and with a tinge of personal regret, I am introducing the Legacy Service. I want to help other people do what I wish I would have done for myself and my family. I want to record their family history with intentionality, not “tomorrow” but today. I want to interview their loved ones, get firsthand accounts of stories that are too precious to be lost to time and faulty memories, and preserve the history behind family keepsakes and antiques, all with as much truth, humor, and candor as possible by getting it straight from the source.
There is something about knowing where you came from that helps you understand who you are. By piecing together the history of those who have gone before us, we begin to understand what they walked through, how far they came, and how much we have to be grateful for. We know that life is beautiful and precious, but sometimes I think we forget that it is also fleeting. The things we assume we’ll have time for tomorrow we may never get to. I think a story is worth telling, history deserves to be documented, and legacies are meant to live on.