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Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Treasures In The Attic

If I could choose my career all over again (and didn't have to worry about making a living), I'd be an attic explorer. Barrymore Laurence Scherer (in the Wall Street Journal) got to experience the excitement recently:

Waxing Nostalgic About Early Recordings

In an old attic, I find a treasure trove for a music lover.

Recently, while looking through an old house for sale in our neighborhood, I came upon a pile of 78s in the attic. (Note to those who regard even vinyl LPs as antiques: 78 rpm shellac discs were the recording-industry standard before 1950.) I mentioned my interest to the owner, who was delighted that the records would have a good home. They had been her grandmother's, and when I came by to remove them, I discovered that the single pile was only the tip of the iceberg. There were several hundred in all. Bliss! (link)

Paula had two great-aunts a number of years ago who lived all their lives in a small home overlooking the Ohio River in southern Indiana. They were, in their final years, wheelchair bound and, as it happened, died at about the same point in time. In their will, they had decided to leave their home to a neighbor and their belongings to be divided among the closest relatives, including my mother-in-law.

Paula and I were asked to travel with her mother to the old home to collect those items of value that had been designated for her to have; the remainder of the belongings - clothing, appliances, etc., were to be given to charity. So we made the journey to Aunt Corrine's house, and when we entered, stepped back in time.

The old home was in great need of repair. The two old ladies had lived alone for many years and were unable, both physically and financially, to keep the home in reasonable condition; the roof needed replacing, the siding hadn't had a new coat of paint in years, and all the windows needed to be recaulked. But the interior of the small frame house was of great value; a treasure trove of antiques. Upon entering I was immediately drawn to an old ice box. For those of you too young to know what an ice box is - or was - it was used in the days before electricity was available in the home to keep food cold. One literally put blocks of ice in it on a regular basis, thus the name ice box. You may still hear some old folks refer to their refrigerator as an icebox.

The source for water in the house was a well standard - or hand pump. Someone at some point in time in the past had installed a sink in the kitchen area but water lines had never been run to it so a small hand pump was mounted next to the sink and the old ladies pumped water whenever they wanted to do dishes or make coffee or simply to get a drink of well water.

Facing the well standard in the kitchen was an old pie safe. Those of you who have some understanding of antiques will recognize the name as being an upright cupboard, this one having the classic tin door panels with the pinhole scrollwork on each. I had this pie safe dated by an expert some time later (this was the only piece that Paula and I took) and he estimated it was from the 1880's.

The other furniture in the home was as old. Most of it was, in that early American sort of way, simple, functional, and built to last forever. Unlike the particleboard or veneer furniture you so often find today.

While there I came across the drawers of letters and memorabilia that the two old ladies had accumulated over the years. Being the amateur historian, I took time out to inspect some of it. Aunt Corrine had kept everything, including old newspapers and magazines. I remember she had a small box half the size of a shoe box that contained tiny remnants of thread; the purpose for which I haven't a clue. But there were also a number of items a museum would probably love to have. I saw maps of Indiana from the days before there were interstate highways (dated as far back as 1920). The old ladies had kept their ration stamps from the World War II era. They were still (this would have been about 1988) entitled to purchase - by U.S. government authority - a set of tires and a ration of sugar. And a pair of shoes. Thier ration book still contained stamps for each. From a time long forgotten when all of this country's resources were devoted to fighting a war on the Nazis and Japanese.

They had filed receipts for the sale of tobacco in the 50's. And for the purchase of a battery for a tractor long gone. And there were the flyers from their local church going back decades. They seemed to love their church. They even kept newspaper clippings of weddings of people who are, in their own right, probably elderly today. And who hopefully have fond memories of these two women who are already forgotten by all but a relatively few old souls.

And of course there were the personal letters. That strangers like me should never be allowed to see. They were to be destroyed, whether right or wrong.

Such memories.