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Lives on Paper

Lives on Paper

I’ve been sifting through the layers
Of dusty books and faded papers
They tell a story I used to know
It’s one that happened long time ago.... Kate Wolf—Across the Great Divide

My mother is moving out of the house she’s been in for fifty years, taking up residence in the elegant new apartment building being built down on the Willamette riverfront. This has meant for me that my livingroom is currently stacked with all the family memorabilia she will no longer have room to store.

Vintage scrapbooks, studio portraits of babies given to grandparents, returned when the older generations passed on. And the stacks of notebooks of my grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Schumacher, dry chronicles of the many trips he and my grandmother took—Japan, Tahiti, Glacier Park, New York City, Alaska. “Took a shower. Took a nap. Dandy dinner at the hotel restaurant.” How he would have loved the current culture of posting reviews on every little thing. In an account of a four day swing around Oregon he notes: “Arrived Medford at 6 PM after stopping at two state rest areas. They were excellent.” The entire trip ran them exactly $97.25.

Let me say up front that my grandfather, departed over fifteen years ago at the age of ninety-nine, was a fine, upstanding man. But a writer he was not. So may I claim these accounts have already served their purpose? Each manila envelope bears the date he re-read the accounts for himself. Of a 1966 trip to San Diego: “Read and checked all material & enjoyed remembering the notes kept regarding expenses and times of arrival and departure. Schu 2/23/85.”

My brother, also a writer, once valiantly tried to interview our grandfather in hopes of getting his stories on tape. No dice. The man seemed to be all about records. Addresses. Prices. Budgets. To-Do lists. Bob and I inherited no creativity from this side of the family, but we are big on To-Do lists.

As a child, I remember being scolded for eating Grampa Schu’s raspberries right off the vine. No eating before counting! The yield must be recorded in his notebook! To this day I take pleasure in standing before my husband’s raspberry vines, conscious of my freedom to gorge without counting.

But surely Grampa never intended us to treasure these notebooks forever.

Right? As a dutiful daughter and granddaughter I’m not necessarily required to operate as a storage unit in perpetuity? These are, after all, the notes of the man whose comment on the publication of my first novel, CHILDEN OF THE RIVER, was this: “What’s the big deal? All you had to do was write down what happened to those Cambodian friends of yours.”

Um, not really. But apparently that was HIS approach to writing. One detail after another as it happened. Yes, I’ve encountered books like that. I consider them raw material for my novels, not a literary experience in themselves.

Still, I find it agonizing to throw away the written word. This isn’t so much the writer in me, I think, as it is the researcher. I can’t forget the thrill of uncovering something someone had written decades ago that shed light on the lives of real people I was writing about in A HEART FOR ANY FATE and BRIDES OF EDEN.

Now, in the middle of this great sort-out project, to make room for what I’m charged with keeping, I have to pare down my own memorabilia. And why not? If I can’t even remember who it is in this fuzzy Polaroid, why make my own daughter agonize over it someday? Of course, dealing with the ones I save, I’ll probably drag it all out, won’t be able to resist explaining, will be compelled to jot down the context, like the one of seventeen-year-old me, heading off to a girls-ask-boys dance in a pretty blue lace dress. My date’s nose is red. I thought I’d learned the rest of the story when one of the cool crowd guys at school kindly informed me he’d had to get drunk to be my escort. Only recently I learned the real rest of the story, which is that he was actually gay. He’d flown a helicopter in Vietnam and come out only later. Poor guy. He had so much going on back in high school. An article in the Oregonian quoted him as saying he’d been terrified from the age of five that the police were going to come after him for liking other boys. So that red nose of his probably had very little to do with me. . .

These are the sort of detours that can weary the most diligent of memorabilia sorters!
That this is an emotionally exhausting endeavor is known full well by all the other daughters out there going through this same thing and yes, I do feel it most often falls to the daughters—unless a bunch of brothers such as husband’s clan find themselves unluckily without a sister.

If I could only get this job done and try to think more about the future. . . Well, at least thanks to my Schumacher genes, I have this on a To-Do list. It will be so satisfying to cross it off!
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