Letters from a Conservative Farmer: Memorabilia
I am looking at a small shallow box, three inches by four inches by three quarters of an inch made, so a note inside says, out of a shingle from the house of my father's grandmother, taken when the house was razed in 1927 to make way for a road. Beside the box on my desk are two copper plates used for printing photos in a newspaper, one showing four shadowy images of my father and comrades on an Italian airfield where he served as a pilot in World War I. The other is a large image of my parents and their four children posed in front of our fireplace, a publicity photo for his 1936 campaign for state senator. I am sitting on my mother's lap, a very cute three-year old. Holding down a chaotic heap of papers at the back of my desk is a cedar box containing two silver-backed hairbrushes, military brushes I think they're called, that belonged to my father. Heaven knows when they were last used; judging from the publicity photo, he didn't have much hair to brush in 1936.
As people die, their treasured possessions are passed on to other family members, and since I am now the last surviving member of my generation in the family, all manner of things have been coming my way from my nephews and nieces - papers, photos, documents, and objects like the ones I have just described. Feeling an obligation as the last surviving, etc., I have conscientiously sorted through everything, consigning to the flames most of the papers, obviously of no significance, such as the tabulation of votes for mayor in the 1946 election in my hometown, or a very bad 1937 newspaper photo of Mother on the telephone, illustrating the story of how she had been threatened with the kidnapping of her children if my father didn't stop pushing a drugs law he was sponsoring in the state senate.
I have saved documents: Father's diploma from Fordham Law School in 1922, his diploma from the same high school where I graduated 38 years later, his honorable discharge from the Army Signal Corps (to which airmen then belonged) in 1918, an account of the first Gardner on these shores in 1630, who owned Gardiner's Island in Long Island Sound (our motto: praesto pro patria, "I stand for my country"). And plenty of photographs, but too few I can identify. They have family names - Ingraham, Durlin, Folger, Copland - but beyond that I can say nothing. There are two snapshots of Mother's father, Grampa Wynne, with his father-in-law, a well-known minister in Wisconsin, still remembered there today. He was friendly with the local Indians, the Menominees, who used to visit him in the rectory where they would speak in the Indian tongue. As a result of that connection, the Indians allowed Grampa to fish on their reservation up north, and he would drive up in his '31 Chevy coupe (which I later owned) and catch so many trout that he would pack them in a barrel of ice and send them by train to his friends in Madison.
All this delving and saving and throwing away has reminded me that I am well up in years, and that soon enough my children will be faced by my artifacts, so I determined to do the winnowing myself right now. I was ruthless, stuffing pages clipped from magazines, pieces I had read and enjoyed 30 and 40 years ago, into the stove, watching the yellowed pages shrink and blacken and burn. I saved copies of my published writings, but burned the unpublished things, the essays that I could never get right, the stories that started well but died. At last I came upon a folder that presented me with a question that lay in wait for me as soon as I took up my pen to write "Memorabilia": Why do we save what we do? That folder contains page after page of the Greek text of Homer's Iliad, neatly copied into two notebooks with my notes about grammatical points written above the words, testimony to the years when I studied Greek. It also contains all the papers I wrote in graduate school.
Today all the Greek I remember are the first dozen lines of the Iliad, and if I thought the Review's printer had a Greek typeface, I would, as a bit of swank, recite those lines. Of what possible use are these pages, which I cannot bear to destroy, to my children? How about my paper on Chaucer? Or on Walt Whitman? Will they want to read my ideas about the fourth book of Gulliver's Travels? Why can't I throw them away? They remind me of a past long buried under my farming life, a past I cannot forget and that still bends my words to its will. Without those desires, without that learning and training I could not think nor write as I do - and I would not be who I am. At the heart of our memorabilia, the things we cannot bear to part with are ourselves as we remember ourselves. I am still the young man who wanted to learn Greek, still the young man who was fascinated by the study of literature, and I am also the old man who recalls all that as well as the 40 years of farming performed by that same man . . . Memorabilia. *