Family loss paves way for revisiting old memories

July 13, 2002|By ROB KASPER

KANSAS CITY - One of my summer jobs, when I was a kid, was cleaning the basement. I tried to weasel out of it. But my mother would not let me shirk from my domestic duty, and eventually I would trudge down the steps to undertake the dreaded chore of sweeping the floor and straightening the furniture.

This week I was once again headed for the family basement. But this time the circumstances were somewhat different. This was not the basement of my boyhood. Instead it was the ground floor of the home my parents had moved to years ago after my three brothers and I had reached adulthood. My parents were gone now. My father died four years ago; my mother left us last Friday.

A few days after my mother's funeral, I was embarking on a new type of basement duty, a task that over the past few years, my mother had regularly urged me to shoulder. Namely plowing through the mound of family memorabilia. She wanted me to dig through the newspaper clippings, old trophies and assorted materials that had collected in the parental basement.

To prod me into action, my mother had told me that "once you get started on the job, it won't be so bad." She was right. This week as I worked my way through a big box in the cellar, I felt like I was reading a chronicle of family life. I found some materials that were hilarious and others that were heart-moving.

There was, for instance, the large, impressive-looking trophy that my older brother had been given in honor of his academic achievement in high school. The trouble was that the inscription on the trophy misspelled "academic." None of his teachers had caught the misspelling, and the engraver who made the mistake turned out to be a graduate of the same high school. My brother was the only one who spotted the error. I guess that proved he deserved the prize. I also found report cards for my brothers and me that ran from kindergarten through high school. The most interesting aspects of the report cards were the comments from the teachers. My brothers and I were regularly chided for our faulty penmanship, our failure to keep our desks neat and orderly and, from the sixth grade on, our reluctance to "respect authority."In other words, the teachers had us pegged.

But the real treasure was the collection of letters from family members that my mother had saved.

There were touching letters from my dad, typed in the winter of 1946 as he waited to be discharged from the Army Air Corps in Barksdale Field, La., and hop the Southern Belle train to Kansas City to be reunited with his wife and newly arrived son.

There was a "V-Mail," a letter bearing the stamp of approval from a World War II censor that my mom's younger brother, a sergeant in the Army, had sent congratulating her on becoming a mother.

And there were missives my brothers and I had sent home as we bounced around the country going to college, seeing new sites and running out of money. "I could use a little cash," I wrote in a 1970 letter I had sent from Evanston, Ill. "Everything is so expensive here. What really hurts is that 60 cent one-way "L" fare."

These new experiences led to newfound wisdom, which I was more than willing to share with my parents. I cringed when I read the Mother's Day card I had sent in 1970 when the Vietnam War still divided generations. I railed against "the establishment" and announced that at the age of 23, I had "pretty much given up on trying to appeal to the morals or minds of spineless, selfish men." Then, I wished mom a Happy Mother's Day.

Later, the tone of these letters home mellowed. Names of girlfriends began to appear in the letters, especially the ones outlining travel plans. Down the road came the letters about job searches, outlines of wedding plans and eventually notes inviting the new grandparents out for a visit.

It was, in other words, the cycle of life right there in a box in the basement.

The final phase of my mother's life was peaceful. She died a day short of her 86th birthday, in her home, telling those gathered around her that she was "curious" about what was next. I am grateful to her for many things, but especially for keeping those letters. They provide a narrative of family life, a trove of memories, an insight or two into the human condition.

Nowadays we tend to send e-mails rather than letters. E-mails are fast, but can be fleeting, disappearing with the touch of the "delete" key. After my recent bout of basement duty, I vowed that from now on when a family member sends me a noteworthy e-mail, I am going to print it. And I will store it in a box in the basement.

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