Unearthing the paper trail isn't for all family members

October 16, 2004|By JACQUES KELLY

MY SISTER Ann tackled a brave task a few weeks ago. She dug into the deepest depths of the old Guilford Avenue cellar, the part that sits under the front porch, where it's so damp you could grow mushrooms.

She tackled trunks and boxes untouched for decades, sifting through carefully preserved mementos I wouldn't have the emotional courage to face.

Earlier in the summer, BGE notified my father that their records indicated the gas supply line to our house was installed in 1914, the year the house was built. The utility wanted to put in new pipes; it was up to us to clear out the path where they entered our residence.

This proved not the easiest task. My great-grandparents moved into the house in early 1915; they and their offspring immediately started filling the cellar with keepsakes. They duly boxed and deposited. The part of the foundation where the gas line enters the house was the most stuffed with these family archives. Today we'd buy big plastic storage tubs; my grandmother and mother used their old steamer trunks, neatly painted and marked with the Stewart and Monaghan families' initials.

I have my own interest in family history, but these containers were not a place I chose to exhume. My people tended to save everything. Rather than throwing out, they stored greeting cards, report cards, little religious cards distributed at funerals. I'll try to go through a layer of stuff, then get sidetracked and ultimately depressed. Sometimes you just know too much. I recall too many people I wish were sitting upstairs and not resting at New Cathedral Cemetery. These saved family treasures are sweet and sentimental and focus on the most important aspects of life.

That said, my sister located some family footnotes. I learned, for example, that I had been taken on a historic railroad excursion to Martinsburg, W.Va., in 1953. A card indicated both my sister Ellen and I were well-behaved. It was my third rail journey. By age 3, I was a confirmed rail buff. Like I said, my people wrote a lot down.

I think my brother Eddie had it right when he observed that there is a fascinating connection between collectible autographs and family papers. I can look at my grandfather's handwriting and envision him, fountain pen in hand.

A few years ago, my brother took Grandmother Lily Rose's main Christmas cookie recipe and had it framed. It hangs in a place of high honor above his stove. Now that's the kind of thing that should be done, a celebration of the right kind of family history.

I asked my sister Ann, who is now raising three young children, including a pair of twin girls, how she dealt with the assignment in the dusty Baltimore cellar. Ever the tough and practical one, she advised me, "Forget the emotion. It's the nose."

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