The Objects of Family History

When I think and write about history, I use words. My book about my father’s transformation from boy to man during his service in WWII relied on the more than 300 letters he wrote home to his family, his diary, and the writings of others in the European Theatre and historical accounts. My current project relies on oral histories and archives documenting the lives of women’s page editors during the era of second wave feminism. Lots and lots of words.

When others contemplate history, they look to images. Documentarians find ways for us to visualize unfamiliar times and places. Cara Finnegan, a communication professor at the University of Illinois, considers the role of photography in social and political history by examining images from eras including the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the Obama presidency.

A recent piece in the New York Times presents a third alternative for understanding history – objects. Sam Roberts notes that this trend can be seen a museum exhibits and documenting the history of the world, nations, or events through objects. For example, “to define America, the Smithsonian chose, among other objects, Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, Thomas Edison’s electric bulb and the birth control pill.”

Objects have heft. We can touch their surface, feel their weight. Objects have purpose. They do things that shape lives and events. Though not all objects survive, even those that don’t have a place in memory very different from words and images.

But our histories are not just wrapped up in nations and global events. Our family histories are much more intimate, and they, too, are often considered in terms of words and images. Our photo albums, our cherished letters, stories recalled at Thanksgiving gatherings.

Of course, we also recognize the “stuff” of our family histories. There is now an entire industry devoted to helping seniors divest themselves of the material goods that accumulate over a lifetime. And when parents die, children are often tasked with going through the objects that remain, making decisions about “who gets what” and what can be discarded. Olivia Judson wrote about the difficulty of this task, noting that simply saving the photographs wasn’t enough – it was the objects that held meaning.

 An old T-shirt waves at you and says, “Remember when we went to Hawaii together?”; a plastic cup reminds you of a party you went to one hot summer day. A dried corsage — where was the dance? who was the date? — reminds you of the girl you were, who thought a corsage worth saving. In other words, objects are keys to remembering what happened and who you were, and their loss can make the memories inaccessible.

With these thoughts in mind, then, I turned to the progeny of Joe and Margaret Miller – my sisters, nieces, nephew, and daughter – and asked them if there were particular objects that carried the memory and history of our family. For me, the first object that came to mind was The Dog – a dachshund head and tail separated by a wire spiral. When we were growing up and had to find an important note or receipt, we were often told that it could be found in The Dog.

Then the responses came in from others: the blue glass my mom collected and the quilts she created; dad’s jackets from the Army and from favorite college football teams; the old Royal typewriter that sat in the den, the sewing machine in the bedroom, the ping pong table in the basement; the rings they wore.

As I pored over these emailed lists, several object lessons of family history emerged for me. I expected that we would remember objects that were central to “who” my parents were – the typewriter, the quilts, the rings, the jackets. But it wasn’t these objects that dominated our lists. Instead, especially for my sisters and me, objects that mattered were those that could take us back to the everydayness of our growing up.

  • Those aluminum cups that we always pulled out for outdoor picnics.
  • The bamboo fishing poles we used at Sunnylake to catch perch and sunfish.
  • The VW Beetles that graced our driveway.
  • The LPs Dad loved to play on our old console stereo – Dixieland, Harper’s Bazaar, Harry Belafonte, Tony Orlando and Dawn (yes, you read that right).
  • The mixing bowls in the kitchen, the colored blocks we stacked as toddlers, the funnies from the Detroit Free Press.

I was also struck by how much the objects of our history connect us to places we value. For my sisters and me, those places were in Michigan. But for Joe and Margaret’s grandkids, the place was more often the Sarasota condo they visited. The two oldest grandkids both talked about pictures that are now hanging in their own homes. For Katie it was a whimsical picture of fish happily jumping into a pelican’s mouth that hung in the guest bathroom of the Siesta Key condo. She said, “there is something about that picture that makes me smell salt in the air and want to go walk on the beach and collect shark’s teeth with Grandma.”

And it became clear to me that there is no singular family history and that the objects we cherish are defined by our place within the family. For example, I received several emails that mentioned “Football Fairy Prizes.” This was totally foreign to me. But for grandkids (and their moms) who had watched college bowl games with Grandpa, these trinkets were important parts of family history.

These trinkets were also not a part of my daughter’s memories. As the youngest grandchild, she missed a lot of what was experienced by her cousins. She was only seven when her grandfather had his first stroke and barely eleven when they moved close to our home in Texas. So most of her memories of Grandma and Grandpa were close-up views of caregiving and, sadly, illness and decline. The object she thought of – and keeps with her – is a small wooden figurine of Mary that we bought in Bethlehem and that she gave to her grandmother just a year before she died. Mom rubbed the statue in her final months – it gave her comfort.

I will continue to work with the words of my family history. I will continue to be grateful that I can look at decades-old images of my forebears. But I’m especially happy that if my daughter is home from college and looking for a critical bit of paperwork, I can say “Just look in the dog.”

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