By Daniel Hubbard | May 12, 2013
A week or so ago and in a round-about way, I got a question about a memorial plaque found in the ceiling of an old house during renovation and it got me thinking about the things we find that tell a little story or present a little mystery about the the places where we live. Live in a place long enough and the stories and mysteries start to be part of your own past and archeology becomes genealogy.
When I was a child, I “helped” my next-door neighbor enlarge her garden. She also happened to be my aunt, so it was a bit of a family project. Just like the house where I lived, my grandfather had built hers but she thought that the things we found that day were older than her father. I don’t remember all of it but we did dig up some rotten leather straps, the remnants of some sort of harness was her guess. I got to keep a key. It was the old-fashioned kind with a metal loop at one end to take a keyring, a round shaft and a metal tab with teeth at the other that looked like a tattered flag blowing in the wind. It was the kind that a child associates with fairy tales and stories of castles and secret, locked passageways. It was so brown and pitted with corrosion that it looked like something carelessly whittled from a piece of wood. I already loved history and that key was my very own piece of history that I had dug from the ground myself. I kept it in my room for years. It always gave me the sense of the passing of time.
My aunt’s theory was that there had been a fence where we had dug. The land had once been part of a farm and nothing much had happened there between the time of the farm and the day my grandfather started to build our houses. Everything we took from the ground that day fell in a straight, very fence-like line. My aunt thought that they were the kinds of things that a farmer might have had, the kind of things a farmer might have left along a fence and lost or forgotten, so they built up there, a few things every so often falling down and sinking into the ground before anyone took notice. Until that is the day we dug them up, when they were no longer the things of every day life but the things of history. Those things and their context told us a little story that day and I became just a bit more hooked on history. I probably became a bit more hooked every time I looked at that key, hidden in my closet with my baseball cards and a broken arrowhead.
A year or two ago, when we renovated a few things in our basement, I found an old cabinet under the stairs. I knew it had been there but I was a bit surprised that it was still there. In the twenty plus years I had lived elsewhere many things had changed but apparently not that cabinet. It was also something that I remembered from childhood. Not because it was nice. It was a piece of junk by any standard except the does-the-door-close standard. In fact it was the door that had fascinated me as a kid. I never met my grandfather. He died long before I was born, but there was some of him on that cabinet door. It was covered in the kind of scribblings that a carpenter would make—triangles and squares with measurements written beside them, long strings of addition that were probably calculations of how much lumber a job would take, people’s names and phone numbers with far too few digits, or so they seemed to a kid who had never seen a phone number shorter than seven digits long. These numbers even had letters in them. They were clearly mysterious if you were young enough. When I looked at it again, I recognized some of the names. They were names that simply sounded like they came from my aunts’ and uncles’ stories about their childhood. They were names that belonged in a certain time and place.
This week, in order to replace a broken stove, we had to tear out the cabinets that my grandfather had built for the kitchen. The space where the flour bin had been when I was a kid had been repurposed into drawers but they were still the same cabinets and even if the stove hadn’t broken, those cabinets were well passed their prime. Behind them were two scraps of paper that had fallen down over the years. One was a survey that I should have turned in September of my freshman year of high school. The other was a receipt for a doctor visit that my mother had made at a time that makes me suspect that being pregnant with me was behind that appointment. It was somewhat odd to find that little scrap of evidence for my future existence.
Something my mother had told me that we would find was an old Formica countertop hidden under the oven. It was much lower than the other counters. Before my father installed the oven, and before I could remember, that spot had been my grandmother’s spot for kneading bread. My grandfather had built the cabinet and counter at just the right height to be easiest on her back. I could get a feeling for her stature just from looking at what had been built for her. It turns out that all my older cousins have memories of our grandmother standing there kneading away, but it was something I never knew.
When we lived in Sweden, I was always joking about the viking treasure that I claimed to be sure was buried in our yard. Sometimes the treasure is a rusty key, some jotted notes or an old receipt. Sometimes the family history is in a bit of cabinetry at a height that makes it mysterious, unless you know the secret.