It has been hard to write author updates for the blog, with the last one being in the spring. Times have been rough. I lost my father in the first week of January, and my wife lost her dad at the end of May. Besides our fathers, three friends, two aunts, and an uncle have died in the past eighteen months. It’s been brutal.
I’ve been unemployed since the start of pandemic and our country dividing against itself. My wife is just ending her own stretch of unemployment from July to now, so we’ve been juggling fraught nerves stemming from that together. And, despite my efforts with diet and daily exercise, my diabetes worsened in April. I’m now using insulin for the first time to control it, and it’s an adjustment.
When times haven’t been rough, they’ve been busy. My mother passed away in 2012, so with my father’s death, my surviving siblings and I needed to go through the complicated emotional, legal, and financial work of dividing up my parent’s estate. This has consumed most of my time since July.
My writing has languished. I’ve been able to maintain my daily microfiction postings on social media between a combination of reruns, revisions and two or three new pieces a week. With what else I can spare, I’ve preserved a handful of fundamentals to keep my author platform afloat. I feel fortunate to have managed that. However, my greater goals are on hold. I understand the necessity of the big pause, but the stasis is still aggravating.
In August, my house became occupied by stacks and stacks of family heirlooms as we emptied my parent’s estate, and I became the caretaker of the family photographs and documents. I didn’t expect that role to become mine, but I embraced the responsibility with care and respect as we started the work of preserving and storing it all.
We set about digitizing all the photographs and documents to make a computerized archive alongside the physical originals. The pictures took about three weeks of work to scan and store. Mom’s collection totaled over four-thousand photographs and we spent several days alone sorting them out of frames, bags, and photo albums. While scanning the pictures is quick, each photograph required dusting at least. There are photographs tainted with adhesive residue and damage from storage in PVC “magnetic” photo albums and without care and cleaning, they’d dirty the scans and jam the scanner.
Mom also enjoyed a penchant for making photo arrangements by cutting up the prints and gluing them onto paper for framing. This required careful redress, as many of these are all that remained of some photos. Even freed from the arrangements, scanning the odd shaped prints thereafter became an added challenge.
The family papers took far less time to scan than the photographs, thanks to them being in overall better condition. However, the emotions that some of them unlocked often took time for me to process.
There are official documents like birth and death certificates. Newspaper clippings. Sentimental items like greeting cards, and handmade cards and letters from children. My mom’s report cards and homework from grade and high school made me smile. A collection of letters from my mom’s family spanning the mid-1940s into the 50s gave me a new perspective on the life of my grandfather, grandmother, and an uncle who died after my fourth birthday. An unexpected find is a commemorative book printed in the 1930s detailing the full history of my grandfather’s army company in the First World War. I found his worn serviceman’s prayerbook from 1917 next.
Another unexpected treasure is this photo of my mother and grandmother in the mid or late 1940s that I found tucked safe within Mom’s Bible:
Mom’s family was poor and photography expensive back then, so there aren’t many pictures of them from that era. Most of the ones we possess are staged portraits, but this one has a spontaneous sense of true-life, like a modern snapshot. I love it. Few pictures exist of my mother as a child, or of my grandmother before her old age, so this is a gift.
I stumbled into emotional bombs too. Something that hit me hard is the contract my great-grandmother handwrote on her deathbed that placed my maternal grandmother into indentured servitude in 1909, to another family in my hometown.
My grandmother was only three years old.
History can be heavy. Sometimes you find tragic words stained with tears and evil. My great grandmother was an abandoned, unmarried mom ostracized by her family in 1909, and dying at twenty-five of tuberculosis. Signed as if it is legal and binding, the contract is in fact illegal from the time of its writing because of the 13th Amendment passed forty years prior. The contract isn’t an inelegant adoption either, as unambiguous language states that a three-year-old is being taken on by the family to work as their servant.
This family took advantage of a dying woman desperate to find something, anything, to keep her daughter from the orphanages or the street. They worked her daughter for close to two decades like a disfavored child, not revealing the truth of her origins until her wedding to my grandfather. At which point, they told her they had never adopted her as they’d led her to believe. They let her go with nothing, just a servant leaving their employ.
I went to school with the great granddaughter of the couple that signed this contract and purchased the servitude of the child who became my grandmother. It’s a radical shift realizing that the family of someone you grew up with purchased and, in effect, owned your grandmother for a time.
I pondered about how my ancestry links to this past evil, and how its harm cascaded through time and influenced events. The contract explains to a point the social stigma my grandmother faced in my small hometown. How that passed to her children and is a facet of the poverty my mother grew up in. I’m sure it plays a role in my father’s family disapproving of his relationship with Mom, which didn’t improve after they eloped.
My mother was emotionally fragile and codependent, something that led to multiple family traumas when paired with the worst aspects of my father. The contract isn’t a direct cause of that, but I’m sure its legacy rippling through generations exerted a tangible influence on her environment, choices, and options.
History can be heavy, but it changes your perspective.
Something else that changed my perspective is my personal rediscovery of how creativity ran in my mother’s family. As a child and into adulthood, they pegged me as the only “creative one” in the extended family. The sentiment became a painful point of separation in my youth. As Mom would tell me, I was “so different” from the rest of them. However, new discoveries change my understanding of this: In fact, both my mom and her brother were creatives too. Both wrote poetry and essays. Mom played guitar, sang, and composed original songs. Uncle created art with pen and pencil drawings, along with being a prolific correspondence writer.
Although they often pushed aside their creativity with how they lived their lives and let events impact them, the spark nevertheless exists on the pages when they let it manifest. Both downplayed and hid their talents, and therefore I didn’t understand how important an aspect writing existed as a part of their lives back then. Reading their works now, though, I’ve learned they processed many of their pains, joys and thoughts through writing. Between them, there’s a special legacy left to our family from how they embed art and emotion into our lore. Dry facts and records can’t capture that.
Mom wrote poetry expressing her traumas. You can read the ebb and flow of her mental state piece-to-piece in the ones she wrote to my father during his affair and abandonment of her not long after my birth. She writes saccharine poems for a time in the immediate aftermath of their reconciliation… words trying too hard to paint a pretty picture of a family I know in intimate detail as one navigating and floundering through rough years. But Mom also wrote of her legitimate joys and her memories. Poems about her childhood, mother, father, and siblings. There are charming lyrics she composed about our family’s use of citizens band radio in her “C.B. Song” from the late 1970s. Another song is a sad ode to her beloved dog Lady, who fought a rabid fox to protect her in 1978 and needed to be euthanized after she contracted rabies from her wounds. Since Mom’s focus is almost always on an aspect of our family, her pieces are a unique preservation of our history in art. They’re wonderful to have.
Her brother — my “crazy” uncle — lived a hermit’s life deep up in the Maine woods. In a nutshell, he lived like Thoreau at Walden and drank like Hemingway. He passed away in 2004, and Mom preserved her brother’s papers. They now make up a sizeable chunk of the archive. There’s a thick folder of his artwork, and a larger collection of loose papers comprising his poems, essays, and letters I’ve attempted to organize. His hardbacked journal is in the collection, and even a notebook containing either a novel manuscript or something meandering between that and a personal journal. His work is almost all handwritten in a tight, shaky cursive that takes time to read. However, after you decipher his scrawl, Unc’s personality as a man who couldn’t stand most humans but loved nature with a passion is clear and alive in his words.
Unc’ and I share a love for The Lord of the Rings, which is a special bond for me as a fantasy writer. I guard his set of paperbacks printed in September 1973 — the year and month Tolkien died — with the Argonath on my bookshelf. They’re worn, loved treasures that spent thirty years with him in his Aroostook County cabin.
His handwritten papers are the most authentic “recovered from a hermit’s cabin deep in the Maine woods” things you’ll ever see: Creased, aged, and stained by tobacco smoke, alcohol, sweat, and dirt. And just like Mom’s writing, they provide an amazing insight into a private life.
Through their words preserved on paper, I’ve been able to forge a writer’s connection across time to my family. I’m no longer the only “creative one”. Mom is no longer the only poet. Unc’ is no longer the only one writing of the woodlands.
I am no longer an anomaly.
I am a legacy.
~Jason H. Abbott
Featured Image: “星溜り” by Mocha