I closed the door to my Aunt Betty’s home for the last time today. Locked it up. Said goodbye to the cherry tree she loved so much. A few weeks ago, the grounds crew came and pruned the tree. Melinda and I cried, and as our tears flowed, we were ready to go to battle for the beloved tree, but they didn’t take the whole tree down, just cut it back away from the roof. It was too soon. Too fresh. Too painful. Today, two buildings down, the pressure washers were in high gear, getting the condos ready for a new coat of paint. We are leaving all that to the new owner who came by to talk to the paint crew about what he wants them to do. But now, after a few months of digging and sorting and trashing and giving stuff away, it is time to close the door. The essence of Betty doesn’t live there any longer. Without her organ, instruments, music, magazines, newspapers, books it is a vacant empty place. Somehow, that makes it sadder than when all her things were still there even though she wasn’t.
We have dispersed as much as possible to friends, family, and organizations. I have one remaining meeting with the Atlanta Historical Society to look through some of her Olympic memorabilia and historical Atlanta stuff she had in her collection. The new owner said he would get rid of anything we left behind, so I left a few things that were iconic Betty items. Her organ shoes. Her 1960 bathing suit cover up made from a towel, that she still proudly wore at family summer gatherings. Many of the wall hangings, which she made herself were left in their places because it seemed like they should always be there, like they belonged to the dwelling place. I am aware that these items are sentimental and it grieved me to leave them behind, knowing they will probably get tossed. I just don’t have the space to keep every item, and I didn’t have it in me to be the one to throw them out.
As I left, I gazed at the front door that has belonged to her for 50 years, and I thought how appropriate it for it to get a fresh new color. It would seem somehow disrespectful for it to still be Betty’s door with a different owner. The new paint inside and out will revitalize the place and bring life to it again. The cycle of life…seen in the paint crew simply doing their jobs in the summer sun. The perspective gained looking through those windows will change. The door will open and close to different viewpoints. The inside and the outside will begin again to embrace the next generation. The Cherry tree will remain, pruned but very much alive, to provide beauty to those who come and go through the door…the door, I just locked and walked away from.
However, the last load in my car gives me the feeling I am carrying Betty with me. Boxes of old pictures with antique and unknown family members in them are overflowing. Files of family history yet to be gone through. And then there is the big family Bible, a treasured artifact passed on to my generation at Betty’s death. There is a linage and a history that cannot be ignored by my heart. An open book. It sits upon my table calling me to come with my curious spirit and soak in the history of me.
Within its pages, I see letters from family members, just sharing their daily activities back from the days when long distance phone calls were luxuries. There are beautiful Easter cards pressed in between pages. Then there are some messages, older still, Western Union telegrams, “Arrived here ok. Stop. Stopping at Viking Hotel. Stop.” (And I have trouble getting my kids to text me!) There is an obituary that begins with “The death angel visited us again this week…” and another one that says “The Lord in his wisdom, love and goodness has seen fit to take from our midst another one of his children to join the heavenly family where there shall be no more separation.”
A letter from my grandmother that says, “Ossie is leaving today to pick cotton. I sure will miss her, but she can make $1.25 a hundred and I sure don’t blame her. She will be back in about a month I suppose.” There is more about canning green beans and melting peppermint candy to mix in with the ice cream to make it flavorful. Those long-ago times, were so very different. These letters are like windows. There are poems, both handwritten and printed. A fiftieth wedding anniversary napkin is pressed flat between the pages of 1 Cor. 13. A faded purple ribbon with the words Our Mother in the center snipped from a funeral spray as a memento. In the center of this enormous book is the family linage handwritten in the script of one of my ancestors. It goes all the way back to the birth of my great, great, great grandparents in 1827. Marriages are recorded, and each page has a list of all the children born. My great grandmother is among them.
Along with the Bible is a notebook full of letters that are brown with age. Brittle and fragile, I must take great care to make out the lettering from back in the 1880s. Some of the oldest pictures I have found in treasure hunt Betty left for us are in this notebook. They are pictures of those listed in the family Bible, along with poetry between lovers, letters between sisters, and notes of parents to children. One is a handwritten marriage invitation from November 8th 1887!
The faces on my dining room wall seem to almost smile I as peruse these family artifacts. After all, the poetry between lovers was written by some of them. Their serious demeanors in the photos don’t give away these things, but their hearts are clear in their written words of love for one another. What to do with them? How to preserve them? I do not know, but I plan to find out when I go to the Atlanta Historical Society. While today was the time to close the door, it was also the day to open the book.