Boxes in the Basement

“We all grow up with the weight of history on us. Our ancestors dwell in the attics of our brains as they do in the spiraling chains of knowledge hidden in every cell of our bodies.” — Shirley Abbott

Months ago, I wrote about dividing up  Aunt Sue’s china, crystal, silverware, tea service, and jewelry among family members. Most of her valuables have been passed on.  On our Christmas Eve Eve celebration, I’ll set our table with her English Staffordshire dishes, and we’ll think of Sue.

But china and silverware weren’t the only things left to us. Several boxes have sat untouched, and Mike and I assured ourselves last winter that we’d go through them all, sorting the family pictures, discarding snapshots of strangers, and whittling down the stack of boxes into a smaller and more organized collection of memorabilia. One early December day, I suggested to Mike that we dig in, but he begged off. Too much to do. We left the task for another time.

Last week, though, I decided to rummage through the boxes on my own. Maybe I couldn’t identify all the people in the photos, but there might be some other stuff worth seeing. I headed downstairs, dragged a box over to the couch, and traveled back in time. Hours later, I lifted my head to discover that I was still in my own home and it was 2015.

Telegrams. A notebook filled with recipes. A tattered red Girl Graduate scrapbook from 1913-1914, Mike’s grandmother Catherine’s  keepsake from the College of St. Theresa.

Letters. From a father to his oldest daughter, beautifully written pages sent weekly during 1950. Mary was working in Milwaukee, Henry (Dad) and Catherine (Mother) lived in Spokane, where he’d been transferred. Henry mentions Mary’s  beau,  gives advice for planning a cross-country driving trip, describes his International Harvester corporate life, and refers to his Sunday night ritual of listening to Jack Benny.

More letters written in 1952 from Henry to his second daughter. Sue was in Minneapolis, and in love with her Air Force fiancé Ray stationed in Texas.  Their August 28 wedding was planned long-distance. On July 16, Henry wrote to Ray, filling him in on the scheduled events surrounding the marriage celebration. Henry did not live to walk his daughter down the aisle.

Yellowed newspaper clippings from the Minot (North Dakota) Daily News. Our Sue’s weekly Window Shopper column advisedthe ladies of Minot on fashion and gift-buying, her feature stories shed a light on interesting Minot residents.

I’m fascinated, mesmorized. What riches I’ve discovered, all worthy of archiving. But how? These gems are too lovely to molder away in a box in the basement. Can I weave the letters into a story? Can I create a chronicle worth reading?  The box might be my muse, but an elusive one.

Readers, I need advice. Where should I go from here?








Our Lady of Angels

“The most tangible of all visible mysteries – fire.” — Leigh Hunt

When I was a fourth grader at St. Bede’s School on the Southwest Side of Chicago, a fire raged at Our Lady of Angels School. Ninety-two students and three nuns were killed. Even though I lived miles away from this West Side parish, this tragedy is seared into my mind.

Our black and white television broadcasted the grim news that evening while my parents sat riveted to the screen.  As a nine-year-old, I was just beginning to read the newspaper. We got two — the Chicago Trib in the morning, the Chicago Daily News in the afternoon.  For the next few days,  I lay on our living room floor, reading article after article, poring over the horrific photos of the blazing building, the firefighters carrying dead children in their arms, the helpless and horrified  parents standing outside the inferno. The front page  displayed  photos of every victim — row after row of Catholic school kids just like me. I read interviews of firemen and policemen and of parents whose children perished. I learned a new word as I read — morgue– the place where parents went to identify their dead children.

Yes, OLA was different from my school. St. Bede’s was a one-story, sprawling structure, and we could have easily climbed out any window. OLA was a three story death trap where kids’ only escape was to jump from windows to the pavement below. Still, I was terrified, my imagination swirling with images of fire, panic, and death. And, I knew that my Worcester cousins went to a school called Our Lady of Angels, an old building not too different from the Chicago one. The coincidence choked me.

Soon after the fire, our family put up our Christmas tree, an annual gift from the North Woods of Wisconsin, shipped by my Uncle Art’s parents. Each year, our tree was crispy and brittle, but it was free, so we strung our colored lights, hung ornaments, and draped the tinsel my mother preserved year after year. In 1958, the tree was a specter of death. Would those red, green, and blue lights set those dried-out branches alight? Would a fire climb the boughs, leap onto our draperies, lick at my dad’s recliner, before creeping down the hall and up the stairs into my bedroom? Would my parents, my brothers and sisters die in a Christmas inferno? Nightly, I tossed and turned while my sister snoozed next to me. One night, I crept downstairs to check on the tree, and my dad, watching television, held me in his lap and reassured me. Sobbing, I begged him to unplug the lights. He did, but they were plugged in again the next night. We couldn’t have an unlit tree, after all.  I was relieved when the tree came down around the Epiphany — January 6 — but still fretted about our furnace, my dad’s cigarettes, a burner left on.

After the fire, schools across the country changed.  Fire codes were toughened. Fire drills were required. Decades later, when I was teaching, I supervised countless drills. I never, ever tolerated any kid to  horse around during a drill. “Geez, what’s her problem?” was unspoken but clear on the faces of my students, but that day in 1958 weighed on me every time that alarm would sound and I’d lead a class down a flight of stairs and into the parking lot.

The internet is full of Our Lady of Angels stories, photos, and filmed footage. I’m drawn to it, but fifty-seven years later, I can only consume small bits. The grainy black and white images from those old newspapers still grip me in terror. Yet, my trauma is a tiny matchstick compared to the hellish memories and pain of the survivors.

Today, our evening news horrors are mass shootings, unthinkable in 1958 America. What nightmares are now seeping into our children’s consciousness? Tighter laws now make our schools safe from fire. Where are the laws to stop massacres by killers with guns?