My father at 4 years old
I love the hidden stories implicit in a found object– an “objet trouvé,” as the French would say. (And everything sounds better in French.) The beauty of found objects lies partially in them being so full of possibility, but also in what they teach us of empathy when we try to place ourselves in their story. In Bruges, I once found a small photo of a young man; it was precariously sat on a windowsill I passed by. I didn’t dare move it– perhaps it was left for the occupant on the other side of the window? Or perhaps the object of his affection had tossed it aside as she walked down the street, and it landed on this perch. Perhaps it had accidentally been dropped and another passerby had picked it up from the street, moving it where it might be found again, thinking somewhere, someone in town was looking frantically to find it. I left the photo, imagining that the story was still in play.
Or there’s the Grateful Dead songbook I stumbled on at a used book store, only to have a personal note fall out at my feet: “Jan. 1987. To Grace, with love, Krissy. When you’re older and wiser and living in Paris, I hope you’ll never forget our great times and the Grateful Dead. Welcome home!” I found this youthful time capsule for sale for a few dollars in the suburbs of DC in 2018. I hope that Grace is living in Paris and loving life. I hope this memento was only discarded because she travels light and keeps on truckin’, not because she’s lost touch with those great times and her friend Krissy. But who knows?
Another time, I found a tiny Bible in the £1 box at a British antique fair. I opened it up to find an amazing soldier’s story inside. But that lovely story should wait for its own post someday. Today, I have something else to talk about. The found object is my father. At four years old. Living in a small mill house in NC in the aftermath of the Great Depression.
I knew my father very well and loved him even better. I thought, foolishly, that I knew the book of his life. That I could pick it up off the bookshelf without having notes fall out and catch me by surprise. Moments of youthful joy, or family struggle, or any of the thousands of days and hundreds of thousands of hours that were his story and not mine, despite the tight weave of family that we share. To love someone well is to know them in a way that you feel their presence deep in your bones. But that doesn’t mean you know all the frames of their story, and it is an exquisite and poignant experience when these notes fall out of their book and land at your feet. It’s a gift that reawakens wonder and empathy. But I ramble on.
Pardon me. I’ll slow down and tell you about this found object.
A few weeks ago, I was walking a very particular path: the one year anniversary of my father’s death. A path by turns beautiful and rough; a week about enduring memory and love, as well as the sting of loss.
A very mundane thing happened that week. Ancestry.com emailed me that my DNA/origins information had been updated. It happens with some regularity. (And to my dismay, it always draws my regional circle tighter and never suddenly tells me: “Girl, we just found a Russian Tsaress/Egyptian pharaoh/Amazonian princess in your background!” Nope, I’m entirely Western European and mostly English, Scottish, Irish. In fact, I’m so Scottish that it’s baffling my hair isn’t flame-red. On the other hand, I’m no longer perplexed that my mother eats oats for breakfast every morning. Every. Single. Morning. She can’t help it– it’s in her DNA, apparently.) But I digress– which is easy to do in the mundane moments of your story.
I opened this ancestry update to find that I am still the most White Anglo-Saxon Protestant woman on the planet. I suppose the marketing team at Ancestry.com realized that this was not terribly exciting news, and they couldn’t automatically count on me rushing to purchase their services to learn more. They would have to pitch something specific of interest: my grandfather’s WWII draft registration card and a page from the 1940 census. For a small fee.
I already know my family history. I have pages and pages of names, dates, locations. I know who did the begetting and who was begat. But this meaningful coincidence– a small platter of tasty family morsels as I walked a week hungry with loss and heavy with my father’s spirit– this, I could not ignore.
Besides which, I’m a savvy researcher and was pretty sure I could find these documents online without paying the asking price. (Damn, there’s my Scottish frugality peeking through!)
So now we return to the beginning of this post- the place of found objects and enchanted spaces. The place where I find my father at 4 years old.
The 1940 census.
I opened the document and it was like opening the wardrobe door into Narnia. I absolutely couldn’t believe my eyes. There was this family that I know, but don’t know. My grandfather at 30. (He would be dead 9 years later.) My grandmother as a young mother to three boys, ranging from 4 down to less than a year. And those three boys– that happy few, that band of brothers, who joked and jostled and supported each other throughout their lives. Three tiny boys who dug tiny trenches in the backyard during WWII, believing that any minute Japanese Zeroes would swarm the sky over their small NC town and they’d have to take cover. Who dearly loved a little boy dog they misguidedly named Daisy. And who could never agree on which of them set off the cherry bombs inside the house. (Although they were all quite sure that the culprit had tried to throw them out the window, but missed.) That naughty and noble band of brothers is, today, reduced to a band of one.
But in the 1940 census, they are alive and well, in the first years of their journey and living in a rented house along with their parents and a lodger–their father’s Aunt Mattie.
I haven’t encountered Mattie before. Who is this Aunt Mattie, I wonder? And where is this house, exactly? I turn back to the internet to find it. To see where these people I love, but somehow don’t know at all, are living.
I find the house. It’s still standing today, unchanged on the outside. It’s a small mill house built in 1915. Two bedrooms for these three adults and three children.
The 1930’s were lean and mean years, and The Great Depression had not spared this community. Farmers scraped by. The mills spluttered and many closed their doors, selling off the mill houses. Dinner tables didn’t groan under the weight of hearty helpings. And people worked hard to simply stay afloat. I’d always believed that my parents grew up after this wave of hardship broke. That they were touched by those years, but not burdened. But peering into this small house, I wondered.
And so I turned back to the faded lines of the 1940 census, where I found information about my grandparents’ employment.
In 1940, my grandfather was working 70 hours a week as a cafe operator. My grandmother, who was college educated and was a teacher before having children (and again after my grandfather’s death), was working 40 hours a week as a seamstress in a cloth mill. This surprised me. In 1940, most women gave up work after getting married and having children — that was the expectation until the war effort really cranked up. If my grandmother was back at work with three tiny tots at home, and working in a job none of us ever heard her talk about later . . .this felt like hard times. And Aunt Mattie, whom I had guessed was there to help with the young children? Now I see that she was also working 40 hours a week, inspecting cloth in the mill. It seems that they were working mighty hard just to get by.
I know what they don’t know yet- that 1940 is the cusp where lean times begin the turn to boom times. But the price is another world war. I know that these three boys will grow up to be fine men, but I know also that personal tragedy and plenty of struggle will color their decade ahead. In this moment, I want so badly to actually reach out and touch them. To sit and talk. To just watch them and learn who they are, and how they are– these people I know but don’t know.
What a gift, this of all weeks, to stand in the doorway of this humble house, seeing the band of brothers, admiring my young grandmother, and trying to conjure the grandfather and great-great aunt that I never knew. I feel a strange mix of pride and sorrow. Proud of the determination and hard work of a family that will go on to raise three amazing men. Sorrow for the hardships and heartbreak I know will continue to touch this family in the years ahead.
I also feel wonder, and a little pain, that there is so much more I could learn about my father, so much more his life can teach me . . . but so much I am sure to never know.
It feels like a gift, this 1940 census. Like a magic portal. Like a little nudge from the universe, a whispered secret. A found object here, an old document there. A window into the lives we know intimately and not at all.
My father at 4 years old.