Louie, a former tenant, had a huge old truck with which he used to haul junk when people wanted a building or yard cleaned out.
Knowing our interest in antiques he called and said we should look at some stuff he now had. His offer was we could pick through and keep anything we wanted, and select stuff to sell. In exchange, he wanted a percentage of the proceeds from the items we sold.
I am a ceramics analyst and one item I kept was a battered mixing bowl. It was slip cast in a mold, hand painted on the exterior, and the interior glaze is crazed and heavily stained from ancient meals. I love this bowl. I mix cornbread and serve salad greens in it. If not in use, I have it out on display.
I wondered about the family that well-used bowl had helped to feed. And then, while going through more of the discarded stuff, I found a packet of letters all with cancellation dates of 1912; this got me started on research.
The letters were from one adult child writing to his/her parents. The parents’ marriage was foundering and their offspring was pleading with them to resolve their differences and save the marriage. The child went so far as to suggest that his/her parents go see a counselor.
In happier days, the child remembered, did the parents recall the fun times the family spent at their vacation home in Mexico? For me, evidence of this was born out by the sets of Mexican toy dishes and table linens with hand-embroidered designs characteristic of Mexico, as well as a broken porcelain doll that was carefully wrapped in Spanish language magazine pages.
I looked up the names on the envelopes in the Census. By 1920 the mother was living in Coronado, listed as widowed, and the father was living in National City and also listed as widowed. Divorce carried a heavy stigma at the time and these people didn’t want to deal with it, so they maintained the fiction that their respective spouses had died.
Additionally, I saw that each parent had one of their adult children, his/her spouse and that couples’ kids living in their household.
In the 1930 Census the man was missing, so I checked the California Death Index and found he had died. The now quite elderly woman had moved to an apartment and her companion was listed as “nurse” for a “private family.” I didn’t pursue the subjects’ past in historical records further.
Checking telephone listings of 2012, I noted there were people in both National City and Coronado with the same surnames as this family, and I suppose I could have contacted them to return those letters, but I didn’t want to. Louie had said the grandkids (those same people in the telephone listings) didn’t want any of Grandma’s old junk and they didn’t care what happened to it; they just wanted not to be bothered with it.
Truth be told, I felt rather depressed after reading through this pain-filled correspondence. So, as I said, I kept the bowl, took off the stamps for a boy I know who collects them, and burned the letters together with their envelopes.
As far as I am concerned, anyone who seemingly cares so little for their family items is possibly still dealing with fallout from a family tragedy that occurred sometime between 1912 and 1920.