My wonderful Gram and me in 1999.
My beautiful grandmother Jean passed away in February of 2008, her mind ravaged by the same dementia that stole away her own mother’s mind some forty years before. It was a particularly cruel end for a woman who prided herself on her excellent memory and who had delighted in storytelling. Gram had a repetoire of hilarious family tales she had perfected and never tired of telling–nor did we tire of listening to them. It was an unspoken custom, whenever the family came together, that we would end each evening–inevitably–at the dinner table, laughing until we couldn’t breathe as Gram rolled out story after story of our favorite family mishaps.
Gram also had a wonderful memory for faces and names. As a young girl I would beg her to pull out her old Sibley’s Department Store box full of photographs of her own youth, and listen rapt as she narrated the stories of the long-ago friends and family she found within. I loved our time together with the Sibley’s box. I felt in a way that the stories belonged to me, too…even though I had never known the relatives in Gram’s photos, they seemed familiar, comfortable to me.
When the time came in 2004 for my grandparents to move from the house in which they had lived for 50 years and into an assisted living community, we did our best to help them pack. But Gram was already showing signs of uncharacteristic forgetfulness, and the process of moving seemed to shake her usually unflappable personality to the core. When the dust settled it became clear that not every important item had survived the move. Heirloom furniture pieces from my Gram’s family had been axed from the “keep” list by my grandfather, who, not understanding their importance, merely saw them as dead weight during the move. My father’s insistence had spared Gram’s Scottish tallcase clock, but only just. In the end, to appease my grandfather, the clock went home with my parents in the back of a Ryder truck.
And when, settling in to her new home, Gram went to find her Sibley’s box of photographs, she discovered to her horror that it was nowhere to be found.
She only spoke of the loss of the box once to me, and through tears. Her entire record of her family, she said, was lost forever. She found one dog-eared copy of a photo of her parents among her things, which she treasured until the end of her life four years later. It was the only picture she had left to remind her of her parents’ faces, she told me. But all the photos of her beloved brother Billy, who drowned in Lake Ontario when he was 15 and she was 4, were gone, and that absolutely broke her heart. I never mentioned the Sibley’s box again.
My heart was broken, too.
This past Christmas, my folks and I traveled up to Rochester, New York, to visit my grandfather. His health wasn’t good, and he seemed eager to have me go through my grandmother’s things and pick out anything I wanted to have. My mother and I spent the better part of a day looking through Gram’s things and uncovered many treasures we could take to remind us of her. I was looking through Gram’s books when Mum announced she was going to try to find Gram’s wedding gown which Gram had kept at the top of my grandfather’s closet. Ten minutes later, Mum returned from the next room carrying three boxes. One contained Gram’s gorgeous lace wedding gown from 1943, one contained my great-grandmother’s breathtaking silk wedding blouse from 1902, and the third box…oh. Oh Lord.
The third box read: “Sibley’s.”
I had eyes for nothing else as Mum pulled off the cover. There they all were: my great-grandfather and great-grandmother Will and Nellie, my great-grand-aunts Kate and Mary, my great uncle Billy, and my great-great grandmother Bessie. I couldn’t help myself: I sat on Gram’s bed and cried. I wasn’t able to collect myself for a good two minutes. I cried for all of Gram’s pain at losing the pictures, I cried out of relief at finding them again. I cried thinking that Gram wouldn’t ever know the Sibley’s box had never really been far from her at all. And then a thought occurred to me that made me smile through my tears.
“Do you know what this is?” I asked my mother, who was sitting quietly beside me, sifting gently through the treasured box of memories. She raised her head to hear my answer. I was laughing and crying at the same time now, and I had a vague notion that I was starting to speak the like script of a Lifetime movie, but I didn’t care.
“Can you believe what a hot ticket she is?” I laughed, “Mum–this is our Christmas present…from Gram.”
Mum grinned. “You know, I think you’re right.”
Scanning this treasure trove of photos will take weeks, perhaps months. It will keep me occupied well into the Spring, and I couldn’t be happier. My heart is light now. My family and my history have been returned to me.
Thanks, Gram. You always give the best presents.
A treasure from the Sibley's box: my great-grandfather, William Hislop Miller, in 1900 at the age of 24.