"There's a bit of magic in everything, and some loss to even things out." -Lou Reed

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Twenty Boxes

Not much about moving is pleasant, and this recent move was more stressful for me than any other I can remember. But, in the aftermath, I have finally tackled unpacking some items that have been bundled away for years.

I have twenty boxes that have gone through my countless moves--across the country and back-- and to the various cities I have inhabited on the east coast. These boxes contain things that I don’t need in my everyday life, and much of the contents are remnants of my childhood, or just forgotten pieces of my life at the point they were taped shut.

These are the boxes that have ended up in the spare bedroom, or a storage unit, regrettably with the same tape they were sealed with left unbroken. During this move, I purposely decided to go through those particular boxes in the beginning of the unpacking process.

This decision has slowed down my overall progress, but I have found possessions that I had forgotten existed. Some have brought tears, smiles or both, and a few items met the wastepaper basket. But discovering things like old love letters, photos with faded colors and yellow edges, old birthday cards from my grandmothers-both gone now, and art pieces I made in Kindergarten, have left me on the floor sorting through memories and forgetting the time.

Last night, I came upon an album with all of our old family photos-- my parents staring into the lens of the camera with young faces from a house unknown to me. Me, a toddler, smiling over a birthday cake with two candles. My sister, tall and skinny, nine years my senior, on the floor playing Monopoly with me in my footed pajamas. I am drawn into these pictures because so much of my family is a mystery to me. I don’t understand my parent’s marriage; I don’t understand the dynamic between me and my father. I don’t understand their need to keep secrets about their childhoods or mine. I get caught up in these photos, scouring the sepia images hoping to find answers.

A few years ago, I decided to work on our family tree, joined ancestry.com, pulled what little information I could get out of my mother, and started to work. Through my own research and the wonder of the internet, I discovered family members whose names I had never heard before, and more details about the names that were familiar. But I hit a point when certain things weren’t adding up. I couldn’t connect this person or that to my family, or find the name I needed. There were missing pieces in the puzzle of our family that I just could not uncover. If I had reached the point in my research where I was five generations back, and records were sparse, it would be one thing. But I was barely beyond my grandparents when the lines seemed broken.

I called my mother. I explained the trouble I was having and found out through that conversation that my dad’s father did not share our last name. He was his biological father, but my father had changed his last name to his mother’s maiden name when he was very young. The reasons for this weren’t offered, even after probing, except to let me know that the reasons weren’t good ones. I was a bit stunned as I hung up the phone. Over the years, I had looked at the one picture we had of the grandfather I had never met, seeing my father in his face so clearly looking back at me. I had asked a million questions it seemed, remembered asking, but not getting answers. And now I was finding out that in truth, my family’s last name should have been something else. I wondered if I was overreacting, if anyone else would just see this as a pulled thread in the quilt of a family. But to me it seemed as if I had lost a little of my identity, and had a whole part of my family I didn’t know and never would.

With this information, and the correct last name, I was able to fill my family tree with many branches. But so many of the names seemed so lost to me, as if they were all people who lived in another country, too far away to visit, and seldom talked about due to distance.

I know there is pain in my father’s past. I know this pain has manifested itself in ways I would like to forget. I know that his pain—in general terms—has been used as an excuse for countless things. And while I can understand that there are some things I don’t need to know, the whole of my parent’s past has been a well guarded secret. I have been told bits and pieces of happy memories, explanations of photos here and there, but the subject quickly changes when deeper questions are asked.

I know that compared to what my parents keep packed away emotionally, my twenty boxes are a small stash. I still foolishly hope that somewhere within the cardboard and tape I will find some answers. I think that was the reason I left them untouched for so long. I knew that any hope died if I unpacked and inspected every item, every letter, every photo, and didn’t find the missing piece to make all the disjointed memories fit.

I have six boxes left.

A part of who I am will always be unknown to me. But the ache to know and the absence of answers have made me who I am. I sometimes imagine that somewhere, in their attic perhaps, my parents have twenty boxes. They have always been hidden from me, and one day I discover them. And with each item I unearth, one of my questions is answered. And then, when the last box is empty, I know everything. All of the pain and secrecy make sense.

For now, as I cut the tape of box number fifteen, I still have hope.


Cheri Pryor August 19, 2009 at 3:49 AM  

((hug)) my friend. I cannot imagine the frustration of knowing there is a secret but not being able to discover what the secret is....especially with something so important and personal as "who you are".

Maybe when that last box is unpacked you will realize that the contents from ALL of them is what made you who you are today and the rest isn't as important anymore.

Cheri Pryor August 19, 2009 at 3:51 AM  

P.S. Is that your new attic? Because if it is I could totally see myself sitting in some big, oversized chair reading for days and weeks and months. I LOVE ATTICS!!

Rainysoul August 19, 2009 at 7:11 AM  

Wow, that's tough, and I've been there. When I was 16 I found out I had an older brother...I've seen pictures, but still have never met him. When I was 36 (just this year) I finally got to talk to my bio. dad on the phone, and he sent me pictures...I had never even seen a picture of him before. He even had baby pictures of me! I understand secrets and needing answers, and sometimes its really really great to get some. I hope the best for you, and that you can find some of the peace that you need.

mysterg August 19, 2009 at 8:01 AM  

Personally I feel that some things are best left unknown...it doesn't matter where you came from, it matters who you are.

But by the sounds of it, a trawl through newspaper archives may prove fruitful.

Michelle Johnson August 19, 2009 at 9:25 AM  

Genuine feelings spill from your post today. I hope you can find some if not all of the answers you are looking for. But, in the meantime I wish you well unpacking and enjoying your new home. Have a great day.

Cara Smith August 19, 2009 at 9:28 AM  

Secrets can be like a cancer on both sides. For the keepers eating away at their heart and soul and for you not knowing eating away at your mind. Unfortunately, when secrets come out they hurt more than you could ever suspect.

Remember - you already are who you are supposed to be. Knowing what terrible thing a family member did or who you are related to wouldn't change that. If you let it, you would loose part of what makes you wonderfully you!

lydia eve August 19, 2009 at 10:39 AM  

I love how this post and the one about your suitcase are both about opening up. In my life I've found that the things that hurt the most are the ones we keep "packed away." They tend to fester and boil and turn into something much larger than they should have been. Perhaps with the unknown history of your family, the opening up isn't that you're going to uncover the secret, but that you're saying out loud that part of your history IS a big ol' secret. Saying that it sucks not to know, but, as a couple other commenters have said, you are who you are, and that won't change with a big revelation. Bravo for letting it out! :)

Newly and Forever, Tamantha August 19, 2009 at 10:48 AM  

Your post touched a nerve with me for a few of the same reasons...I recently found out that the last name I have been using all my life isn't really my last name. When my grandparents immigrated here, they changed the spelling and I have no idea what it originally was! If you look at my name, you would assume I was Greek, but I have no Greek ancestry and I somehow, through no fault of my own, feel like an imposter..My other grandmother died a year ago and I didn't know her very well, so what I learned about her after her death, made her seem even more a stranger. It's wierd to feel that way with family..and it really made me want to know my parents more...to know more about where and what I come from! Thanks for the post!

ashd August 19, 2009 at 10:49 AM  

Thank you for sharing these emotions with us. You have a way with words and I definitely hope that some day you might find some of the answers you are searching. I applaud you for unpacking the never unpacked boxes - Treasure the good memories and make more each passing day!

Eva Gallant August 19, 2009 at 10:50 AM  

You write so well; I get totally caught up in your posts.
Like Pandora's, there may be some boxes better left unopened.

cheryl (clee') August 19, 2009 at 10:58 AM  

My family is not as mysterious as yours, but we have our minor secrets too. A cousin born "out-of-wedlock" (hate that term) was given up for adoption and I've never found or met him.

I did want to point out that your last name COULD have been different, but no reason why it SHOULD be. That's just a convention that the rest of the world doesn't share. In Iceland, all daughters take the father's name as in Elsa Olafsdottir, while her brother would be Eric Olafsson - not even the same name. Many women I know are keeping their own names after marriage, and the next step would be for men to sometimes change THEIR names instead :)

Anonymous,  August 19, 2009 at 11:04 AM  

Your words always speak to my soul...many secrets came out after my fathers death, it made the abuse I suffered as a child even more confussing, your blog was like looking into my own family album...thank you again for sharing your heart!

Daphne August 19, 2009 at 11:09 AM  

Your post brings up a lot of questions about identity. What makes us who we are? What does our last name mean? What does it say about us? Why are names so important? Does it matter who our family was or what they did?

I think you'll find your own way in this journey, but I would say the most important things about your identity come out in the way you interact with people, in the way you engage with your relationships. The people who are important in our lives are not always family or related or perfect. We might share a name with someone, or be related to someone genetically, but we do not have to be responsible for them or their choices. Knowledge of our personal and family histories simply gives us more information for us to filter, and claim or discard.

The way we approach, navigate, and resolve these situations tells us who we are. Good luck with the project.

John August 19, 2009 at 12:08 PM  

Good luck with your search. I have also done some genealogy work and find it interesting that unlike previous generations, we are pretty unconcerned with our heritage. I think of it as a sliding window of time: we know our parents, usually our grandparents, maybe our great grandparents if we are lucky, and that's it. This 'window' slides along with each new generation. There is not much consideration given to who came before, how we ended up in this country, what sacrifices were made that lead us to this life we enjoy. I think it should be much more common to have a family tree that is passed down from generation to generation. Perhaps technology will make something like this more practical, such as an online tree that each generation can 'join' and submit their info.

I regret I did not get more information from some of my older relatives - I am sure there were some great stories that are lost forever.

John August 19, 2009 at 12:11 PM  

PS I LOVE your Paris pictures! I am returning there for a visit with my family in a few weeks and your pictures get me even more excited! Well done...

Goldibug August 19, 2009 at 12:50 PM  

Keep up that hope because one day when you least expect it you'll find your answers. It may be decades from now but eventually you'll find them and be at peace. My mother's biological father has left a huge part of our family a mystery also. He refuses to give answers and my grandmother doesn't care to know about her ex any longer. I don't understand why questions are left unanswered for so long but I know that one day I'll have them answered. Just like you I don't know when.

Pat August 19, 2009 at 1:35 PM  

I was very moved by your post. I hope you find the answers you are looking for. When both my parents died, my siblings and I had to go through my parent's house. We can across a couple of love letters that my mom had written to my dad before they were married. It was so sweet. We also find the original name tags from the bassinets in the hospital from when my twin sister and I were born. All these years my mom had told us that we were 8 minutes apart. On the tag it said that we were 10 minutes apart. So who was right? It's just a little detail, but I can't ask my mom to clarify it. Digging through old boxes can be interesting, but surprising.

Angella Lister August 19, 2009 at 4:28 PM  

It's the noblest of all quests, the quest to know yourself. Keep asking your mom. She may one day give more answers if she thinks you can handle them. Beautiful, beautiful post.

Allie Rose August 19, 2009 at 7:51 PM  

I am familiar with this journey. I am a teenager but I face many of the same questions as well as some of the obstacles.I wish you the best of luck in finding what you are looking for and congratulations on finally opening the boxes.

Helen August 19, 2009 at 7:51 PM  

I've been following your blog for a little while now, since it was put up as a Blog of Note, and I have to say, all of the posts I've read have touched me, because for several, I've been there.

My family has many secrets, ones that I keep for my parents' sake, ones that they keep for mine, and I'm sure many more that I haven't even begun to touch upon. For example, I have a half sister somewhere, but I have never met her, or even seen a picture. I know she has light hair and eyes, and her first name is Megan. She is older than me by at least three years. If my father, who is also her father, knows more, he refuses to say and as an unwilling only child, I long to know more. But it's a secret.

And your suitcase... I know how that feels, but for the opposite reason. I went to Maryland this May to see my husband while he was in technical school for the Army. I hadn't seen him in over 4 months, and we spent a total of 4 days together. It wasn't enough, not really. When I came home, the suitcase that I took with me lay on my bedroom floor for over a month. I was scared to unpack it. I was afraid that if I did, if I broke the spell, something awful would happen and he would never come home. It sat there and mocked me, until the week he was supposed to come home, in late June. Then, finally, in my haste to clean everything, I unpacked it without a thought... then stood back and understood what I'd done. And I didn't know why, but I cried, because I had been so honestly petrified. It's amazing the hold that memories and objects can have on us when we least expect it.

Keep going through those boxes, and then when you're done, step back and breathe. Because not only will you have found missing pieces of yourself, you'll have found some much needed relief, too.

Andi Smith I live in August 19, 2009 at 8:43 PM  

You use a lot of symbology with boxes in quite a few posts I've read on your blog.


2 Teach The Teacher August 19, 2009 at 9:11 PM  

How difficult that must be for you to have this emptiness that you're dealing with. I don't think your anscestry should be considered as a pulled thread, especially if you feel the way you do about the whole situation. I've worked for an attorney in the past and have had people change their family names for various reasons. I don't blame you for wanting to get this "pulled thread" fixed.

nikgee August 19, 2009 at 10:22 PM  

That's funny, I am also a collecter of my oast memories.It could come in any shape or size. a birthday card, grammar school report card, a penguin stuffed animal, I save it all. I actually saved everything I've ever written via journal scrap of paper, napkin, resturant place mat, you name it. I got a half dozen big plastin crates I lug around. And the number keeps growing. It seem as if I can't bare to part with any of it.

I'm still triping on the other part of your story, dealing with family identity. I too don't bear my biological fathers name. Maybe it would be a story saved for another time. I do wish you luck on your quest...nick

Bengal Tigress August 19, 2009 at 10:31 PM  

you write with such genuine sentiment. i hope the journey to get the answers is not too painful.

Joe August 19, 2009 at 10:58 PM  

Many of us know those boxes, Kim. You've expressed that experience in ways that we can identify with, especially the losing track of time. Just a suggestion: don't let the secret overwhelm the good memories, because those good moments were real, too.

Seeker August 19, 2009 at 11:47 PM  

Do secrets in your family history define who you are? The two haunting questions in life are: Who are you? What do you want? Many times we may be able to answer the second but not the first. Too often we feel the necessity to find qualifiers to answer the question...Who are you? Do you feel that incomplete family history will help define who you are?

Sometimes the truth we seek may not be the truth we need.

~JarieLyn~ August 20, 2009 at 2:16 AM  

I know what you are going through. I found out that my grandma wasn't my real grandma. I learned this when I was a freshman in high school from my step brothers. I felt devastated. One, for being lied to all those years, and two, that my step-brothers knew all about it and my siblings and I did not. I still don't know anything about my real grandmother or her family. It's like you mentioned in your post, that you feel like you are missing part of your identity. Ugh! I don't think about it anymore.

Dull Scissors August 20, 2009 at 6:28 AM  

Wow. I, too, have several boxes that have a rainbow of moving van stickers on them from my many moves over the years. It seems that at each move I open just one, and lose myself for hours in the contents. I still have several more. For me, I've recently been opening the 20 boxes in my mind and my memory. Uncovering the secrets to my recent depression and attempting to build a ladder out to peace. Blogging has helped me be a more impartial examiner, but has also opened me up to stories like yours. Suddenly now I want to spend my day digging though YOUR old posts, to see if I find a nugget that fills in a gap in my understanding of myself....

John August 20, 2009 at 12:20 PM  

Here's a blog where one family is logging the family tree electronically. A little hard to follow, but a cool idea!


Laura Martone August 23, 2009 at 4:18 AM  

Thank you for this post - it's incredibly poignant, and I can sympathize with your need for answers about your family history... As someone who lost almost all of her childhood memorabilia in Hurricane Katrina, I can also understand the desire to keep somes boxes closed, hoping beyond hope that they contain things you only think you've lost. Going through my two storage spaces recently confirmed all the lost things... sometimes, I wish I'd never opened them. Then, I wouldn't know how many baby photos, video tapes, books, games, puzzles, trophies, and other beloved mementos are forever gone.

Your blog has moved me so much at times that I'm honoring it with a B-I-N-G-O Beautiful Blog Award. Congratulations, Kim!

Glennis August 23, 2009 at 4:28 AM  

As I have just finished shifting....yet again, I can relate to having 20 boxes as yet unpacked. But your story generally I can not relate to, I believe I know my family history, that all those boxes have been opened and explored, so I feel for you not knowing,I hope all is revealed to you in time.

D.S. Williamson August 23, 2009 at 1:03 PM  

I hope you find the answers you are looking for, if not in the many boxes, within your heart to know, that whatever was the past, good or bad, that it is today and who you are that truely matters. I do want to say, I enjoyed how you tied your unopened box into your search for your family history. Nicely done. DS Williamson

Clara August 23, 2009 at 6:21 PM  

We eill never solve the heathcare problem until we get the insurance
companies out of the picture.
Insurance is one of the biggest
rip offs there are.
an example
my mortage company wants me to buy
insurance in case something happens to me.
They are the ones who need to take out the insurance.
The best dental inxurance only pays
about a half of the bill
half the bill is what the services should cost any way.
The only reason the dentists charge twice what it should be is
because of the insurance.
I say, do away with insurance and
you will see charges coming down.

Insurance is always a bad bet
90% of the time you would be better off putting what you pay for insurance in a savings account

try telling that to the government
and you will get no where because the insurance companies are too powerful - they are the ones making the money
that is my 2 cents worth

Svetlana August 23, 2009 at 8:24 PM  

Be careful what you are wishing for because you might just get it. Your parents’ reason for keeping secrets may be to spare you some major heart ache. I do not believe that all relatives are keepers. Some close relatives in my life proved to be so poisonous and treacherous that I made the decision - which I have never regretted - to completely alienate myself from them, our close degree of relation notwithstanding. We may share common blood, but I do not consider them to be my family in spirit. It was very liberating not to have them in my life any more. I also do not tell my children about those people - I do not keep secrets, I simply do not mention them. I thew away all pictures of them from our family albums avoiding the chance for my children to accidentally come across them. However, my kids still occasionally hear about these people from my Mom who believes that you stick by your relatives however nasty they are, and when my children asked me why I terminated all relationship with those people, I told them my reasons (without going into every detail, though). I do not believe my children are traumatized by this decision of mine, and I know I eliminated the threat for them to be mistreated in the future by those particular individuals. I would get rid of a poisonous tarantula if I saw it close to my kids, so why should this situation be any different? And I would not feel compeleld to tell my children about that tarantula ever being in their vicinity simply because it is a part of their personal history.

I understand your curiosity, but sometimes ignorance is a bliss. And knowing the details of those ancient rifts within the family is not going to change who you are.

Nabeel September 21, 2009 at 12:24 AM  

the sunlight in your attic is gleamingly beautiful


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