I just got back a couple of days ago from Huntington, WV. My last uncle – Peter – died at 96 and I, along with my cousin Sara, sister Mary and (later) her son John, had to clear out his last room at a retirement center in Huntington.
I came from California, Mary and her son John came from Minnesota, and Sara came from Florida.
While West Virginia is a part of my life – and heart – I quickly realized that this was to be a “working vacation” because so much had to be done in such a short time.
Well, after a day I decided to scratch any reference to the “vacation” part.
We had 2 days to completely clean out his room, and the last day to bury him at the family cemetery. We were under the gun, so to speak.
Two days to eliminate a lifetime of material things that were important to Peter.
We created 3 piles of all of his remaining earthly possessions.
1. Stuff we keep.
2. Stuff we shred.
3. Stuff we toss.
Mind you, since we were working with a severe time constraint, we didn’t have a lot of time for debate, particularly for things we would toss vs. keep. And certainly within the “toss” column there were certainly those things that we knew others could use – such as clothing for the Salvation Army.
And with a bit of a smile a stuffed bear someone had given him in his final months was given to a woman with Alzheimer’s – and I saw the smile light up on her face.
Some good things can come from sadness.
For the “stuff we shred” I went through a 100 lb. box full of financial records. Most of this was easy – if it had numbers it got shredded.
But I was surprised by some things deemed important to Peter – a bank savings book (remember those?) from 1956 by Glendale Federal Savings in Studio City, CA.
That intersected with a bit of my own life, as Peter was one of the millions who after WW2 decided to make California their home (along with my mother and aunt). He lived there for over 40 years.
I can remember at a young age having Peter at my house there when my parents were out.
Peter had his routines when he came to my house – for some reason he liked Russian cigarettes (they were longer as I recall) and we watched the Gale Storm Show and Gunsmoke. Where he got Russian cigarettes in Los Angeles at the height of the Cold War is anyone’s guess, but I am sure that he wasn’t a spy. He probably acquired a taste for them at Murmansk.
He was a Navy veteran; having volunteered for a special OCS program at Annapolis called the V12 program. It was right after Pearl Harbor.
He ended up serving in both the Atlantic and Pacific. Because he told me nothing about his service I heard this story from someone else. To say he was a quiet man would be one of the great understatements.
But he was on the Murmansk Run – delivering supplies to the Soviets. The waters had a lot of U-Boats and while he was on night watch, the dolphins would leave a wake similar to a torpedo. The decision whether to – in a few seconds – sound the alarm or ignore it weighed heavily on him.
I was surprised – while he said nothing of his Navy service (or much else from his life) – it evidently was important to him, as he ordered 3 reproduction service medals he had earned from a company in Texas.
We decided to bury him with the medals.
Some of the things he had put family lore and stories into the reality column. His uncle, also named Peter, was an Army Lieutenant in WW1 and killed by a sniper a week before armistice.
The story told by my late grandmother was that on the day he was killed and before his mother knew he had died, an angel came to her that evening telling her that he would be all right.
But among Peter’s things was a Gold Star Mothers banner from 1918. After the First World War, the US Government took Gold Star mothers to Europe to see the graves of their sons.
Sara felt that this memento should go to her son, an Army veteran who saw several of his friends die in Afghanistan.
There was a picture of a raccoon that mystified me and it wasn’t until Sara told me that he had a pet raccoon as a boy that the picture made sense.
By the end of an exhausting 2 days we had his room cleared out, and all of the possessions dear to him were gone.
It was time to bury him with his family.