Not All Archeological Digs Are Below Ground

Attic before

We set up the plastic dust barriers from the attic, down the hallway and stairway, and out to the front door. Plastic sheeting covering handrails, much of the carpet on the steps, and all to prevent the potentially asbestos contaminated dust from escaping into the house. My brother and brother-in-law took the hard tasks of cleaning the initial dust off of the innumerable boxes stored in the attic, then hauling the boxes and bags down the stairs and out to the front yard, where we awaited with dust masks as I would blow the remaining dust off of the detritus from the attic.

My parents moved into the house in 1957. I did not realize it all through my childhood, but the attic was not just the place where Christmas decorations resided in sturdy apple boxes. No, the attic became a black hole that sucked all of the possessions and ephemera of a lifetime into its gaping maw. It was harder for it to serve this purpose for the first 20 years of their residency, since hoisting items to the attic required hauling the stepladder from the garage to the second floor, then up the steps into the attic, and finally finding a place for the new attic inhabitants. But in the late 1970’s, as part of home improvements, a collapsible ladder was installed leading to the attic. After that time, it became much easier to feed the inexhaustible appetite of the attic.

The removal of the attic contents became an archeological dig. As the available space for storage decreased, the recent articles tended to be near the opening to the attic. Thus it was items from the last decade that emerged first. As the excavation proceeded, it was fun to determine which decade we were into. The 1990’s emerged, then the 1980’s, and on back all the way to the early 1960’s and late 1950’s. What emerged? There was luggage. Every piece of luggage that they ever owned was still in the attic. From the metal suitcase that my father used to take his meager possessions to Purdue, to the latest Oleg Cassini suitcase that I claimed for my son’s use in the future. There were the two brown leather sided suitcases I remembered from my youth, along with the blue suitcases trimmed with white that were my mothers. There had to be at least 20 pieces of luggage that emerged.

Did you say clothes? Well, there were huge bags of blue jeans. My mother lived in blue jeans for much of her life, and when they wore out, they would find their way into a plastic bag and take the migratory route up to the attic. Did you need some ties? My father wore ties every day when he worked at the Nebraska Department of Roads, and even though we had already given countless ties away after his death, more bags full of ties came out into the sunlight once more. Mugs? Multiple boxes of mugs came down, along with pottery and figurines and glasses and plates.

Yes, there were the treasures we expected to find as well. The Tonka and Ny-Lint trucks we had used in our sandbox to dig and delve came out, though their bodies bore the dents we had imposed and the rust of ages. We’ll have to see if they are desired by collectors. The multiple boxes belonging to each of us siblings, holding our school memories. I could see my report cards all the way from kindergarten. The pictures of me in the plays in high school where I began my love of the theatre. All of the scholastic honors I got from high school and into college, with my notification of my Regents scholarship that paid all tuition for 16 hours per semester. In the 1972-1976 era, that was worth about $500 per year. Quite a change to now, with tuition continuing to skyrocket.

Other memories surfaced as the dig continued. Old pictures that had been replaced decades ago brought smiles. Chairs that had been superseded by newer seating made their way down the attic stair and out into the light again. The old pressure cooker once used for certain foods was intact, and the boxes of my uncle Bill’s remaining possessions surfaced. There were treats like the letter from Bill to his mother that had to be written so as to pass censor’s requirements.

But interspersed with all of the good stuff, was the chaff. So many bottles set aside as they were “collectors editions” of syrup. Ancient Windsong perfume dispensers. Old Spice bottles. If the bottles were clean, they were tossed into the recycling bin. Then, there were the magazines. Let’s start with the Reader’s Digests and the National Geographic’s. Decades worth of these magazines filled countless boxes. There were Popular Science magazines, and Boy’s Life from the early 1970’s. Even the most ephemeral of magazines, the ubiquitous TV Guide. I have no idea why these magazines were singled out for retention. At least they didn’t keep the weekly Engineering News Records that were delivered faithfully for years upon years, nor did they box up Newsweek or Smithsonian’s or any of the other historical magazines they loved in their later years. We would do a cursory search through the boxes of these magazines, to ensure that no other worthwhile item had been included in a box, but literally tons of these were either put out for recycling, or delivered directly to the dump in my brother-in-law’s pickup.

Not all of the paper was totally worthless though. My parents must have kept every card, Christmas, birthday, Easter, whatever type of card they received, they kept. Bags and boxes of these held notes and sometimes photos, and seeing the sentiments from many years ago brought back to light was fun. Unfortunately, those were outweighed by the years and years of bank records and tax returns that had to be sifted through to ensure that there was no information that would identify us as the remaining generation. I had forgotten that it was a relatively late development to add the social security numbers for dependents, so even tax returns held no new identity threat to us.

Then there were the work files from my father’s years at the highway department. Why he took so many boxes of records with him when he retired I’ll never know, but if you want the listing of the challenges facing the Nebraska Department of Roads in the 1980’s, we can point you to a section of the dump where it may be found.

The lesson I took away from this 4 day dig was this: If you love your heirs, clean up your stuff now so they don’t have to separate the wheat from the chaff. Leave only wheat that they will enjoy as they review your life well spent.

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