The package

Two weeks ago my mother received a letter in the mail that every amateur genealogist, or anyone missing their long passed family members could never even dream of receiving. The woman writing the letter "Lisa" had a box of family documents and photos. Lisa had lived in the house where my mother's parents lived until 1981, when it was damaged by a fire - the same fire that took the life of my mother's dad. Lisa's family was moving, but they'd found this box that my mother did not know existed. My mother hadn't seen some of the items and the ones she knew about she had assumed were burned in the fire (items such as her high school yearbooks). My mother, an only child, had only a box of old family photos that had survived the fire in a cedar chest that her mother had happened to put items into less than a year before the fire. The anticipation of what could be in the box, waiting for the FedEx to arrive, was all-consuming. Time moved slowly like Christmas Eve when I was a child.

Finally the package arrived. Hundreds of photos from the 19th century until the 1970s. Postcards. Christmas cards. A random teaching contract signed by my grandmother. She taught grade school while my grandfather was away at war in the South Pacific. My mother looked at the pictures and told me stories of things she'd never told me before. She saw a photo of her cousin in a wedding dress and told me she didn't even remember her being married ever. The photos, many of my grandmother in her youth, told parts of her story that I didn't know. Her upbringing was so different than my grandfather, despite the fact they both grew up on rural farms in Kansas. 

The package contained a photo of the house where it was left undisturbed for 30 years.

Maybe it was because I'd seen so many old photos of my mother's family due to research I've done, but I found the photos filled in gaps and provided answers. The writings, however, made me ask more questions - mostly questions that due to time will have eternally silent answers. My grandmother's sister is still alive, but in her late 90s. We haven't had contact with her since her sister (my grandmother's) death in 1997. There is no other contact with my mother and her mother's family, other than distant cousins we've been fortunate enough to find in our genealogy research. They, too, are finding their links to the past fading away in time.

But the writings - they asked questions by telling stories.

"Travel broadens one. Definitely. By the time I get home, an old kitchen chair no longer holds me."

Thus began an article clipped out of a newspaper. The newspaper was in either Oberlin and Goodland Kansas in a paper called the "Times". The date was October 17, 1946 (two days after my mother's birth coincidently). I'd speculate this was written by one of my two great-grandparents, Mary Isa Teel Reed or Ira W. Reed. These were my mother's grandparents. Isa, as she preferred to be called, was one of the first women in Kansas to have a driver's license. She was a teacher and into genealogy research. She did young - one of the few members of my family to die young but not accidentally. She died of breast cancer when my mother was six. Through other research, I found out she was always the leader. Isa's mother used to send her to parties her father would attend to keep an eye on him in the presence of other women. Most of the photos I've seen of Isa show her teaching, or driving a car, or a tractor. Ira outlived her by decades, also remarrying. My mother's final phone call with him was a congratulation on her expecting her first child - me. I missed him by two moths. He'd won a hog calling contest just a few years earlier in his mid 80s and it had made the local newspapers (a clipping we were sent by a second cousin just the week before the package arrived). I believe I was Ira's first great-grandchild (I'm not certain, as my mother does not have contact with her two cousins on that side of the family - one never had children and the other has at least one son and I'm fairly certain I am quite a bit older than he). I wonder if one of those thoughts he had before dying was being sad that he'd never meet his great-grandchildren. He and his wife were in their thirties by the time they had children - certainly very late by rural Kansas at the beginning of the 20th century standards! I've gotten to know him a bit now, even unintentionally. We both seem to pose in photos with our chin up. I did this before I ever saw a photo of him.

(Mary Isa Teel Reed, Nyla Reed and Ira W Reed dressed up for the 50th anniversary of Selden, Kansas in 1934).

Amazingly, Ira and Isa were very financially successful, especially by rural Kansas standards. One of the items we received was a scrapbook of photos and postcards. There were postcards from nearly every state. My mother remembered a story of Ira coming to visit her daughter (my grandmother) who lived in Arkansas at the time and my mother, her parents and Ira taking a drive through the deep south because "he hadn't been in all the southern states yet". There are pictures of my grandmother as a young girl with her sister at Niagara Falls, sometime in the early 1930s or late 1920s. They've even been to Connecticut and had a photo of Woolsey Hall on the Yale campus where I once played cello in a regional youth symphony orchestra.

From the handwriting of documents, there are some that are written by Nyla (my grandmother), some by Isa and some by Ira... even a few by Grandpa Paul.

"This is me on the jeep I never get to ride," said one of the photos of my grandfather in his days as a Marine.

Ira saved all the cards he received from his family. The greetings cards were much bigger then- some containing small prayers or even more commonly short stories. One had a poem singing the praises of living in Kansas. One card was signed by the parents of one of those second cousins we've connected with through genealogy research. There was one with a small note from my grandmother to Ira. 

"With my special love to you and a very special thanks for the million nice and good things you have done for me. Your daughter, Nyla. June 1971"

It is amazing to think that the love of the daughter and father, even though they have both been gone for many years, lives on. It's the type of thing realists would scoff at and would cause "sappy people" to get teary-eyed.

Ira and Isa outside of their house.

The documents in the box were amazingly well preserved. Despite the fact that most of the house had smoke and fire damage and then water damage from the hoses putting out the fire, there were only a few photos with black char on them and a couple that may have been nibbled by a small rodent. But some of the photos were just completely unidentifiable because the faces and names on the photos, although perfectly clear, were unfamiliar. I researched one name and found the man had been a successful business man the county over from the Reed family. Other, unlabeled photos, the people in them are unnamed survivors that will never be identified more than "early Kansas farmer" or "business man" or "soldier". Nothing will come by in my lifetime where I'll be able to share the photos and have someone who knows them recognize them other than perhaps one or two "needle in a haystack" finds on a genealogy board.

One of the last things I found will always be a mystery of speculation. Everything in the package seemed to have been put there specially. There wasn't a candy wrapper or take out menu or ambiguous newspaper clipping that had fallen into the box - so it was as if everything was there for a reason. There was a pamphlet for a Columbus, Ohio funeral home (where my grandparents Nyla and Paul lived). As I opened it, out fell a small photo and two cards containing poetry. The photo was a 1941 photo of my grandmother, taken when she was in college just before she married my grandfather. It's a formal picture, serious and stern, just her face and shoulders. She's not smiling, with a gaze on her face very similar to my six-year old son. She looks very plain, devoid of much emotion in her face. Perhaps had just happened to end up in the book or perhaps this was the picture she had chosen for herself for when she'd passed away for an obituary. I have her obituary somewhere and I believe the photo is a wedding photo of her and her husband, but I can't remember nor can I find the obituary. Perhaps she had chosen those two poems to be read. The first poem was Gypsy Tearoom by Margaret Widdemer which concludes with:

"In THIS world where joys die
Hers was a brave part.
She sold each a small lie
And a lifted heart"

The other is by Sara Henderson Hay: