If You Love It, That's a Clue: How Objects Shape a Story

Posted on Wed, Mar 13 2013 9:00 am by Gayla Marty

I was in my early 30s when my aunt gave me my grandmother’s sewing trunk. I recognized it immediately. It used to sit between the treadle sewing machine and the west window upstairs in the Marty farmhouse. Now it seemed small—just two feet long and a foot tall on rusty little rollers. The heavy upholstery-fabric covering—faded gold and magenta flowers on a gray-blue background—was tattered, exposing tiny nails and pine wood.

The box was surprisingly light as I carried it from the farmhouse porch to my city house. I stowed it next to my bed and lifted the cover to survey the contents. Yes, scrapbooks. And a couple of beat-up photo albums. I put the cover back on and laid a book on top. It became a bedside table, a memento of my grandmother who died when I was 11.

I didn’t open it again for years.

After I began writing about the farm—after the farm was sold, after my uncle’s farm accident—I thought of the photo albums at the bottom of the little trunk. I was writing down my earliest memories of the farm, from 1960, 1961, 1962. So many of those memories were woven tight with memories of Gramma Marty, who lived upstairs in the farmhouse. Auntie and Uncle were newlyweds living downstairs. I lived with my parents and little twin brothers in a small house across the yard, but I spent many hours with Gramma.

Her trunk was buried under books and magazines and handouts from classes. I removed the piles, lifted the lid, and unpacked. A large pink scrapbook of Gramma’s trip to California, a tan scrapbook of newspaper clippings—weddings and anniversaries and obituaries. A small dark-brown album of sepia photographs, a maroon album of her wedding and silver anniversary, a larger album of my dad and uncle, from birth to graduation.

And then, at the bottom, a farm ledger, narrow and black with a red binding and the word “Journal” on the cover. I felt prickles go through me. It was utterly familiar, but I had not held it since I was a child. 

This was my own first scrapbook. Memories of being with Gramma in her upstairs rooms, looking out the windows, sitting in the sunlight, learning to hold and control a scissor, all came together as I held this book in my hands.

I opened it and looked at the magazine pictures that my child-self had chosen. Running horses, draft horses, kids sledding, flowers, landscapes….colorful stamps from the National Wildlife Federation…religious art—Jesus blessing the little children, scenes from the nativity, tracts…babies and dolls and kittens, farms and city scenes, a red-winged blackbird. Bulletin covers from our country church, wedding napkins, and toward the end my own drawings, stick figures, letters, and numbers in pencil. The bulletins were dated 1962 so I had been four years old. The glue had loosened so I could lift or peel the pieces back. The ledger I had pasted over recorded farm income and expenses from January 1945 to 1948.

As my story of the farm took shape over the next few years, I returned to my little scrapbook again and again. The more I learned about the history of our family, the more those pages yielded—both a window into my four-year-old mind and a remnant of my grandmother’s life as a young mother with two little boys who needed boots and piano lessons and ice cream treats.

Why did my grandmother keep my first scrapbook among her things? Was it precious to her, a double-layered artifact? She died at 61. Now I felt she had sent her love to me by the simple act of keeping my messy artwork.

I trust the emotional truth of memories, but I am also a journalist at heart, so I did a lot of research to verify memories. I also wanted to learn the language of what I remembered so I could describe it. With all the writing and research I had been doing, the photographs in Gramma’s trunk started to come alive. Along with my dad’s huge collection of Kodachrome slides, I had amazing primary sources.

Other precious objects shaped my thinking: Leaves I’d left in Daddy’s big Bible, the fist-sized agate I discovered when I was 5. I found if I loved something, it was a clue that it was important to the story.

Archives, scrapbooks, photo albums, mementos, dishes, furniture. Maybe you keep them in a cigar box, a cardboard box, a decorative box, a file cabinet. “Why am I keeping this?” you ask yourself.

Every memento you keep has a story, even if it’s still packed up in your mind. When you’re writing about history, find as many remnants as you can. Then start unpacking, and listen.

Gayla Marty is the author of Memory of Trees: A Daughter’s Story of a Family Farm (University of Minnesota Press, 2010), coming out this month in paperback. She is teaching the single-session class "Writing Family Stories for the Family" at the Loft on March 30. Visit her at www.gaylamarty.com.