A Treasure Full of Trove

“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”

John Lennon, “Beautiful Boy”

Ever since 1980 when I heard that line in the song “Beautiful Boy” on Lennon’s final album, “Double Fantasy,” it stuck in my brain, an ear worm of advice or recognition. It played right into the feelings I have long had about our time on earth and how we use it. And make sense of it. And memorialize it. And that gives some reason for this post.

It’s been a fast year to date.

I am living so far ahead of my writing. On the one hand, I’m living in every moment. Being present as they say. On the other hand, moments are ephemeral and you cannot expect to remember it all. Often, it’s the little slivers that you think you’ll remember forever that are the first to leave you. You’ll find yourself scratching your head trying to recall that “something” now lost in a wisp of time.  

History has taught me that by recording and storing today’s moments preserves them to age into a precious jewel later. These handwritten notes, photos or short videos capture the essential element that makes that experience meaningful years down the road. I admittedly suffer from the fear of not writing down that stuff. If I don’t I feel as if I’ve lost something important to time, to me, keys to the story of my life, of my family’s life. If not caught, I’ve lost the ingredients of meaning and purpose of the recipe of “Us.”

There’s a case to be made that the modern phrase “living in the moment” runs contrary to taking the time to collect that moment. It’s like missing the speaker’s current remarks because you’re noting what they just said before. There’s the rub. Experience or Document. It’s one or the other. If you and your camera are documenting the action, you’re generally not experiencing it yourself. You’re the taker. Not the subject doing whatever, selfies aside.

When I’m at my best, I steal quiet moments in a day to take notice of “things” that rise to the top of mind and press them in my journal. Sometimes in a creative bent, and sometimes just simply noting what happened in a day or on a trip, things of consequence and of no consequence. Maybe adding to the notes how I felt about the day, the experience, the moment. I also started capturing quotes and stories, especially precious or funny things that Mom or Dad said. 

I guess that I’m a documentary maker…of my own existence. Weird way to think about it, but as I’ve punched and jabbed my way through writing this post, exploring the explorable, I have wandered into that thought. I’m not alone, by the way. Seems like there’s one or two in every family.

It’s the noting of things that births them to live forever on the page. Time, however, has challenged that notion of permanency, that even physical pages aren’t forever, even those published and critically acclaimed.

That is a major theme in Anthony Doerr’s brilliant novel, “Cloud Cuckoo Land.” This work of fiction told across centuries and multiple characters, sheds light and perspective on time, storytelling and the preservation of books throughout history in a light that I’d never thought about before. (I highly recommend it and thank Clark for sharing it.) 

So, back to me, my time and the life of Riley. 

What’s made this year trip by so quickly for us is that we have been on the road for over 60 days so far. I know, because I counted them up. (Who does that?)

The year started out with lots of Durham time as Julie and I joined with my family to move Mom from independent living into assisted living, downsizing her space from 2,200 to 480 square feet. That took most of January and early February. 

The process was arduous, stressful and emotional. It was also a process that brought our family together, wandering through the stuff emblematic of the family ties harbored in memories of who, what and when things of note happened in our collective lives. 

Working together, we confronted and organized our efforts to accomplish this task under a short deadline to prepare Mom to move, then to clear out her home for 22 years and turn it back over to Croasdaile Village.  It took a lot of coordination, communication and hard work to make for the smoothest possible transition. 

I called it an archeological dig as we began to process all manner of things Mom and Dad collected over time. If you consider my opening remarks about my penchant to document our lives you’ll understand how this rolled right up my alley. It was all about researching and documenting memories. It was collecting, analyzing and categorizing, then sorting, tagging and packaging for safe keeping. It’s also a rabbit hole. Thank goodness that we had an imposed deadline. It stopped me from going too deep into that hole while in the moment of moving.

Mom is known by all as someone who kept a clean and straight house. She is also, strangely enough, not that organized. Thankfully, she was a good keeper of things, storing them for someone else to cobble together and make sense of her time on earth. Most of the items were “filed” in a unique piece of furniture called a butler’s secretary. It was in this combination secretary and chest of drawers that she put items that she knew she didn’t want to let go but didn’t know what else to do with them.

It was the chest stationed in the lonely living room into which you could catch any one of us kids digging through a drawer to see and re-see old photos of our past. Actually, the fact that things weren’t organized, but loosely stored, lying flat on top of each other, made each new exploration more surprising and fun to explore again and again. Every time someone dug through a drawer, they left it reshuffled for the next memory miner who found comfort in the mixture of re-seeing treasures with the joyful surprise in finding something new to them or that they hadn’t seen in some time.  

The Butler’s Secretary

So, that chest was one of the things that I tackled in the move. It was where I always knew that I was meant to pay the most attention. I emptied out the drawers and sorted the items into piles loosely based on topics or similarity. Eventually, I wrote the topic name for each pile on a blank sheet of paper and placed it on top of the pile forming my own highly simplified Dewey Decimal System. 

Topics like historical financial documents that structure together the official parts of their time: bank notes long paid off on their home on Indian Trail. Tax filings in which we could see, for the first time, what it took back then to live the life of Riley as we did. Passports stamped page after page of Dad’s worldly travels. Old driver’s licenses, the ultimate dated look of Mom and Dad over time.

Photos from their childhood and early years together. Diaries from those times. Wedding photos. Letters from the war when they were separated.  

There were keepsakes from Dad’s career with Nello L. Teer Company, from newspaper stories about the international construction company, his promotions, articles and photos of job sites across the globe and his travel to places far far away. 

There were so many cards, letters and photos from their social lives. Cards of thanks for hosting this or that, cards expressing gratitude for helping make something special happen, and just letters between friends and family. 

There were photos of dress up date nights, costume parties, hanging with pals at nightclubs and country clubs, and of course, playing golf. 

Sorting through it all we found an amazing amount of newspaper articles on our family. Of course, the majority covered things related to Dad and Teer Company, but it was also strange small items like a notice about my brother’s appendectomy. Yes, that made the Durham paper. Shows how starved it was for news in this sleepy textile and tobacco town. 

When I had gone through everything, I carefully packaged the papers and photos into manilla envelopes tagged by topic and stored them in plastic box containers for the move out.

Many of you have already gone through this process as your parents downsized, or, sadly, passed on. If you live long enough, it’s eventual. For us Riley kids, ranging in age from 63 to 75, it is a truly amazing gift that our parents lived so long to be with us into our own senior years. And, although Dad passed in 2015, we still have our mom in our lives as she is on the doorstep of turning 99 soon. However, that comes with a caveat. Mom used to know everything there was to know about Durham, who was who and what happened when, has lost touch with that kind of detail. She’s no longer as reliable as a source on the various things that she kept or why she kept them. That makes it so much more the archeological dig. It’s left for us to examine, surmise and figure out. Thankfully, this collection in the butler’s secretary provides more than a few data points, it paints quite the picture of them and their times and how we figured in.

I’m wishing that I’d been more diligent before now. I wish that I had sat down with Mom and Dad and gone spelunking through those drawers with a video camera recording them placing their hands on photos and letting their memory retrace time back to when whatever was pictured occurred, and why it mattered enough to have kept it in the drawer.

Needless to say, we finally got things done and Mom moved. She’s thrilled with where she is, as are we. And, what we didn’t move into her studio apartment, from dishes to furniture to framed pictures and knick knacks, we were able to parse through and divide amongst the family without quarrel, leaving everyone happy with the process, comforted in the notion that we each carry on with keepsakes which stir memories of our family now in our own homes. 

In between the end of moving Mom and now we’ve been West Palm Beach to play golf with brother Lin, and traveled to Portland twice to visit our son, Clark, his wife, Sarah, and our granddaughter, Hazel. Our last visit was to celebrate Hazel’s first birthday. 

I’ve traveled back and forth to Durham to see Mom, once while Julie was golfing Phoenix, again to attend my Durham High School 50th Reunion and recently to see John Hiatt perform at the historic Carolina Theatre in downtown Durham. 

We just returned from our annual Riley family gathering at Beech Mountain, NC over the Labor Day weekend. This year, with 19 family members attending, we paid special tribute to our Dad by celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth. He was born on September 7, 1922. We sang a rousing ditty of “Hooray for Homer!” It’s an inside Riley tribute that Dad “composed” as an add on to the “Happy Birthday” song. You had to be there to understand but take it from me, it’s a declaration of love and acknowledgement that Dad’s memory lives in each one of us.  

As the world pushes forward quickly there’s at least another 30 days of travel ahead that will keep this year moving at light speed the majority of which is another trip to Portland. This time, we’re going out to meet, kiss, cuddle and hold our newest Riley, Celia Martha, for the very first time. Of course, we’ll dance and clap and play with Hazel and hang with Clark and Sarah.

We’ll gather again in for Mom’s 99th birthday, and then, of course, Christmas. More to do. More to document.

Looking back through the post, I see that I’ve drilled down pretty hard to make my point that the year has been busy, fast and more meaningful than I’ve yet realized. I’m doing my best to live it at its fullest and peel off things to nurture and memorialize and cajole for meaning. Thanks for letting me work this out in the open. Thanks for caring enough to read this far and maybe think about your own self and your own memories.

By the way, that butler’s secretary now resides in our home in Atlanta. It is a treasure full of trove.  

Admittedly, I have over-promised myself to keep the “dig” going. There are so many stories lying in wait in each drawer whispering to me. They took a lifetime to build up and could occupy another lifetime of curating. But isn’t that living in the moment when you’re traveling back in time and unearthing the moments of the past and other people’s lives? I think so.

The bottom drawer is calling.

4 thoughts on “A Treasure Full of Trove

  1. Well said, Steve. I can relate to all your comments. Every day when I have to deal with “papers,” I find myself wishing that I had worked out a
    better plan for organizing. Be glad you are doing so well already; don’t
    wait till you are old, for it is then too late! Dottie O.

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