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  • Writer's pictureCat T. Gardiner

An Attic = Someone's Story

Hi-di-ho and Happy New Year, friends! I thought I'd start the year off resurrecting an article I wrote on August 3, 2016, made at True Book Addict blog during A Moment Forever's book blog tour. In light of a recent 5* review on Amazon where the reader quotes a line from the novel, I thought the subject apropos.

"The starkness of the attic revealed the loneliness of the man at the time

of his departure."

One of my two heroines is bequeathed a house in 1992, and its contents, particularly in the attic, send her on quite a journey to discover her ancestry – the roots, events, and people deliberately hidden from her knowledge.

My childhood home didn’t have an attic, but we did have a basement. Half was my mother’s cheery art studio (where I loved to visit) and the other half my father’s dreary workshop (which gave me the willies.) But in dad’s man cave there stood a monolithic orange-colored armoire that, at my young age, I concluded contained all the secrets of the universe. It wasn’t until my 24th year that he opened the mysterious cabinet and shared with me old New York City newspapers (some of the Titanic sinking,) photographic glass negatives, vintage cameras, signed photographs of silent film stars, and various other memorabilia and ephemera. In a way, these were the secrets of a microcosmic universe: my family. Within the illuminating discoveries, I learned that my grandfather worked as an apprentice photographer for Edison Studios and that as a boy, he collected newspapers reporting on events that he thought would be historical. Without the armoire “attic” those pieces of a family might not have survived to tell a story.

Within the armoire was an embroidered silk 19th Century glove box – another attic of sorts. A mighty discovery on my part because upon closer inspection I was able to construct some pieces of the grandmother I never knew: She was a suffragette and she loved to crochet using the bone hooks and implements in the treasure box. “Carrie” as she was called, was sentimental, keeping a dance card, letters, and cabinet cards of people I’d never heard of. I analyzed these “directionals” on the road map to discovering the lives once lived, gathering information as if compiling an FBI case. I framed the images of my namesake grandmother stoically standing beside her WWI doughboy groom. Also in the box was my great-grandfather’s United States Naturalization certificate, earned after completion of military service before the Spanish-American War. An incredible piece of history that perhaps weaves some of the fiber of my instilled patriotism.

My connection to the past formed and these abstract people became detailed portraits of historical significance to me. The armoire began my genealogical search into census records and ship manifests. It became imperative for me to remember – without actually knowing them – the lives they once led. The armoire inspired a trip to England to walk my great-grandfather's steps.

Have you ever heard of the Willard suitcases? It was sort of an obscure archaeological find in 1995 but, to history lovers like me, it wasn’t obscure at all. Like the above personal narrative, it was the discovery of the most important keepsakes of 400 lives. The suitcases, found in an attic, were attics themselves, and thank goodness they were discovered! You see, Willard Asylum for the Insane, located in the Finger Lakes region of New York State, closed in 1995, and in one of the abandoned buildings, workers discovered an anti-room in the attic. Rows of wooden racks were lined with the still-packed suitcases of the committed patients. They were alphabetized by patient name and organized by date between 1910 and 1950. Forgotten, like their owners, and covered by bird droppings and grime, the suitcases remained untouched for decades – since the first day of the owner/patients’ arrival. Frozen in time, the personal contents bear witness that these men and women LIVED as sure as you and I do. They once dreamed, struggled; they worked, had hobbies, prayed; they grieved and loved. They had families and cherished memories. Yet almost 6,000 were buried in the asylum’s cemetery with only a four-inch circular stone and a number to attest to their existence. That’s right – a number – not a name. But the contents of their personal “attic” paints beautiful, colorful canvases of their humanity, something that is overlooked in their nameless burial. :(

2Frank C. #27967

Examining the photographs of the opened suitcases, I thought of that old question: “If there was a fire, what would you take?” And it was evident by what had been packed that the personal effects were what they valued most in life. Further, I thoughtfully pondered the lives they once lived (evident by the contents) vs. the lives that were shut away for an average length of 30 years! My heart squeezed and my eyes hurt reading some of the heartbreaking biographies of those who suffered with mental or physical illness and those who became ill through horrible life events. The saddest though was reading that so many suffered from "disorders” that were actual life situations/tragedies: the death of a loved one, a nun’s disenfranchisement, postpartum depression, displacement, and poverty. No doubt, there were even a few committed to the asylum for the secrets they knew/held: much like an attic themselves. Shut away, they were forgotten by society. And even today, due to state legalities and patient privacy, their full names cannot be memorialized, just their first name and their patient number.

*Images Credit: Photographer and artist Jon Crispin, Willard Suitcase Project

After state museum historians thoroughly researched the owners of the 400 "attics," the Willard suitcases – scratch that – the men and women of the Willard hospital had been honored through a ten-year traveling exhibition in remembrance of who they were, their stories told, their relics shared. They have now found a permanent home at the Museum of disABILITY in Buffalo, New York. If you are hungry for more about this project and more detail on each patient suitcase and the contents, you must visit the photographer, Jon Crispin's website for his blog posts on the project. And here:

There is even a book on this fascinating, thought-provoking discovery: The Lives They Left Behind

What items would you grab in a fire? Think about your “attic,” your family, your ancestors. What stories do they hold? Don’t let them fade away into oblivion with nary a thought or mention. Write them down. Who were they and how did their lives influence who you became?

Until next time KEEP 'EM FLYING!

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