Treasures in the Attic

I recently discovered the true meaning of a treasure hunt. I spent Sunday afternoon in the attic with my grandma, intending to sort through the “stuff” that had accumulated over the past fifty some years — by all accounts, a dreary task.

On this day, however, I approached my ascent into the attic as an adventure. I admit my initial excitement was based on the hidden antiques or other tangible goods that might be uncovered and bestowed to me. But, by the time I came back down from the attic, I had discovered a much more elusive treasure — my grandmother’s history.

Now, before you run screaming from the room for fear of a social studies lesson, the history I’m speaking of is much more personal. It’s true, you can’t look through boxes wrapped in old newspapers without gaining a little insight into yesteryear. The stories that made the front page say a lot about the social and political atmosphere of one’s generation. But, on this day, I was gathering information that made up the fabric of a personality.

Those of us who have faced the daunting attic experience know it’s amazing what we store away. When did my grandmother really think she would use all those boxes? I’m still trying to figure out where the plastic diaper wipe containers came from, since her children and grandchildren were out of diapers before the advent of disposables.

Among all the seemingly nonsensical items were treasures that held the secrets of my grandmother’s life. One such treasure was Grandma’s hat collection. I had never seen her wear a hat, so you can imagine what a surprise this was. There were hats from her early married life, including the hats of her children. I spent a long time unwrapping the tissue paper encasing each one. None of them looked older than a few years — a testament to her attention to detail.

She told me stories about the hats, and I was able to gather an image of Grandma dressed for church, headed into town or out with her husband. I loved the idea of this young woman.

Grandma spent much of her time that afternoon thinking about how the attic would be cleaned-out. She seemed to take some joy in the thought of her two daughters spending several weekends going through the stuff, making hundreds of trips up and down the stairs with bags full of rubbish.

I spent much of my time asking questions about her youth, about growing older, and about all the things that had happened in between. In the attic, surrounded by all this history, I think Grandma realized the time had gone by far too quickly.

As caregivers, we often get so wrapped up with the everyday needs of our older relatives that we forget about their thoughts and feelings. With our busy lives, we rush to get them to a doctor appointment or to the grocery store. We often resent their slow pace and the extra time it takes to explain things — not out of anger towards them, but out of our own stress.

Our time in the attic reminded me how important it is to ask questions of our older relatives – to discover all we can about their youth and adulthood, even about their regrets. We might just come to know the person that was forgotten somewhere along the way.

As you might have guessed, we didn’t come down the stairs with the hats that Sunday afternoon. We wrapped them up again and left them for another time. But grandma knows the hats would have a special place in my home, and I think she enjoys that thought.