We sit on the floor of the den poking around in an entertainment center at my in-laws' apartment.
The contents are low tech, yet they entertain, educate, and enthrall my high tech teenage daughter. The history housed by those cabinets is as compelling as any documentary on the History Channel.
My mother-in-law is a keeper of scrapbooks and diaries. She and my father-in-law store their albums and journals on a low shelf that is an easier reach for those with younger knees and hips. Pulling out each volume, we meander through our family's story and our country’s history.
As we flip through these books, my mother-in-law guides us through her life like a captivating tour guide from the window of a bus. The lines of living, loving, and hardship soften on her face. In their place I see the radiance of a young woman awaiting her disarmingly handsome fiancé’s return from Europe during World War II. I reach inside an envelope to lightly touch the orchid she wore on the day of their engagement party. I run my fingertips over a matchbook cover engraved with my husband's full name and the date of his bar mitzvah.
On our last visit, my daughter devoured the 5-year diary my mother-in-law kept faithfully every day from the time she was 12 years old.
She began writing in 1939.
Some entries are as succinct as, "I saw Benny today." Her first and only boyfriend Benny is my father-in-law sitting on the couch; the man she married 67 years ago. Other entries discuss food rations, news of the war, and the day FDR was elected.
On this visit, we open the thick brown leather book bearing the title "Scrapbook." It is almost the length of a yardstick. The cream colored pages have darkened to burnt ochre. At the edges, small paper pieces break off. I hesitate before gathering them into my hand and tossing them into the trash; it feels like throwing away fragments of time.
The pages are separated from the rings that once bound them. Carefully, we turn them to discover more than a half a century of historical mementos. Telegrams send staccato declarations of love from my father-in-law to my mother-in-law. A map illustrates the course of a military mission he flew as a belly gunner over Germany. A photo shows his plane; the one that was shot down, the time he escaped unharmed in Holland.
We peruse through vintage greeting cards with hand drawn art and calligraphy. A bill of $7.50 for their honeymoon night at the Statler Inn astounds us. We read the list of wedding gifts. A menu from a classy restaurant no longer in business shows the price of a filet mignon dinner. "Grandma, is the price three hundred fifty dollars or three dollars and fifty cents?" asks our daughter.
On a smaller scale than national public television, my mother-in-law is the Ken Burns of our family. She has documented her family's story for future generations of her descendants. They'll touch the black and white photographs my mother-in-law held deftly in her hands in the years before they ached from arthritis. They will picture her cutting photos to size, pasting invitations and ticket stubs onto the pages, and writing the who, what, where, and when of each scene in her legible and lovely script. They will be grateful for her tender and diligent attention to the preservation of their history.
I like to think that one day these artifacts of American culture will find a home under glass at a museum that values them as much as we do.