Volume 12, Issue 41 ~ October 7 - 13, 2004
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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton

Wearing My Other Hat

With six kids, 11 grandkids and 1 great-grandchild, I’ve plenty to do as curator of the Burton Family Museum
You are what you are.
—A time-worn expression

We’ve all heard the above words in one form or another, not infrequently as “I am what I am.” Allow me to modify this a bit.

Sure, we’re all what we are, but in a greater sense we are what we were. In great part, what we were made us what we are. The past remains within us.

I thought about that the other day when I heard a conversation between two mothers concerning the ‘art’ their kids had made over the years, much of it stuff that for a time ended up attached to the refrigerator. In many homes today, the kitchen is the family art gallery.

They planned to get rid of it — when the kids weren’t around, of course. That’s easier said than done. Kids have memories like elephants in things other than chores and homework. What do you say when, after you’ve trashed it, they ask Where’s that picture I made of the purple elephant?

What to keep and what to trash — even a gallery curator would be hard pressed to make the right decisions.

Pack-Rat Vs. Trash-It-All
I’m a pack-rat. I tend to keep everything; too many times I’ve found that I don’t need something until I’ve given it the hook. Conversely, wife Lois can’t wait to get rid of anything not needed at the moment.

You can imagine what our home can be like. There have been instances when I put down the day’s newspaper to take a lengthy phone call — only to return to a newspaper already bundled for recycling. Yet there are other times when I find her ferreting through discards for something she threw out after discovering she had intended to save it.

I am a pack-rat, and Lois is a trash-it-all. I cringe when she heaves out one of those miniature jam bottles brought home from a fancy restaurant. Doesn’t she realize they’re just the right size for stowing tiny snap swivels or split shot sinkers in the tackle box? Sometimes I feel lucky she didn’t throw out the tackle box.

But, seeing as I was born when Calvin Coolidge was president, I’m getting to the age when I realize something’s gotta give. Some stuff has gotta go, or we have to start looking around for a bigger house.

Deciding what to do with much of it isn’t too difficult. But letters, drawings, knickknacks, favorite toys at one time, pottery vases and ashtrays and other baubles created by the kids or grandkids — well that’s another matter. Remember, we are what we were, so preservation of such reminders of the past can help the creator document his or her development along life’s way.

Among My Souvenirs
In my generation, the Great Depression era, the art brought home from school didn’t end up on a refrigerator simply because there were no refrigerators in most homes. The ice boxes of the time had hardwood exteriors. Magnets wouldn’t stick, and thumbtacks couldn’t make a dent in maple — had we dared to try.

Every now and then a letter or a drawing went into a big tin box, but as the box reached capacity, the older stuff would get the hook. There were five kids in the Burton household, so not much was stowed for long. Room had to be made for the new stuff. I was the oldest, so not much of mine survives other than a few letters I had painstakingly printed.

Space was at a premium, and while I was off during the war, Mother tried to make a bit more space by trashing things she figured I’d have no use for when I returned. Why would I want all those old comics or Big Little Books again, as I was now in my teens? To this day, I shudder when I think that among the piles stowed under my bed was a first comic-book edition of Superman and Iron Vic, also a couple dozen Big Little Books of the variety of Gasoline Alley, Tarzan, Blondie and Dagwood, Toonerville Trolley. What would they be worth today?

When I left for the Navy, Aunt MiMi made a deal with me: She would answer every letter I wrote her, and she did, though I’m sure she didn’t realize I would send her one almost every day, written in pencil or fountain pen. It worked out well — for me. She saved all those letters, and about 20 years ago she bundled them all up and gave them to me.

What a treasure. I can read about the lonely days in boot camp at frozen Sampson, New York, the food, the new girlfriends, the places I saw (often from the window of a troop train) and — most cherished of all — my thoughts when Harry Truman ordered the dropping of the first atomic bomb. At the time, I was in training for the invasion of Japan, and I still get a chill when I re-read from my letter of Aug. 12, 1945: “Wonderful news. I’m heading back your way, not the other way. I don’t know how long it will be before I get there. But I’m coming home.”

Of course I didn’t mention, not to MiMi, that I was in the midst of a celebration that was to last three days when I wrote that letter to fully describe the relief of a young sailor at the dropping of a bomb that had turned the world around for him.

Returned in Time
Now, what to do with the collection of refrigerator art and memorabilia fashioned by the hands of my kids and grandkids? Within some of it, there is evidence of their progress in life, growing up, memories, changing interests: a descriptive reminder of how, if not why, things changed for them.

Surely, there is among it all a momento or two of times that have faded from memory and would thus be appreciated.

Things like the art fashioned by nails driven in an 11-inch by 4-inch board, created by four daughters as their rendition of an ark and animals aboard. Will it bring back memories?

It does to me, of the time when I came in possession of one of the very first Styrofoam coolers. I warned them not to touch it as I needed it for a field-testing column.

You know what happened: It was broken the next day while I was away. They tried to repair it with epoxy, but the glue only ate away the Styrofoam. A big piece of the top was devoured.

Frantic, they figured they had to do something to make amends. I can picture them nailing the ark plaque as a gift, hoping I’d not notice the big hole in the cooler top — or be so pleased with their art that I’d not be concerned about the cooler.

I will return that momento to my oldest daughter, Liz, for Christmas; perhaps it will bring back to her that day when four frightened girls tried to make amends — and succeeded.

Many other things are going back to their creators, who I hope will one day realize that so much of life is memories. The recipients will know they are what they were, and that’s what life is all about. Enough said …

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.