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Opinion: Keeper of the Past — Blessing or Burden?

  • Mary Otto reflected in the shadowbox of a white-robed “Weihnachtsmann,” the German Santa Clause from her dad’s childhood, on Monday, March 13, 2017, at her home in Norwich, Vt. Otto has saved family heirlooms, which she considers treasures and burdens. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Timepieces saved and shadowboxed by Mary Otto on Monday, March 13, 2017 at her home in Norwich, Vt. Otto has saved family heirlooms, which she considers treasures and burdens. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A note written by Mary Otto's Aunt Harriet, a photo of Otto's father, top right, and Otto's grandfather, bottom right, on Monday, March 13, 2017 at Otto's home in Norwich, Vt. Otto has saved family heirlooms, which she considers treasures and burdens. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A note written by Mary Otto's Aunt Harriet, a photo of Otto's father, top right, and Otto's grandfather, bottom right, on Monday, March 13, 2017 at Otto's home in Norwich, Vt. Otto has saved family heirlooms, which she considers treasures and burdens. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Mary Otto reflected in the shadowbox of a white-robed “Weihnachtsmann,” the German Santa Clause from her dad’s childhood, on Monday, March 13, 2017, at her home in Norwich, Vt. Otto has saved family heirlooms, which she considers treasures and burdens. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Timepieces saved and shadowboxed by Mary Otto on Monday, March 13, 2017 at her home in Norwich, Vt. Otto has saved family heirlooms, which she considers treasures and burdens. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



For the Valley News
Saturday, March 18, 2017

Just a word of warning, Mary — another small storage place only. Then you will never find yourself in the muddle I am in, after decades of saving things.

— HKK, 1977

Sage advice from my dear Aunt Harriet! The irony is that she had scribbled it in red pen on a note card placed at the top of a box filled with family things she mailed to me in New York many years ago. When she left Florida late in life to return to the Iowa town she and I had both originally called home, she was counting on me to value what she was sending — and to figure out what to do with it

Here in Vermont, after a lifetime of living away from the Midwest, I am the sole keeper of the Knuth family legacy. It’s a history that began with the arrival in a small town in Iowa during the 1880s of grandparents from northern Germany. And one that ended there as well, with the deaths of my parents when they were still residents of that same small town.

Traces of my family’s once vital presence there — my grandfather’s cobbler’s shop, my dad’s career as a long-time bank president, my mother’s musical legacy as a pianist and organist — are less and less obvious. There is a recently christened Knuth lobby in the new performing arts center in town, a choice I made for returning some of my inheritance to its origins. But that serves mostly to ensure that at least our name is in evidence in a vibrant part of the community, rather than only in the cemetery.

In these days of my retirement, I cherish the recipes, poetry books, and the rest of the heirlooms in Harriet’s box — as well as items in the other cartons that sit beside it in my attic. This collection of material objects saved by family members connects me to a past life that I wish, somehow, to remain engaged with and to hand on, one way or another, to my daughters and grandchildren.

Knowing your roots can enhance your sense of who you are. With my career finished, I have the time to pursue tasks like this, I tell myself.

But there is another side to my thinking, one that saps my energy. The objects from the boxes, unpacked and sitting on my dining room table for contemplation, can become a burden, transforming themselves into a mandate to create significance out of the selected remnants of other lives.

How could I do this, I wonder. Or, for that matter, do I want to? With no siblings or any cousins remotely close to me in age, a legacy project would be a solitary pursuit. Indeed, I’ve already written some of my Iowa history and passed along the stories to others in the family.

And I’ve done the right thing with at least a few of the objects. When it became too fragile to hang on our Christmas tree, I shadowboxed the 10-inch-tall, white-robed Weihnachtsmann, the German Santa Claus from my dad’s childhood. With its rich red border, the piece now hangs in my living room. So do several of the cleaned and artistically displayed gold pocket watches carried by my grandfathers.

Another item I love is the recently framed Game of Don’ts, also from my dad’s childhood. A lot like Old Maid, the game requires you to match up pairs of cards that feature humorous drawings of late 19th century children caught in anti-social or otherwise ill-advised acts.

Still, it’s not as if my children and grandchildren light up when they enter the living room or rush to view the various objects and pepper me with questions that motivate me to keep at it. No. Sometimes, in fact, it’s quite the opposite. At a recent dinner at our house with one daughter and her family, I served brownie sundaes for dessert. Helping herself to a nutty chocolate bar from the heirloom Iowa plate I’d put them on — featuring large, hand-painted poppies and labeled on the back “Bavaria,” my daughter commented, “Oh, dear. I hope this breaks before it becomes part of my inheritance!”

Thus, my dilemma.

Mary Otto lives in Norwich.