Listener Essay - Surprise In The Attic

Sep 1, 2014

  This listener essay is by Jean Bolgatz.

Surprise in the Attic

Ryan, our grandson, needed pictures of his great grandparents for a school assignment, so I headed for the attic. I rarely risk going up there in winter except to bring down Christmas tree ornaments and such, but a promise is a promise.

After lugging eleven old cigar boxes downstairs and going through them with only partial success - one great grandfather was missing - I continued the search, this time wearing a hard hat and carrying a flashlight.

I decided to tackle the pile of luggage on the eastern side of the attic. On the top layer were some reasonably redeemable briefcases, and duffel bags, but then came a layer of old medical supplies, crutches, a bedpan and dozens of small boxes of discarded bandages, and I was nowhere near the floor boards. Patience! Patience! I must not disappoint Ryan.

Heaving the last of the small boxes into the garbage bag which would become their final resting place, I returned to the pile for another look Soon I spied the broken hasp of a flat wooden trunk. It opened easily enough, emitting a whiff of dusty yellowing paper which made me sneeze. Something lumpy wrapped in tissue paper had been tied with a faded narrow pink ribbon and this I handled carefully. Next came a small box of letters which I carried downstairs to examine in better light.

To my astonishment what was revealed in the letters was evidence of a long forgotten ancestor, evidence that had been buried these many years under sheaves of letters, documents, records, etc. This person had written a letter now in a crumpled envelope marked “Not to be opened before her 30th birthday”.

Intrigued I pulled the letter out of its envelope. There was no date on it, no address. The handwriting was well formed, so the writer had had some education.. There were four pages of the writing and at the end no signature. Who was this mysterious stranger who had lodged in our attic for so long? Upon rereading the letter it became clear that she was a woman, a very young woman, to judge from the breathless style of her communication, good humored though not witty, and optimistic. She wrote of high hopes for the future and her enjoyment of a circle of friends. There was no mention of family and therefore nothing I could use to locate her on the family tree, or even, indeed, in the twentieth century. Perhaps she was not an ancestor but rather some one whose correspondence had been either treasured or hidden. Or both.

Putting her letter aside, I pulled out a second one whose writing seemed to resemble that of the first letter. It too lacked a date or an address: it was not in an envelope. While I had rather liked the young author of the first letter, I came to have no admiration for this writer. She, I assume again, was presumptuous and authoritarian, giving advice to her parents on how to parent and, apparently, how to manage some financial affair that she admitted she did not understand, possibly the sale or purchase of a house. She was decidedly against the transaction. Here I thought I might be closer to solving the mystery because the writer did allude to a brother, although not by name. The whole tone of the letter was unpleasant; gone was any vestige of the girlish enthusiasm of the first epistle.

But there was a third letter, too, the last from the little pile, this one in a different hand. It was written in pencil on long yellow sheets of foolscap and it too seemed to address itself to elders. It started abruptly, saying that this was the last and only time that the writer would communicate on the subject since, and here I quote, “you and Jenie seem to have decided against helping me provide a home for”… The rest was indecipherable as if the paper had been left out in the sun too long.

So this writer and the previous one were brother and sister and some family quarrel had arisen in regard to property. Was that all I would learn about our attic visitor?

The jury was out until about a month after the search on Ryan’s behalf, when I came upon an envelope addressed “Not to be opened until her 70th birthday” and with that came the revelation of the identity of the mysterious “ancestor” in the attic: it was myself, a half century ago. That long forgotten self had passed onto me her habit of writing a letter to herself every decade which I still do. I only hope that she has also bequeathed to me her optimism and not the presumptuous and authoritarian aspects of her nature.

Originally aired on WAMC in April of 2014.