September 22nd, 2010

What is the Story with that?

Geoff DiMasi

I realize that I ask the question "What is the story with that?" out loud or internally many times throughout the day. I like to know the backstory. Not with the goal of being nosey or assigning blame if something went wrong, instead so that I can be more empathetic to the current situation.

There are many interactions, though where people go to great lengths to sanitize history. One example is at the time of the sale of a house. Usually real estate agents are positioned between the seller and buyer and they never have an opportunity to talk. From a business perspective, I know this convention exists to distance people as you try to bargain with each other. I also think that realtors do not want emotion of any kind to impact the transaction. However, it really hinders the opportunity to pass along the stories of the house.

I have never enjoyed that process and have gone out of the way to reach out to the seller each time I have purchased a house. I really want to know the stories that played out there. I enjoy thinking of myself as part of a continuum of people that have shared the honor of living in and maintaining the house. I like to think about how our life there is part of that story and enjoy when we have the opportunity to improve or repair it so that it can live beyond me.

This weekend my wife Shannon and I attended an estate sale for a neighbor that I never had an opportunity to know since Morris and his sister passed away shortly after we moved to the block. Walking around the sale in their home gave us glimpses into their lives. From what I can gather, their family came from Poland (or Eastern Europe). I think they may have been born in Europe. (We found a naturalization paper for a member of their family.) They were jews and it appears that Morris fought in World War II as an American soldier. From other neighbors, I found out that neither of them married, and they had lived together in this house for many years. Maurice's sister passed away about a year ago and he passed soon after.

Everything was for sale in the house. There was a stack of photographs on the sideboard in the dining room and some framed ones in the living room. Family photographs were $1 each. They called out to me and I was saddened to think that they may be broken up and dispersed around the world. There were medals for his service in the military, and a few well-worn time pieces.

As we walked through the house, I could see that this experience was having a deep emotional impact on my wife. Maybe it is because she also has jewish relatives that came from Poland and Eastern Europe that also fought against Nazi Germany in World War II as American soldiers. There are certainly parallels in Morris and his sister's lives to my wife's Uncles Maurice and Joe that played into my wife's emotional state, but I think it goes deeper than that. I was also genuinely feeling emotion and empathy for some people that I never met, and it made me want to somehow honor their story.

Since then, my wife and I have been churning this experience over in our brains and will periodically express an idea about how to best deal with the objects from Morris and his sister's life so as to help pass down their story. At one point, I said to Shannon something like, "I feel they could have gathered together all of the personal items like the photographs, war medals, immigration papers and placed them in a box to be left in the house, since that is a part of the history of the house."

I know that it is unlikely that there is a repository that would accept these types of objects, but I wish there was a way to perserve them in some way. In the course of conversation, it also occurred to use that we could take photos or scan many of the photos and documents and just place them on something like Flickr with a description that included their names and former address. These ideas are certainly executable and we may end up doing that if we have the opportunity.

It seems like quite a bit of effort to put into something for people that you never met, but somehow it bothers me that their story is disappearing. Do we really have to let some many stories just disappear because we are afraid it may impact a sale? I think it would add depth to our everyday existence if we could somehow preserve and make aware the stories of the places we live and travel through. I think it would actually add meaning to those living now in another way, since we would know that those that follow us would appreciate the layer we added to their existence and maybe even honor us in some small way.

There are many cultures that do have this concept built into their traditions. Native Americans stand out in my mind, but I know there are many other cultures were this also is part of the everyday life. I think it gives you a bigger sense of life and let's you live each day with more joy and focus when you have a sense that you are part of this bigger continuum.

I realize that this post has turned a bit sentimental, but I think my life is a little bit richer since I have had the opportunity to imagine Morris as a soldier in WWII fighting against the Nazis and possibly even liberating his and my wife's relatives from a concentration camp. I know that may never have happened, but I wish I did know the real story and I don't see any reason to sanitize their story from their house.

Geoff DiMasi

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