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Beacon blog: Before the auction, collect the memories

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 9, 2013 - Dad died almost exactly a year and a half before we will have the auction at which his things, and Mom’s, will be sold.

Our family is lucky we’ve had this gift of time.

Oh, it’s going to be quite the sale -- perhaps as many as three rings at one time. By and large, Mom’s collections will be offered in front of the house, Dad’s in the back. With a middle section selling coins at least part of the time.

The coins are the easy part to explain: Dad had a Dairy Queen (11 Dilly Bars for $1, proclaims a backlit sign that will be offered). Every night when he counted the money, he kept watch for silver coins and wheat pennies. Long after he sold the business, he kept looking for coins, and the safety deposit box is heavy.

But the blessing is not that we had time to go through thousands of pennies (and we thank a friend for helping do that), hundreds of toothpick holders, fishing lures and other things. What made this exercise so beneficial to me, my sister and nephew is that we had Mom to consult.

“You have some things from the Chicago World’s Fair. Who in the family went there?”

“Grandma’s 2nd grade report card is from Emmaus Lutheran School in St. Louis. I thought everyone always lived on farms. Why were they in the city? When did they move to the farm?”

“A letter you wrote to your mother around 1947 seemed to support a suitor for your sister other than the man she married. What’s the story about that?”

“A slip of paper is in a sugar bowl, saying ‘Edna McDonald, cousin.’ Who is that?”

As you might gather from these questions, the first months were spent going through papers, papers and more papers. It actually got to the point that I cringed when I saw another packet of photographs. (Dad shot for the high school yearbook and memorialized thousands of fish that were tricked by his lures.) And Mom’s failing eyesight means that she can’t help us figure out who the people are in unmarked family photos.

Beyond the snapshots, not every envelope contained a gem: Indeed, Mom and Dad saved every greeting card they had received since we moved to the house in 1962. But because we were not under the gun to sell the house or host a quick auction, we could go through the papers, and we could take our questions to Mom.

About nine months ago, though, she asked the question we had sorta been waiting for: "When are you going to sell the house?" Mom has been in a nursing home; and there is no reason to have a four-bedroom house for me to stay in when I visit on weekends.

The pace has gradually quickened until our free time is consumed by sorting and cleaning and otherwise getting all that will be offered ready for the auctioneers. In two weeks, the sale will be over. But because we could go slowly at first, we already have benefitted -- getting a wealth of knowledge about the family that we would not otherwise.

Lessons: My sister and I and my late-brother’s son have a pact that we will not save greeting cards; and we will be very selective about what we keep of our own stuff and of our children’s. But a lot of old family stuff will stay family stuff. We hope to leave a better written record of family history. And every now and then, as I decide that I can find a place to put my grade school reports cards, I smile to myself and think, “Why deny my kids the pleasure…”

Donna Korando started work in journalism at SIU’s Daily Egyptian in 1968. In between Carbondale and St. Louis Public Radio, she taught high school in Manitowoc, Wis., and worked at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the copy editor and letters editor for the editorial page from 1973-77. As an editorial writer from 1977-87, she covered Illinois and city politics, education, agriculture, family issues and sub-Saharan Africa. When she was editor of the Commentary Page from 1987-2003, the page won several awards from the Association of Opinion Page Editors. From 2003-07, she headed the features copy desk.