(I stopped calling her Mom the spring of 1962. In 1960 she had been committed to Fergus Falls State Hospital—we children had been sent to foster homes. It took almost two years for us to be reintegrated—three of her nine children never did return.)
But back to the chickenhouse—It was obvious that Barbara “Barb” had never looked at the treasure. Many packets were still bound together by decades-old ribbon, string, brittle rubber bands, or rusted paper clips. Rodents had tunneled into ruptured boxes and gnawed documents. Mouse urine had seeped and stained. Crumbled feces flecked pages. Dust hovered in sunbeams when disturbed. The cache was water-damaged and mildewed. The smell, like a peripheral nightmare, has seeped and stained my memory.
Thousands of documents lay in the decomposing heap, the earliest, a letter dated 1822 written by my fourth great-grandfather, David Olmsted, Bedford, New York. I learned that he had served in the Connecticut Militia from 1778-1781 and had fought in the Hudson River campaigns during the Revolutionary War.
Why had my mother relegated our family history to the leaky-roofed chickenhouse? Was it because of lifelong antipathy toward her mother? Or was she afraid of what she might discover? Our changing seasons fluctuate one hundred fifty degrees. Thankfully the leaking roof and temperature extremes had formed a crust over the treasure, protecting it, much as loose hay crowned atop a haystack will shield the forage beneath.
Some of my siblings wanted to burn everything.
My sister, Laurel, and I spent several days excavating documents and artifacts from our past. Another sister, Bonnie, arrived on the weekend and discovered our grandfather’s urn. I’ve spent five years sorting, studying, scanning and archiving, and have witnessed a heart-wrenching story unfold.
As tiered decades revealed their secrets I began to understand incongruities my siblings and I had been raised with. And I’ve come to realize that this saga possesses literary and human depths that dwarf the decomposing heap my two sisters and I rescued from the chickenhouse. (Five years later when I open a tote-box to review a document chickenhouse smell wafts, reawakening the memory.) And each time I read an old document, newly-discovered puzzle pieces fall into place.