I barely knew my Great Aunt Clara, my paternal grandfather’s sister. Mostly, I knew that she was old. I’m the youngest, so anyone with “Grand” or “Great” before their name was most likely pretty damn old by the time I came along in the 1970s, the youngest in a string of kids that started in the 1950s.
Aunt Clara married, but never had kids. Her husband died in the early 1990s and she continued living on her own until she dropped dead on the sidewalk one day in 1995, walking to the grocery. She was 83.
She was one of eight children, and from what I’ve been able to gather, she kept a box for each of her siblings (at least the ones who survived into adulthood) and their families. In those boxes, she kept wedding invitations, newspaper clippings, bridal registry print outs, thank you notes, graduation announcements, pictures, and other ephemera. My dad must have brought home the box she kept for our family after she died—his Aunt Frances (the last remaining sibling) probably gave it to him. He stuck it in the closet 20 years ago, and my mom found it recently and showed my sisters and me during one of our weekly Sunday afternoon visits.
I was immediately smitten with the Ketteler box, and asked if I could bring it home for a bit. That night, I poured through it, finding a bunch of Ketteler newspaper clippings: one from 1952 announcing that my dad, along with 31 other boys from the county, had been drafted into service; a spate from the 1970s, when my sisters’ gymnastics team was featured in the local paper a few times; one from 10 years later when my own gymnastics team was featured; and every time one of us made the paper for being on the honor roll or doing a service project. The last clipping was from 1994, when I made the Honor’s list at Northern Kentucky University. I also found my dad’s high school and college graduation announcements, a Christmas Card he sent from Germany in 1953 (when he was in the Army), my parents’ wedding ephemera, and all of my siblings’ wedding invitations up until she died. Aunt Clara kept each thing sent to her in its original envelope, which she had meticulously sliced-open. Everything was pristinely folded, and sometimes, she made tiny notes in neat handwriting about where a bride was registered.
The last thing in the box—at the very bottom—was the program from her funeral. My dad was listed as one of the pallbearers. The communion song was “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” It took my breath away for a moment. I wanted to feel joy, that I was celebrating her life, but I just felt . . . sad. It all seemed so reductive. Like all that effort and carefulness, and it just wound up in a box, your own funeral program at the bottom of it. Like it wouldn’t have mattered either way.
I put the lid on the box, and put the kids to bed.
In the weeks that followed, I kept seeing the box in my office. I knew that I wanted to do some sort of mixed media project with the photos and cards. I usually feel happy and creative when I think about what interesting thing I could do with cool old shit that relates to my family. Yet every time I thought about this box, my soul felt heavy.
The other day, as I cracked open the lid again, I realized what was going on with Aunt Clara’s box.
I felt regret. A lot of it, and for multiple things: that I didn’t know her, that I hadn’t asked my dad for more of his family stories when he had the chance to tell me, that I hadn’t paid more attention to that older generation instead of just labeling them as old, and that I wasn’t keeping any boxes for anyone.
The thing is, I don’t usually get caught up in regret. Or at least it’s not my go-to low-level emotion. I think of regret the way I think of gambling: it’s kind of attractive sometimes, but ultimately, it’s so pointless and such a waste that I rarely bother. Regret had a hold on me this time though, and it was more than just a passing fancy. I was in a full-on funk.
I’d like to wrap this up by telling you that I’ve busted my way out of this bleh-ness, but the truth is, I’m still kind of swimming around in it. I’ve been able to pinpoint the source of the regret a little better though: while it’s wrapped up in this idea about missing my chance to connect with a generation of elders, what’s keeping it alive is a feeling that I’m not paying enough attention in my own life. That I haven’t learned anything, and I’m squandering so much by letting irritation, frustration, and self-pity steal my bandwidth.
So often, I have this feeling of not being able to catch my breath in my own life. Do you know what I mean? It’s not just that time is moving fast. It’s that I fear I’m making stupid energy choices, constantly losing perspective—and as soon as I regain it, I let it slip away again.
I wonder if Aunt Clara ever felt like this? I bet she fell into some February funks, too. I know I’ll come to the other side of this, and one day soon, I’ll peer into that box with joy. I think we have to honor our funks though, instead of glossing over them.
(It’s also possible that I just need a warm day and a sunny weekend. If anyone has a way to arrange that, I’d be eternally grateful.)