It can be said that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, so you never entirely know the value of any discarded item. I was looking through a family photo album and recalled one such previously long neglected item that I had not thought about in many years. You normally keep valuables locked away in a safe or stored in a vault at your bank, but what would you do with a teething hat?
The significance of this worn-out styrofoam safari hat was proof that I had met my great grandfather, George William “Willie” Conner at least once in my life. This uniquely important heirloom and I appeared together in only two almost simultaneous photographs. In each picture my great grandpa Willie is holding me as an infant less than a year old, still in diapers. I recall one of the pictures captured me reaching for the hat as it rested atop his head. The next in the sequence is again of him holding me, but this time with the hat firmly in my grasp, gnawing on the edge. I recall growing up with the story as my mom told it, hearing he was not in the least bit upset that I was permanently marring a hat he wore daily while working around the farm. I am told that he was even laughing about it.
I asked my mom if I could keep the two pictures during a visit but sometime long ago I had removed the pictures from the album when it started coming apart and both photos had since been misplaced. I started asking my relatives if it was possible that my mother had shared copies of the pictures with them. Unfortunately, no one seemed to have seen the pictures I was looking for and the only direct connection I had with my great grandfather was forever lost.
Many months later, my great aunt Ada responded that she didn’t have the picture I was looking for, but would look around for others that she was certain that I would like to see and invited me to attend the family reunion which was happening later that year as an opportunity to share them with me.
At the reunion as the afternoon music was winding down and attendees began gathering their dishes and making the preparations to return home, I was approached by aunt Ada who asked me to stay for a while longer. She went to her vehicle in the parking lot and returned with a brown paper sack and a stack of photographs. As I thumbed through the stack, I finally got to pictures of my great grandfather.
She started speaking as she pointed to a photo of her father atop a tractor with the same hat that I remembered from the two pictures I was looking for. “That’s the hat!” she eagerly exclaimed. She explained that she could not recall exactly when he started wearing the hat, most likely in the early to mid-1960’s. She reached for the paper sack she had brought from her car as she spoke of her father. “He had worn the hat almost every day,” she stated as tears began to well up in her eyes. She lifted her glasses to her forehead and swabbed the pools beneath her eyes with a handkerchief that she had tucked in her sleeve for occasions such as these when bittersweet memories of lost loved ones are remembered as their stories are shared. He had worn the hat up to the day he was hospitalized with an illness that eventually led to his death four days before Christmas 1970.
“After daddy died, mama had been sorting through his things” she explained as she reached inside the paper sack. She pulled out the hat that I had been asking about and handed it to me. At the time her father died, aunt Ada had been working as a florist creating flower arrangements. Her mother thought she could have used the hat as a base to hold the artificial flowers she worked with. It wasn’t long after that she retired from the flower shop and stored the old discarded hat in her basement where it had remained unused and almost forgotten for the next thirty years!
As I examined the ancient-looking artifact more closely, she pointed to the evidence of an infant’s teeth-marks still clearly visible. “I had thought of throwing it out with the weekly trash on many occasions, but for some reason or other I just never got around to it” she explained. In stunned disbelief, I was amazed that this fragile item had remained intact for me to be reunited with all these years later. While the hunt for my missing photographs is still on-going, I am thankful for the tangible evidence now in my hands that connects beyond a distant memory of a lost photograph.
You cannot simply discard items that you consider unusable or without purpose. What may seem like irrelevant trash to someone not familiar with its provenance, you may possess heirlooms of significance to someone else if that item was handed down through the generations. Think of items that would seem common to your ancestors as part of their daily life and seemingly unimportant. Before throwing them out, remember that the item may hold a personal significance to someone else.
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