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Cracker Barrel: Erasing the past

“This is the year,” said my wife. “This is the year we finally get the house cleaned up. We’ve been putting it off for way too long.”

“I agree. We just have to harden our hearts and learn to let go of things.”

“Like all of those extra books you’ve got, piled on every available flat surface except the kitchen stove.”

I felt a stab of uneasiness. True, we’ve probably got a few more books than we actually need. But what if we want to reread one from time to time? I started to voice my concern but my wife beat me to it.

“I know, I know. What if we want to reread one? Well, I, for one, have rarely enjoyed going back to something I’ve already read, and besides, that’s what libraries are for.”

Further argument was futile, and in my heart I knew she was right. For some irksome reason, I have a hard time letting go of printed things. I can toss an old pair of boots (after a few years of thoughtful contemplation) or a broken tool or an outworn piece of furniture, but I do have trouble with things like books.

Then, as if by cosmic prearrangement, I opened a box of stuff we’d gotten after my mom died, and found myself looking at her high school annuals. Lake View High School, Chicago, Ill. 1931, ‘32, ‘33 and ‘34. No problem with this. Dad had died years ago and Mom’s parents were also gone, as were her brother and virtually all of her friends.

Only a sister remained, our beloved Aunt Betty, and she had recently suffered a stroke.

I opened an annual and paged through it, impressed by the quality of the paper and the precision of the type. The photos weren’t so hot, but back then everything had to be etched by the halftone process onto metal plates.

I flipped it open to the final page, and started reading the notes and autographs of her classmates, all of them wishing her a bright future, a great life and a riveting encounter with “your dreamboat” or “Prince Charming” or “a really cuddly guy.”

I set the first book aside and flipped through the second, third and fourth. No reason to keep them. No reason at all. They were artifacts from yesteryear, mere whispers from the past. I put them in a cardboard box with other items I intended to toss in the garbage can.

Then I started thinking about the fact that some day into the future, the last few yellowed cards and letters and photographs of my mom would disappear, and eventually her name on the gravestone would erode and become unreadable, and for all practical purposes, her time upon this planet would be totally forgotten.

And some years after that, I, too, would pass into oblivion, along with almost every person who has ever lived.

For a handful of gloomy moments I considered putting the annuals back on the shelf. Then I thought of Mom’s smile and her upbeat attitude and realized her legacy lives on in the people she knew and loved and the values she lived by. And that’s enough.

(Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at