My father is going through old documents and putting them into various boxes. He’s been a serious writer for decades, and he’s found forgotten poems and stories, old speeches he gave, various family documents. He wants me to sit with him and go through the papers.
I know some of what’s there. And as I type this, I think not just of his prolific writing — there’s so much to say about that — but also the family documents he saved. Many families have papers from years ago that are worth keeping. For instance, one document of my father's is 154 years old.
The top of that paper reads as follows: "Head Quarters Post, Camp Douglas, Chicago, Illinois. It read: "In pursuance of General Orders No. 109, A.G. O., dated Washington, D.C., June 6, 1865, the Quartermaster's Department will furnish transportation from Chicago, Illinois, to Social Circle, Ga., for the following named released Prisoner of War: John P.W. Clegg."
That was my great-great grandfather. (My father's father's mother's father.) I think of his hands holding this same piece of paper so many summers ago. It was his ticket home, his way out of a horrible time. I wondered about that trip home to Social Circle. When it was all over, what did he feel? What images lingered behind his eyes? That document doesn't say anything about such things. But it gives you the official time and place. And that's interesting in itself.
There’s a separate paper that he signed months later on Sept. 26, 1865, in which he vowed to abide by the U.S. Constitution.
On that slip of paper, he promised to "...faithfully support all laws and proclamations which have been made during the existing rebellion with reference to the emancipation of slaves — SO HELP ME GOD."
He was listed as 35 years old, five foot seven, fair complexion, blue eyes and a farmer.
Another paper from 1898 authorized him to "peddle in any county or municipality in this state, without procuring a license or being subject to any tax therefor, provided he shall not sell whiskey, sewing machinery, or lightning rods."
Sewing machinery or lightning rods? I don't quite understand what put these things in the same league as whiskey.
While the documents of my great-great grandfather are interesting, the items that pertain to my grandparents, Wilson and Myrtle Mitcham, are more touching to me.
There are old photos of my grandmother that my grandfather had kept in a little photo album. He had trimmed the background out of a couple of the photos so that only my grandmother was left — as if the scenery behind her was just too much of an interference for his eyes. She was clearly very happy in one photo, the brightness in her smile more than just a movement of the mouth. There is also a postage stamp-sized photo of her with "Myrtle" printed at the bottom. I wonder if my grandfather stared at these pictures while he was in the Philippines during WWII and in Japan after the war.
My father has a WWII medal and a number of multi-colored pins that my grandfather had earned. There is also a card from the Federal Civil Defense Administration with somewhat humorous "Air Raid" instructions. For instance, it said, "Important: If you see a bright flash of light, take cover instantly." Or if you were outdoors, you were to "seek the best available cover." I don’t think anyone needs to be reminded to get out of harm’s way in case of an attack.
There is a pass for my grandfather to visit "Kobe, Osaka, Kyoto and vicinity" after the war. There is another document from 1942 with a fingerprint from his right index finger taken by the State Defense Corps. He was 28 years old, 5'7", 125 lbs. An old photo of my grandfather shows him in his uniform, sitting on some lawn, cross-legged with his elbows resting on his knees. (He was a skinny, serious-looking person in that picture. But he could joke around, too. I remember that.)
There is an envelope with a new driver's license for my grandfather. On the envelope, my grandmother had noted that the license arrived after my grandfather's death, April 9, 1989. The license photo is not good. He appears tired and unwell. It is strange to hold the license he didn’t get to hold.
There is a program for a Sunday morning service at First Baptist Church in Monroe. On the top of the program, my grandmother had written, "This is the last Sunday Wilson attended Sunday School and Church." On the bottom of the program, my grandmother had written, "These are things that I do not want to misplace."
Inside the program are prayers my grandfather had written. There were words scratched out and rewritten. I imagine him sitting at the kitchen table trying to get his prayer right.
My grandfather worked at a cotton mill for over 50 years. And a couple of the prayers were written for work. One read: "Our father, we thank Thee for the fellowship of fellow employees. We thank Thee for this food. We pray that thou would continue to bless us as we work together using our skills — carding, spinning, weaving, management — to produce fabrics for mankind. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen."
Such family artifacts have some real sadness to them, but they are also truly valuable.
It’s worth holding on to papers with emotional power, even in this digital age.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.