History Lesson

By Susan Bono

I’ve been rummaging around in already full closets lately, trying to find space for all the stuff I brought home when I emptied my parents’ house last May. It’s been rough going, but I stopped wondering why when I realized Mom and Dad lived in their house for thirty-seven years, only eight years longer than we’ve lived in ours.

Our youngest son often encounters me staring into space clutching a quilt, wood carving, or photograph. I think my uncharacteristic attempts at organization are making him nervous. “What are you doing? What’s that?” he asks.

“Oh, this is some of your Great Aunt Emily’s needlepoint,” I tell him a little too eagerly. “These are my Barbie clothes, and here are the baby rompers your great grandmother made for your grandfather back in 1925. You wore them once yourself.”

I give him these family history updates knowing full well it’s all drifting into one ear on its way out the other. At twenty-two, he doesn’t have a sentimental bone in his body. But as long as he keeps asking, I continue to supply the disregarded answers.

Telling these stories is a kind of test. I’m trying to figure out how much I actually know about the Scotty dog napkin ring, the china baby doll, the anniversary clock, the piece of Native American pottery. If I don’t remember what my parents told me about these things, what can they really mean to me?

“It’s just stuff,” I heard myself say as I watched people carry off Christmas decorations, books, camping gear, and clothing from the garage sale I organized to clear my parents’ attic. But I might as well have said, “It’s just stories.” Stories that connect me by an ever-thinning thread to a world that is disappearing.

I remember asking my own mother, “What’s that?” and “Who are those people?” when I caught her sorting drawers or photographs. I thought I was listening to her explanations, but I didn’t retain much. The tiny, mirrored powder box with the ostrich puff, that silver thimble—I know they were her mother’s, but what about the rest of the story? I’m sure she told me more than once, each time straining to remember what her own mother, dead before I was born, had told her. It’s only now that I understand how the story of an object becomes more precious than the thing itself when there’s no one left to ask about it.

Susan Bono, a California-born teacher, freelance editor, and short-form memoirist, has facilitated writing workshops since 1993, helping hundreds of writers find and develop their voices. Her work has appeared online, on stage, in anthologies, newspapers, and on the radio.

From 1995-2015, she edited and published a small press magazine called Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative, as well as the online component that included quarterly postings of micro essays and a monthly forum dedicated to craft and process.

She was on the board of the Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference for more than a decade and was editor-in-chief of their journal, the Noyo River Review, for eight years. Susan often writes about domestic life set in her small town of Petaluma.

This essay can be found in her book, What Have We Here: Essays about Keeping House and Finding Home. Find out more at

Originally published in Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative, Editor’s Notes, Contest 2009 issue

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