The tedious task morphed into an afternoon I'll never forget. 

By Marisa Cohen
Updated August 04, 2017
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Box of memories on bookshelf
Credit: Jan Hakan Dahlstrom/Getty Images

My parents’ basement was giving us all major anxiety. Mom and Dad have lived in the same split-level suburban house for almost 50 years, and as they move closer to the idea of selling it and moving into an assisted living facility, we knew we would eventually have to go through the decades worth of boxes that have taken up every inch of floor space, and have even started to creep toward the ceiling, reminding me of the mountains of relics piled up in Harry Potter’s Room of Requirement.

So one Sunday, my husband, my teenage daughters, and I decided to suck it up and start plowing through the piles. We brought our friend Kathleen, a professional organizer, along for logistical and emotional support.

As Kathleen started tossing musty old pillows, broken suitcases, and moth-eaten clothing into industrial-size garbage bags and sorting out valuable items to sell (Beatles albums; the antique tobacco advertisements my parents collected in their younger days), I peeked into a banged-up file cabinet in the laundry room and made an amazing discovery: a scrapbook with the invitations to every bar and bat mitzvah I attended in junior high (each page included a mini review—“The dessert table was awesome! Great band!”), plus the script or program from every play, concert, or math fair I was ever in.

Digging a little deeper, I found a box with hundreds of hand-written letters and faded photos. I seem to have kept every piece of scribbled-on Snoopy stationery ever sent to me in camp, and every letter ever written to me in college or from my Japanese pen pal, Naoko. I discovered Playbills from the first Broadway shows my parents had taken me to, even my clunky old red-white-and-blue roller skates from the ’80s, made well before anyone ever thought to put all the wheels in one long, speedier row. There were newspaper articles my mom or I had clipped with reviews of my favorites movies and interviews with favorite stars. Actual paper articles, the pre-digital version of sharing a link!

It may not have been as dramatic as opening King Tut’s tomb, but finding these bits of memorabilia was like opening up a window into my childhood, and my kids were, surprisingly, as fascinated by this as I was. Sure, I had told them plenty of stories about growing up on Long Island in the time before cell phones and DVRs. But here, right in front of them, was the tangible evidence of that life: the very letters, photos, and report cards that had traveled through time from my hands to theirs.

We all had a minor collective freakout. The girls grabbed handfuls of my camp letters and asked, “Who is this boy named David you liked? Why is everyone excited about a Michael J. Fox movie?” We recited lines from my fourth grade play, and I pointed out that musical legend Jennifer Holiday signed my Dreamgirls Playbill when she was still an unknown teenager.

And then something else miraculous happened. For the past few years, my mom has suffered from the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and though she is always in a good mood when her grandchildren visit, her memory is spotty enough so that conversation topics tend to revolve around the same few questions. She asks over and over how old they are, where they go to school, and if they’re going to college soon.

But then I found the letters my mom wrote to me during my freshman year of college and read them out loud. “Today I shampooed the cat, waited for the air condition repairman, and defrosted the freezer—and that was all before I left for work!” she had written me. We laughed as she remembered our old cat Papillon, and I choked up as I read her thoughtful advice about a class I was considering dropping. It brought my smart, funny mom back to me, right there on a folded piece of lined paper. For my kids, it was a beautiful peek into the kind of woman their grandmother had once been.

We sat for hours on the floor in the living room going through the physical evidence of my life before I had kids, laughing at the bad ’90s haircuts and remembering old friends I hadn’t seen in years (my Mom still had a picture of many of them deep in her mind, in the section still untouched by Alzheimer’s). My dad had been a pretty good amateur photographer, and we found a stash of artsy black-and-white photos he took of my brother and me playing in that same house, in cowboy hats or with messy hair.

I did feel a tinge of sadness that my kids will never have this kind of treasure trove to rediscover with their kids. I am not kidding you when I say that my friends and I wrote each other epic letters, in tiny script, especially during those first few tumultuous months of college. I can’t wait to send my friend Lisa the letter I found in which she excitedly told me about a cute guy, Alan, she had met the night before at a party (Lisa and Alan have now been married for more than 25 years and have three kids). My kids only have texts, Snapchats, and other ephemeral means of communicating, short bursts of words that will disappear without a trace.

But that’s a story for another time.

By the end of that Sunday afternoon, my girls had gathered a pile of my old Archie comics, several Playbills, and, of course, the retro roller-skates that my ’80s-obsessed 16-year-old thinks are the coolest thing ever. But the most important gift they took home was a solid picture of who their grandparents and mother used to be. It was a connection through time.

Of course, all this reminiscing meant that we only made a small dent in the basement, and we have lots more work to do. But instead of dreading it, now I’m looking forward to seeing what other memories my family can dig up, blow the dust off, and share together.