My last summer

Since I graduated from college this May and start more school this August, this truly is my last summer. For in August, I begin an eight-year program where I will spend my summers doing research, working in clinics, and studying. I will have left the world of the student who pays for schooling, and enter a grown-up world where my education is truly my job.

So what to do with the last summer free from most responsibility and worries of my life? Surely, I must make the most of it.

First, I wanted to something crazy, something totally out of the ordinary for me, something that wasn’t research or clinical, something that put me more in touch with humanity. As I thought of jobs that could fit this description, I thought of barista. Making coffee and interacting with customers is a great way to make small talk and meet a lot of people. Although I had worked as a barista before, it isn’t like any job or activity I had done in the past 3 years and so it was out of the ordinary for who I have become. Alas, a very short interview with Starbucks killed that dream as their training takes nearly as long as I would be able to work there.

Next, I gave up on it not being research related as I found an internship that was available at a local pharmaceutical company. I thought that it would be good to get experience in a non-academic research environment so that I know what I’m missing out in academia. I updated my resume and wrote a cover letter, things that I had not really had to do since my previous jobs at my university were much easier to get and perhaps required only a CV. Alas, I was not who they were looking for.

I was at a loss. I did not want to get a job as a cashier at Target or some other place though that is where I would likely be able to find a job for such a short time. I did the cashier thing for nearly 4 years of my life and enough is enough. But by a rather unfortunate circumstance, I found a way to spend my summer that is much more out of the ordinary and meaningful than anything else I could have chosen to do.

And so, here I am. It’s a Friday night in June, the rain is pouring outside, the wind is howling, the power is out, and I sit in the nearly empty house that was once my grandparents’, alone, listening to the sound of the storm, and reading through letters my grandfather received from his friends while he served in World War II. I have spent much of my summer here, cleaning, organizing, throwing things away, donating some to good will, and doling out what I can to the rest of my family, and I couldn’t imagine a better summer.

This was a creepy, classic, spider-infested basement room after I cleaned it out.
This was a creepy, classic, spider-infested basement room after I cleaned it out.

This past April, my grandmother passed away from cancer leaving my nearly ninety year old grandfather without a caretaker. He moved in with my aunt leaving their home where my grandparents’ had lived for 58 years without tenants. This is where I come in. It is now my job, along with my mother, to clean out this house so full of memories so that new tenants can call this place home. It is where my mother grew up and it is where I spent much of my childhood as well including spending a summer living with my grandparents’ after my freshman year of college. It is a place that will be hard to say good-bye to.

I have taken advantage of this opportunity to learn as much as possible about my family. I’ve learned about my grandfather’s time as a marine in World War II and his time as a professor of forestry at the University of Minnesota. I’ve learned about how my grandparents met as a blind date and fell in love at first sight. I’ve learned of the summer they lived in a 50-foot tall fire lookout tower in Idaho and I hope to get the story my grandmother wrote about the experience published. It is in learning about their past that I am more amazed at the people they grew up to be.

My grandparents in 1946 - one month after they started dating.
My grandparents in 1946 – one month after they started dating.

Even more, I’ve gone beyond my grandparents’ time to learn about those who came before them. Through the hundred of pictures I’ve scanned and the stories my grandmother has written, I’ve learned about my great-grandparents, great- great-grandparents and beyond. Through my grandparents’ records, I was able to put 320 people on our family tree. Joining got me to over 1,000. I learned that my great- great- great-grandfather immigrated from Ireland and was a member of the Stone Masons. I learned that I come from two lines of knights of England (Strickland and Ketchum/Knyvett). I learned that the first couple to get married in America who came in the Mayflower, John Alden and Priscilla Mulline, are my 10th great grandparents. I learned that Benjamin Rush who was a doctor and signed the declaration of independence is my 5th great grand uncle. I’ve learned that I’m mostly English with some Norweigan, Irish, Scottish, Swedish, and German in my blood and now know when most of those ancestors came to America.

2013-06-04 15.23.36
My great- great-grandmother’s wedding shoes and an old bible.

I’ve also found relics of the past. I’ve found bibles from the 1800s with the names, births, and deaths of my ancestors recorded, wedding shoes that were my great- great-grandmother’s, a dresser scarf that was hand stitched by my great- great- grandmother, war pins from the Civil War and World War II, crystal lamp bases of my great-grandmother’s, and the plates my great-grandparents received as wedding gifts. Seeing these things, touching these things, is like reaching out and touching my ancestors. I’m holding something that they once held, something that was once new and special to them, and it has been passed on so that I have the fortune to have it too.

It is amazing how much history you can find in a single house.

So how does this relate to my goals for the summer?

Is it crazy? Well, I have been able to obsess over this project for the past month, so it lets me get crazy about it.

Is it something totally out of the ordinary for me? Well, I’m absolutely terrified of spiders and even more about house centipedes and I hate dirty basements, which is just what I’ve had to clean out this summer. My mother says that if we’re supposed to do something every day that scares us that she and I are good for many years.

Does it put me more in touch with humanity? I’ve learned who my ancestors are. I’ve touched things they’ve touched. I’ve learned where I come from, what role my family has played in society. I’ve learned more about how I fit in this world. Yes, I’d say I’m more in touch with humanity.

It’s not always pretty, it’s a lot of work, but I’m enjoying every minute of it, and as I’ve said, I cannot imagine a better summer. My search for a way to spend my summer was not at all a loss nonetheless, for the day I interviewed with Starbucks, I had to stop by my grandparents’ house to get their car to drive to the interview. That was the last time I saw my grandmother in a coherent state before I saw her on her last day with us. Clearly failures can be blessings in disguise. Being able to clear out her house and learn about he family is helping give me closure to say goodbye to my grandma and goodbye to the house where she and my grandfather lived. It’s saying goodbye to the life I know and it’s preparing me to move 8 hours away from home, to live completely by myself in a new state. It’s preparing me to truly live on my own.

My grandparent's house.
My grandparent’s house.

I challenge you to think of how you would spend your last summer.

Featured image: Hanna Erickson


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