It was just a few months ago I wrote about my family’s holiday dinner at my grandparents’ farmhouse in Elizabeth, Ill., a one-time event that seems more special with each passing day as the older generation ages and the younger generations dig deeper into our own lives that seem to take us farther apart.

Since that January weekend, my dad and his two brothers have been working at cleaning the house, divvying up and reviewing its contents to make plans for an August farm sale and the eventual sale of the house and some outbuildings. The boys have made frequent trips to Elizabeth, at times alone, other times assisted by wives and children, with the primary purpose of going through boxes and boxes of family stuff, keeping some, deciding to sell other items and getting rid of the rest.

My dad has been out the most by virtue of living the closest. It’s less than three hours from Libertyville, Ill., to Elizabeth, which is much closer then my uncle Roger in Apple River, Minn., and way, way closer than my uncle Kevin in Billings, Mont. But all three were out this weekend, and Kristie and I headed up after work Friday to pitch in and spent almost all day Saturday doing the same.

I know many people have had to deal with similar projects. Heck, my mom’s family is doing the same at my late grandfather’s condo in Port Richey, Fla. But the farmhouse seems to be a different beast.

The land itself has been in the family through grandparents, nieces and nephews and so on for more than 150 years. My grandparents moved into the house in 1971, essentially swapping their house in town with my great-great-aunt and uncle. They, like others before them, left a lot of things in place when they moved out.

My grandparents, already married more than 20 years at the time, had accumulated quite a bit of their own stuff. That’s why no one was surprised to find a box full of flatware that had upwards of 40 spoons, and that’s not counting the hundreds of pieces we’d already packed. That’s also why we had to spend a good deal of time looking through things like tax statements from the 1940s, livestock records from the 1930s and grade school textbooks from earlier than that.

Pretty much every room of the house has been torn up at this point. Kevin had rented a moving trailer and packed up the living room couch and matching easy chair (with matching footstool), an armoire from the master bedroom, some end tables and good deal of odds and ends. Roger is doing the same with his furniture in July, and Kristie and I also have to get out there to grab a few pieces (including a steamer trunk a direct ancestor used to come over from Cornwall, England, in 1843).

Throughout the entire weekend, with Roger tearing through the attic, Kevin and I loading the trailer and working over the basement, Kristie cleaning out the kitchen and the sun porch and my dad helping wherever needed, my grandmother sat dutifully at the dining room table, going through box after box of personal papers deciding what to save herself, what to send home with her boys and what had run its course.

There were newspaper clippings of Roger in a grade school science fair and Kevin on the first-ever Elizabeth High School homecoming court. There was a playbill from my dad’s stint in the pit orchestra for a Timber Lake Playhouse production of “My Fair Lady.” My cousin’s preschool graduation photo. Snapshots from my grandparents’ wedding. Christmas cards. Thank you notes. Birth announcements. Obituaries.

An entire life was passing before her eyes one scrap of paper at a time, while her three boys, now grown men with their own families, carried to the garage piece after piece of furniture, erasing forever the way the house looked when it was truly lived in, the way we’ll always remember but never again see in anything but photographs.

The enormity of the task set in for me when, going through the basement under the original part of the home, I came across several undisturbed jars of canned tomatoes and tomato juice. Trying to date the stuff, I looked at the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald sports section used for shelf liner.

The paper was from Aug. 21, 1999, shortly before my junior year of college and, more poignantly, shortly before the stroke that changed my grandmother’s life forever.

I have moved quite a bit in my short life, including a memorable four moves in less than two years. But each time I knew it was coming, had time to plan ahead and pack accordingly. Those jars of tomatoes on a hidden shelf in a dank basement screamed out about an interrupted life, a stark reminder of how much things have changed in so little time.

But in our family, a good laugh is never too far away. In this case, it was a bucket in the new basement with two wild turkey feet bound together by a cord holding a tag that said simply “Doc Holland. Save feet.” And then it was a few jokes about the 1869 New Testament someone found (so old it didn’t even have the Revelation in it yet, someone said). And then it was something else, and then another.

The laughter dissolved into handshakes and hugs, some “good-bye for nows” exchanged since we’ll all be back in a month to do more of the same. Slowly but surely, chipping away and remembering that a house is just a house, even if it’s been in one family for several decades.

The thing is, this excavation project has brought us closer together than any holiday. I see my uncles and their families more often. I see my dad and his brothers actually being brothers for better or worse, not just having a good time for a few days around Thanksgiving. I see my wife jumping in with both feet, as much a part of the family as anyone else.

I also see turkey feet in a bucket and a stuffed and mounted owl that gives an honest case of the willies to anyone looking upon it for the first time.

And in all of it, I see family. It’s not something that’s easily defined, but once you see it in practice and experience it firsthand, it’s something that stays with you forever.

Scott T. Holland’s column appears every Wednesday in the Clinton Herald. His e-mail address is scottholland@clintonherald.com.

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