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I never knew that a 1,200 acre home would allow me to finally learn about my great-grandfather. My great-grandfather passed away many years before I was born. I would frequently visit my great-grandma in Oklahoma, seeing his empty side of the bed. Noticing this empty spot left me feeling like I was missing a piece of my life, a part of my past. My great-grandmother lived in a house that was in the middle of the woods, hidden from the outside world. She was a hoarder, holding on to the memories of her husband and six children. In 2014, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s though for many years she showed early signs of this disintegrating disease. After her body lost the ability to function on its own, she passed away at the age of 89.

After her funeral began the process of going through the rooms piled high of boxes filled with items from the early 1900s. My family and I started sorting in the shack near my great-grandparents' house, finding my great-grandpa's tools that fixed all the problems in the home. After digging for hours, we found his most prized possessions, his jewels. My great-grandfather traveled throughout South America from places like Brazil to Ecuador. To capture his time there, he collected jewels and gems from all sorts of places such as the market or fresh out of a cave. My family was able to inherit these treasures and turn some of them into jewelry, having a piece of my great-grandfather around my neck.

Once the building was all clean, it was time to move on to the home. Our family did not know where to start; would it be in the children’s old room with wooden bunk beds or the storage room with totes stacked to the ceiling? The cleaning seemed to turn into a blur until the day I found my great-grandfather’s World War II uniform. Pulling the brown crisp jacket out of its box brought me to tears. That uniform let me know more about my great-father than I ever had before. The years he spent fighting for our country, my family’s future, for me.

Despite my great-grandfather having these treasures to tell his story, he had the biggest secret that could not be told through treasures. My great-grandfather retired in his fifties after running a diner in West Chicago but that was just a coverup, he was actually in the Chicago mafia. My great-grandparents’ family had to move constantly around the Chicago area to keep their location secret. Two different times, my great-grandparents’ home was broken into and valuables were stolen including my great-grandma’s wedding bands. My great-grandfather's family moved to Copan, Oklahoma near my great-grandmother’s relatives to protect his wife and children.

Going through my great-grandfather’s treasures and heirlooms allowed me to finally know exactly who he was. I am now able to embrace my family history. After finding these artifacts, I began to ask my family more about their past. I learned how my grandma and mother grew up. It put tears in my eyes knowing that they grew up in poverty, something I might not have ever asked if my great-grandfather never opened up my eyes. Asking my family about their past brought us closer together.

Everyone comes from unique backgrounds and cultures that need to be embraced. I never knew how much an item could tell a story. I finally understand why my great-grandmother was a hoarder; she kept these items for all of her great-grandchildren. These items give us a way to hold on to the past; they are something to remember our great-grandparents by. From now on, I will be keeping important items in my life so I can look back at them when I’m older and for future generations to know me better. Death does not mean that all memories of a person are lost.

© Kayla Shaw . All rights reserved. If you are interested in quoting this story, contact the national team and we can put you in touch with the author’s teacher.