How a fragile object reveals my family’s tragedy and perseverance
Our family’s material culture fits in a shoe box. A mason’s bible, certificates authenticating decades long sojourns to Nevada’s nuclear test sites, an engineer’s pocket watch, a broken figurine. They hold stories of dedication, heartache, and promise, yet I am the only one left of the California Eddys that knows their stories. It should not be this way. In today’s society, family heirlooms appear desirable only when they have monetary value. And so I am sharing their worth with anyone out there reading, because histories are meant to be told, stories passed down for future generations.
If any one object could be infused with family meaning it is this little girl still contemplating the meaning of a quacking baby duck. Years ago, she lost her finger and the bow in her hair, yet she is mesmerized by the duckling’s enthusiasm. While her bib is still well secured around her neck, her hair reveals another truth; she is cracked, poorly held together, the jagged lines are accentuated with soot, her finish dull. I keep her in the company of my book stacks hoping they will bring comfort in familiar surroundings.
Dad had been stationed in Giessen, Germany early in the 1950s. At the onset of his deployment, he left his new wife and daughter back in Minnesota with the intent of being a good father and provider. His only option, he must have thought. The first time the military saved him from his own family was when he lied to the Navy about his age. At 17, he was prepared to see the world, but only a few months later, decided that life at sea did not suit him.
Between navy and army commitments, Mom and Dad were introduced via a blind date orchestrated by mutual friends. Something must have clicked; Dad found Mom’s demeanor above his own while Mom thought this young lad quite handsome. They quickly fell in love, and in 1950, had their first of three children. Knowing the intense responsibility of those tiny fingers and toes, he made the decision of a lifetime and rejoined the military. This time, the army offered the best solution for a young family man.
While in Germany, Dad bought the first of several Hummels to be shipped back to Mom as a meaningful gesture of love. The little girl reading her first picture book would likely reflect his love for their baby daughter. But similar to the present state of this little figurine, something was not right. I later learned, much later, Dad had broke his commitment to his wife and child.
In a letter he sent back to Minnesota, he requested a divorce, citing that he got married too early and needed to experience more than just world travel. Mom granted his request, feeling that his infidelity could never repair the hurt and pain as Mom alone cared for her daughter. I know, because Mom confessed this family secret a few months before she died. She was in pain, needed care, yet she would not pursue support from the Department of Veterans Affairs. When pressed that she could be missing an opportunity for support, she admitted her painful memory; their divorce during Dad’s military service negated any benefits owed.
According to Mom, Dad’s oat sewing bore no harvest. Dad returned from Germany asking Mom’s hand in marriage…again. Given her status as a single mom, she relented, but the challenges where to continue throughout their marriage. Still, they worked through their challenges and developed a loving and long-lasting relationship.
As Mom would explain later, both my toddler siblings found the Hummel girl too enticing to leave safe on the shelf. Broken, she came to symbolize the lengthy challenges that would consume conservative parents raising children in 1960s California. Dad, in his unending pursuit to keep the family together, would diligently glue the figurine back together each time. The figurine’s only respite came when the family ducklings left the nest; perhaps this is why Hummel girl stared at the little bird so intently.
She and my parents would experience one more trauma; that New Year’s Eve day when the house burned from what started as a garage fire. Not completely destroyed, but enough that everything morphed into an altered state of ash, Salvador Dali like melts, coated in soot. After my brother’s suicide, this fire was the second most devastating event in Mom’s life. The damage to her and to her belongings could not be measured. While Mom prepared herself to throw everything away, neighbors took her soot-laden belongings home with them and lovingly cleaned what they could. But Dad found the blackened Hummel Girl, still sitting on the shelf under the ashen hall clock and fixed her once again.
Dad’s perseverance finally paid off some time after the fire. With Mom having little emotional energy to cook, Dad took on the cooking and more cleaning than he ever expected himself to perform. Over the years, Mom would regain her motivation, and together they found a new level to their commitment that helped them through aging. Out of necessity, their strengths and responsibilities would reverse when Mom became stronger as Dad’s health began to decline due to cancer. Their last few years together were resolved with unconditional love. All the while, Hummel Girl sits with her own contemplation.
Having collected a house full of knickknacks, Mom would gaze upon them with resignation and say to me, “I’m sorry you have to deal with all of this after I’m gone.” For my part, I knew that each little trinket meant something to her, which usually was connected to a travel memory or a gift from a friend. They gave her joy despite having so many to store. When Mom passed, I made sure that the things she wanted to be given to friends and family were passed on; a cathartic process that helped me through grieving. As the collection grew thinner, new discoveries were found deep in drawers and at back of closet shelves: photos of unnamed people, handmade crochet work by my grandmother, a Norwegian sweater bought on a trip of a lifetime, and Hummel Girl sitting quietly reading.
There are times when I look over at Hummel Girl and can’t control the tears. So much pain and heartbreak from a family that, for a while, tried to hold everything together. I keep her with me as a reminder of the past that I am responsible for preserving, for remembering. The safety she has grown accustomed to since Mom’s passing is due to the warmth of my own family: a loving spouse and a temperamental cat. Together, I feel we can persevere over whatever challenges may come (mostly from the cat mind you). Of Hummel Girl’s fate, I do not know. For as long as I can hold her close to my heart and memories, she will continue to sit quietly among my books.