Northwestern University

Your Life Story in One Box

What if you could place everything that means or has meant anything to you in one box? What might it contain? Seriously, this is a legit question. I hate to break the news to you, but IF you live long enough and become frail enough to wind up in a nursing home some day, you won’t take anything with you except your most prized possessions. And if you’re really smart, you probably shouldn’t have anything of significant monetary value in your room, one you most likely will share with another resident, because it may turn up missing. Furthermore, once you leave this earth, it’s unlikely any of your family members will want to sift through all your journals, read all your mail, or sort through all your knick-knacks, unless they think there’s a diamond in there somewhere.

So, due to my mother’s persistence, I accompanied her to attend my Great Aunt Carrie’s funeral awhile back. Initially, I was reluctant to make the trip, an eight-hour drive each way. But, I felt a certain call of duty to go. I’m so glad I did because of what happened before the service began. But first a bit about Carrie.

Photo Collage by Kareen King, Founder of The Golden Experience

Photo Collage by Kareen King, Founder of The Golden Experience

Carrie Alice Olson, a Norwegian descendant, was born on December 28, 1910 and raised with five siblings on a farm in Calamus, Iowa. She taught kindergarten for over forty years, including organizing two kindergartens. She was also a radio storyteller for the Association for Childhood Education (A.C.E.) and a Secretary of the Kindergarten Division of Illinois State A.C.E. She never married, and outlived her siblings (including my grandmother, Gladys Hoff), dying at the age of 102 on July 19, 2013.

Carrie’s pastor, Sarah Kretzmann, noted at the funeral that she had more fun writing Carrie’s funeral message than that of any other parishioner. We soon discovered why as she cited many of the notable events in history that occurred each month in 1910 including:

  • January: The first Aviation Meet was held in the U.S.
  • February: Boy Scouts of America was founded.
  • March: The first filmed version of Frankenstein came out.
  • April: Haley’s Comet was visible from the earth.
  • May: The Union of South Africa was created.
  • June: The ballet The Firebird by Stravinsky was premiered in Paris, bringing its composer to fame.
  • July: Jack Johnson defeated James Jeffrey in a heavyweight championship, sparking racial riots across the nation.
  • August: Florence Nightingale died.
  • September: The fastest professional baseball game in history took place in a Southern Association game in Atlanta, concluding 32 minutes after it began.
  • October: Henry Ford celebrated the 100th auto sale.
  • November: Leo Folsto, Russian author of Anna Karenina and War and Peace, died.
  • December: Carrie Alice Olson was born.

Sarah also recalled a witticism while visiting Carrie in the nursing home where she resided.

“Carrie, I can’t remember if you are 102 or 103,” Sarah apologized.

“Does it really make any difference?” Carrie quipped.

So, back to the funeral. Just before it began, I went to the basement to watch my mother, my uncle, and their two cousins finish sorting through Carrie’s remaining possessions. There was one box left that nobody was interested in. I made a last-second decision to take it with me, just in case there were any significant family photos that might have gone unnoticed.

The next day, I pored through the fragmented contents, surprised at what I discovered. The following poem expresses both my findings and my sentiments about the experience.

Life Story in a Box
By Kareen King
The remains of her life were bestowed in my care
The photos, mementos – once private, now bare
I poured through the fragments that unveiled her story
Considered each piece while I took inventory

T’was a book by Bjorn called The Home Has a Heart
Filled with recipes, goodness, and prayers to impart
An award from the quilt that her mother once sewed
And a box of black beads from her sister, bestowed

A diploma from Iowa State Teacher’s College
A plaque for her service, achievements, and knowledge
A notebook of poems and creative thought
Designed to give credence to all whom she taught

A hymnary filled with confessions and prayers
A book – ‘Round the World in One Thousand Pictures
A bach’lor’s degree signed by Northwestern U
And newspaper clippings with her point of view

An assortment of photos of her posed alone
Shown from infancy onward – each life-stepping stone
A tiny gold thimble, a high school class ring
Instructions to fix a broken figurine

A miniature locket, a Norwegian pin
Mementos and pictures of closest of kin
A birthday book detailed with barely a comma
A one hundredth birthday card from Pres. Obama

So, what does one learn from this life in a box
As life passes on like the ticking of clocks?
The things in this world have their time and their place
Including the items we keep just in case

But when seasons pass, attempt not to be saddened
Remember the good and be grateful it happened
In time our possessions and we have to part
For all we possess is contained in our heart

So, what does one learn from a life lived alone?
A woman contented to live on her own?
That happiness is no respecter of man
If soloing life or surrounded with clan?

And what is the value of living so long
When many you’ve loved did not journey along?
Oh wait! Here am I – one whom you barely knew
Who chanced to be present to bid you adieu

I found that my name was significant too
That surely it meant something special to you
You included me in your book of birthday
Recording my name on the seventh of May

You took on my story to add to your own
I’m sad, though, that I took no time to make known
My story to you, but in short bits and pieces
Now, pleased am I to be one of your grand nieces

‘Tis shame if our story should die when we do
And yet there is One who continu’ly knew
Who made you and gave you your life till the end
Who loved and supported you, called you His friend

He never forgot you, though others may still
And holds you on high in His heavenly hill
Perhaps one day we will have all the time needed
To learn of the things that in past, seemed unheeded

I conclude with three posthumous lessons from my very special great aunt.

  • Nobody will get your ducks in a row like you. Do it yourself before somebody does it for you. Write down your life story. And give the things that mean most to you to the people you feel will appreciate them the most.
  • There is no time like the present to make the effort to get to know people. You might find they are one of the jigsaw puzzle pieces that complete the final product of who you are and what you were meant to experience. Perhaps you are the same for them.
  • Everything matters, but not everything remains. Invest in what matters.
Photo by Kareen King, Founder of The Golden Experience

Photo by Kareen King, Founder of The Golden Experience