Like a lot of people, I went home to visit my parents this weekend.
I expected to relax, help prepare and serve festive meals, eat festive meals, wash the dishes used in the festive meals, and, in between eating leftovers from the festive meals, visit Kansas City malls that had thrived, died and were remade into awkward power shopping centers.
Instead, it turned out that my parents had assumed responsibility for several large boxes of papers and photographs unearthed as the family was breaking down my grandparents’ white ranch home off Ward Parkway. My mission was to locate the boxes in the far, cluttered corners of my parents’ house, bring the boxes together, and try to organize them enough that they would not look like chaotic junk that ought to be thrown out.
Maybe there was a long-term care insurance (LTCI) outreach opportunity lurking in those boxes with the spiders and the dust mites.
Morris and Dorothy Jean White Bell moved into their house around 1952. Morris died in 1999, and Dorothy died in 2009. They had a big magnolia tree up front, by a front door that was used mainly by door-to-door salespeople, and a side door — the real door — that had been protected by a sticker from a burglar alarm company, but no burglar alarm, for about 30 years.
Out in the living room, they had a giant can of crayons dating back to the late 1960s; Good Housekeeping magazines from the early 1970s that were filled with stories about the Kienast quintuplets; prayerbooks from the early 1900s; hats from an Eisenhower campaign rally; many John Birch Society pamphlets warning readers about Communist infiltrators; and tables full of photo albums.
The boxes of secret papers showed they also had life insurance papers dating back decades, their parents’ wills, records of securities transactions completed at a time when the characters in the show Mad Men were young go-getters, and many postcards in which my great-grandmother, Esther White of Omaha, Neb., told my grandmother, Dorothy, about the chicken, potatoes, rice and other dishes she had made for her houseguests.
Dorothy sent one of the postcards in 1942, while she was visiting Omaha. My father was 5 months old and napping on the porch.
In 1939, when Morris and Dorothy were planning their wedding, Morris sent a letter written on stationery from his family’s paint company, Longwear Paint & Varnish of North Kansas City, Mo., directing Dorothy to ask Mrs. Blumkin (Warren Buffett’s Nebraska Furniture Mart Mrs. Blumkin) if she had a good price on a refrigerator.
Morris and Dorothy also had bits of marketing and promotional ephemera that delivered an extra punch when viewed in 2011. They had Social Security card holders from the 1930s, a Gerber Life guide to child development that was printed around 1940, and a brochure explaining the importance of planning for the future that was issued by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company around 1950.
Going through those papers and photographs made me wish that the Google Streetview cars that go around photographing all of our houses would come into our living rooms and suck our family photographs, papers and bric-a-brac into the modern equivalents of Egyptian tombs.
Maybe, 3,000 years from now, the same sorts of people who enjoy looking into sarcophaguses today would enjoy experiencing a virtual reality simulation of my grandparents’ cut glass serving bowls.
Another thought was that breaking down and sorting the contents of a loved one’s long-occupied house is as much of a major life event as having a child or getting married.
It seems as if the concept of “breaking down a house” has not gotten all that much attention. My cousin used it in conversation a few years ago. I haven’t heard the phrase much since. When I search for the phrase “breaking down a house” on the Web, the articles that turn up seem to be mostly about crews physically demolishing houses, not about children, grandchildren, or nieces and nephews persuading a thrift shop to cart away the armchair that Uncle Al spilled the wine on 40 years ago.
But I think the next 30 years is going to be full of stories about boomers, and boomers’ children, breaking down house after house, uncovering box after box of poorly labeled black and white portraits of ancestors from the old country and fading 1970s snapshots of men with giant sideburns.
Aside from funerals and tombstones, it seems as if there is no more powerful vehicle for delivering the message that youth is fleeting than a jumbled box of old family photos and papers.
It seems as if commercial messages could fit in better during the sorting process than during most major life events because so much of the material in the boxes is already commercial in nature.
What better time is there to see a modern ad from John Hancock than when you’re looking at a 50-year-old ad from John Hancock?
Maybe, in the same way that life insurance companies promoted themselves by giving new mothers and fathers guides to child-rearing back during the days of the baby boom, long-term care insurers and other insurers courting mature consumers could market themselves today by providing guides to breaking down a house, or even, for the best prospects, special accordion folders or boxes that could be used in the sorting process.
If laws, regulations and other compliance considerations make holding an LTCI or retirement planning luncheon seminar a chore, maybe a soft-sell alternative would be to line up a few ephemera and antique experts and hold a box sorting party. The underlying message could be, “You’re providing for long-term care for the family photographs. What about for you?”