April 15, 2024
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Remembering When: Home Archaeology in Pandemic Times

Strange times often lead to even stranger pursuits. In the wake of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, a new type of archaeology has emerged, a practice that we can call “home archaeology”! I refer to the recently increasing practice of studying our personal human activities through the recovery and analysis of one’s own past material culture. As defined in Wikipedia, an “archaeological site” is “a place in which evidence of past activity is preserved, and which has been, or may be, investigated using the discipline of archaeology and represents a part of the archaeological record. Sites may range from those with few or no remains visible above ground, to buildings and other structures still in use.”

Based on the foregoing, home archaeology can be viewed as a true, if novel, archaeological phenomenon as described below.

With the aforementioned pandemic have come social distancing and spending more time at home than usual. As a result, tasks and chores long overdue are finally getting done; through that process, years and decades worth of our lives are being rediscovered and revealed in minute detail. But home archaeology has some unique features: rather than requiring the home archaeologist to travel to faraway places with mysterious names, to exotic places such as Lachish or Tel Maresha in the land of Israel or to Mayan jungles in Central America, one has “only” to climb four or five steps upstairs to his cluttered office to reach the archaeological site of his dreams. That office has probably been the subject and object of great controversy and conflict over the years between spouses. Used once as a multipurpose room—part-time extra bedroom convenient on holidays for overflow family members, part-time office where the pre-laptop desktop computer was housed—this office more recently has become a magnet for a volume of extraneous papers and other objects that rival the accumulations found at the ancient library at Alexandria or the labyrinthian “stacks” at Butler Library on the campus of Columbia University in Morningside Heights. As the years have passed, the collected artifacts in the office have grown to such an extent that the man largely responsible for the accumulation has been loath to even consider exploring the collection of materials. He is aware that his wife over the years has at least separated some of the piles of material in unmarked bags, boxes and crates, but it’s all too much for him to even consider going through the collection in a systematic manner.

“I’m sure you could throw away most of the stuff if you only went through it,” is his wife’s refrain. “I’ll get you all the garbage bags you need to do the job. Just tell me when you’re ready to start!”

The Teaneck husband knows quite well how eager his spouse is for him to undertake this expedition to explore the past, but he’s equally sure that anything stored at the infamous site must be of immense value and unworthy of being disturbed or—perish the thought—discarded!

“Look, dear, everything in that room has been gone through by me several times in the past. If it’s there, I must have gone through it and deemed it worthy of keeping. So why must I go through it again?”

This excuse has been the one most used by husbands to justify their failure to undertake the cleanup task. As a result of the pandemic, however, we have seen a great increase in expeditions to those previously inaccessible and dangerous home sites where the ancient family ruins can be found.

Let’s accompany one such intrepid Teaneck explorer, Jake Rabinowitz, as he works his way to and through his home archeological site. We will attempt to document all material finds at the site and give some sense of the great variety of objets d’art and junk he uncovers. Hopefully, this venture will provide a guide to all readers, should they endeavor to explore their own, not so sordid, pasts!

It is unclear exactly why Jake decided to finally undertake at this precise time to explore and clean up his cluttered office, collect those many objects worthy of keeping and discarding those numerous items of detritus his wife wished him to discard. It was probably shortly after completing watching in binge fashion the entire original seven-year collection of episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Maybe it was listening repeatedly to the familiar strains of Gounod’s “Funeral March of a Marionette,” the familiar theme song played before and after each episode that drove him to it, or maybe not, but one morning recently he came downstairs to the kitchen where Bella was working at her laptop and declared his readiness to begin the trek upstairs.

“You’re really going to do it?” she gleefully exclaimed, not half believing what she was hearing.

Armed with a brand new box of Hefty garbage bags, a folding chair for convenience and comfort and a determination he had seldom felt about the major task at hand, Jake ascended the steps to the office carefully. He wasn’t sure where to start his exploration, but start he must!

Jake began working diligently at the site, bending to the task. He devoted three hours each day for a week and in that time probably threw away 20 bags of material. Very quickly, it became clear that Jake was justified all those years in believing the crates of material contained valuable relics of his past. As he went through the largest containers and plastic bags, nestled beneath the desk in the corner of the room, he began to create new piles of those items that he did not wish to throw out. They largely consisted of the following items: copies of all their tax returns yellowed with age (the earliest dating from 1972, the first joint return Jake and Bella had filed after their marriage; they reported gross income that year of $9,200, representing Bella’s wages as Jake, unemployed, was still in law school), old sets of Jake’s x-rays, CAT scans and MRIs collected over 40 years of real and imagined medical conditions (proving to Jake that his fears of the life-shortening consequences of the cumulative radioactivity from those tests had been unfounded), faded family photographs of Jake and Bella (showing the ravages of time on Jake’s waistline and Bella’s evolving fashion sense through the years), old newspapers (either recounting family achievements mostly in the field of scholastic sports or containing articles authored by Jake in years past), miscellaneous business cards, forgotten college transcripts and detailed itineraries of vacations taken to far-off places (Europe, the Middle East and cruises to Alaska and points south). Included among Jake’s greatest finds were several uncashed checks payable to Jake, in amounts ranging from $10 (a class action settlement draft) to $1300 (an auto insurance accident payment). In the latter case, the check had expired, and Jake immediately applied to the carrier for a replacement. Though there were rumors of missing traveler’s checks and cash hidden in the cluttered room, Jake found none during his expedition. Captain Kidd had apparently not stopped over at the Rabinowitzes on his way to the hangman’s noose outside London!

Ultimately, of the greatest personal interest to Jake was a discovery on the fourth day of the “dig” of many important, personal effects of his late father who had expired some 23 years earlier. Jake recalled that shortly after his father’s demise, he had taken a bag of items from his father’s apartment, but he had never gone through them in detail. Now he rediscovered a treasure trove of documents and letters in several languages that begged to be translated and shared with Jake’s siblings and the family grandchildren. This was an invaluable family history that had been sadly and inexcusably buried all these years, out of sight and mind.

By the end of the third week, Jake had almost completed the initial stages of the cleanup, and thrown out much of the debris that had clogged the office, but a daunting task still remained: reorganizing the substantial amount of material that Jake decided should be retained. It would probably take him another month at the site to do the job properly. The final result, as Bella kept reminding him, would be restoring the room to its rightful place as a usable extra bedroom and office. As he wearily took a break from the restoration project, Jake had to agree with her that “at least there were some positives to come out of the pandemic of 2020”!

I urge all readers who are living in conditions similar to those faced by Jake and Bella to begin the task of restoration without delay. On the one hand, you may realize that many of the objects you had previously thought worthy of keeping had, in fact, long passed their “expiration date.” On the other hand, you never know what you will find, and it will certainly add to shalom bayit during this time of stress and boredom.

Joseph Rotenberg, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Link, has resided in Teaneck for over 45 years with his wife, Barbara. His first collection of short stories and essays, entitled “Timeless Travels: Tales of Mystery, Intrigue, Humor and Enchantment,” was published in 2018 by Gefen Books and is available online at www.Amazon.com. He is currently working on a follow-up volume of stories and essays.

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