Between the ages of 6 and 19, I moved often. When I was in fourth grade, my family lived in one house for just three months before abruptly moving to another for an equally brief period. The reasons we moved were different—my fourth grade year, for instance, high rent necessitated the first move while the death of the landlady required the next—but the results were the same: We became adept at packing. We also got into the habit of not fully unpacking.
With each move, more and more non-essential items were boxed and housed in garages and barns and, on one occasion, a carport. When my grandmother died and my mother moved into her home, my grandmother’s boxes of memories were mingled with my mother’s, and the mass of boxes were tucked into closets and storage areas of the garage.
Yesterday, we paid for that.
For those of you who have been following my blog posts, you are aware that we moved my mother to a memory care facility on Labor Day. My 81-year-old mother has been declining mentally, especially apparent since my father and both maternal grandparents died in a three-month period about seven years ago. The very short story is that my mom was no longer safe to live alone. The result of that very short story is that we moved mom to a delightful memory care center. Now we are trying to defrock her home of personal items so we can rent her house to help fund that delightful memory care center.
That sequence is why we are now paying for not unpacking all those years (and moves) ago. And why my siblings and I have discovered memories my mother never mentioned.
Mostly, we labored through boxes of cards, newspaper clippings, and faded photographs that seemed to have no rhyme or reason for their groupings. The baby pictures of my oldest sister, nine years my senior, would be jumbled with pictures of my wedding, for example. Birth certificates, death certificates, metal Social Security cards, wedding registries, graduation certificates, and even entire old newspapers (JFK’s assassination) were mingled with cards from every occasion collected through the years. Folders of notes for Sunday school classes were intertwined with novels she started but never published. We sorted carefully, hoping not to throw away items of monetary or sentimental value.
We thought the scope of boxes of memories were encompassed in one large, multi-shelved closet in the garage, which would have been bad enough. But as we unpacked yesterday, we discovered various scrapbooks tucked into crevices we didn’t know existed. Apparently, my mother was quite organized and methodical before she had children. The dilapidated scrapbooks—with black, crumbly pages—contained numerous cards, playbills, black and white photographs with too-simple captions under them (Me, Mom, Me, Margaret, Me, Mom, etc.), and newspapers clippings. Some were about my mother or father—and some were written by her.
It was not just a trip down memory lane, but it was a time of discovery for us. Toward the end of the day, as our energy faded and we realized we would have to stop and return again for more today, my sister found a small box of letters my mother had written to my father while they were dating. He was in the Navy and stationed elsewhere; my mother was 22 and living at the YWCA, working in a medical diagnostics office in New Jersey.
My sister took those letters home with us, and as we relaxed at her house, she, her husband, and I read those letters in my mother’s hand and discovered things we never knew. Simple things, really, that gave us a new perspective of this lady we call mom. My father called my mother “Bobbie” (instead of Barbara); she in the course of the letters called him Mr. Souders, John, and, finally, Johnny. They were always known as Barbara and John in our lifetimes. Our quiet, homebody mother didn’t pine away at home waiting on my father to return; she was attending movies and theater productions, playing on a bowling team, and even acting on the stage. She made it clear that she enjoyed my father’s “exclusive” attention to her in the form of letters and was making plans for them to see each other upon his return—and even chastised him for not writing enough with a coy:
“Hi, John—or should I say ‘Hello, Mr. Souders’? Fine one you are—golly, all week and only one letter!! Are you so busy—or just don’t feel like writing? I enjoyed your letters so much that I am disappointed because I haven’t heard from you since.”
From October 25 through November 3, 1954, my mother posted eight envelopes—some containing multiple letters—to my father, stationed in Boston. I would love to find the letters my father wrote in response. At the bottom of the box was a letter to my father written not by my mother, but by her mother. It was written April 26, 1955, just a couple of weeks before my parents wedded. Included on the front was this poem:
By Ruth Schenley
Somewhere, a little boy plays now,
My daughter’s husband. As things go
By averages, I’m thinking how
They’ll meet in twenty years; from what I know
Myself, of life and love. Grow strong,
My little unknown son, be not too free
With life—she is all gold and song,
This little girl, so dear to me.
Watching her with her dolls today,
A mother in the bud—it does not seem
Too foolish of me, son, that when I say
My prayer for her, I send some little boy a dream.
Inside, my grandmother included this note:
I cut this little poem out of a magazine when Barbara was just a little girl—and now that you are that little boy grown up, take care of her and love her always, for she truly is all “gold and song” to me. I also want you to know, had I had a son—I would have wanted him to be a duplicate of you—so you see, my “gold and song” will now be doubled, and so, Barbara, take care of and love John always.
A world of happiness to both of you,
Both my sister and I have been shedding some tears over these priceless memories my mother never mentioned. It has transformed the trial of packing my mom’s items for one final move—into a treasure.