Excavating a Home: An Archeological Dig, Part Three

My mother was earnest, I will give her that. Not only that, but definitely that. This week’s tackle is the near-bookless bookcase. (The booked one is in another room and I dread it, even having tackled it once before with my sisters.) I’ve discarded stuff from this one before too, but today my goal is to take it down to its birthday suit.

I begin with the easy stuff: the vase into the thrift store box, the previously emptied cardboard magazine boxes into recycling. And the cookbooks (about half the collection) I moved from upstairs a while ago into a giveaway box. I hope someone will take the books. I do not like to put books into the trash heap. (What the hell am I going to do with not one, but two, unabridged Random House dictionaries, 1967, 1987?)

But it’s not so easy as just putting them in a box. Taped in the fronts and backs are recipes clipped from newspapers and magazines. Adhesive tabs are stuck on page edges. Sticky notes document changes made in the recipe or that should be made next time. I remove them all. Notes in margins are like the tiny stickers my piano teacher put on my music pages: “Good,” “Very good,” “George liked this.” Maybe they will amuse some thrift store shopper.

My mother was not a great cook, but the kitchen was where she spent my childhood and her last years. Probably all her years except, perhaps, those after my father died, when she expanded her horizons into crafts. (See last week’s post.)

I throw out the VHS tapes and all the empty photo albums (a project she never quite got to)—no one will want them in this digital age—and start in on the notebooks and file folders piled near the cookbooks: handwritten recipes and ones clipped from magazines, newspapers, and Campbell’s soup cans. The Irritable Bowel Syndrome notebook is classic. She was so earnest.

It takes all morning. I consider being done for the day, but after lunch I press on.

I pull out the notebooks of photo pages full of people I don’t know and one of Christmas cards, including from Governor Dan Evans and Senator “Scoop” Jackson. I find a beautiful card hand painted by our long ago neighbor (who died two hours before my mother did) and text a picture to her daughter. She has a collection of her mother’s hand painted cards, but not this one. She is thrilled. I set it aside to send to her, pleased to have found it, and a forever home for it.

From the Governor’s Mansion
The Jackson Family

I’m discovering this task is best done by plowing through it, returning every day, not giving up. And staying on task, not looking too far ahead, like across the room and behind cabinet doors. This one corner, this one shelf, this one notebook. Focus. Maybe my sisters would like to be doing it with me, but they could only do it piecemeal, and that will never accomplish the digging out. I’m the canary in the cave, the scout on the exploration, the graduate student at the dig. Mostly the artifacts are like those ubiquitous beige diner coffee mugs, telling us nothing about civilization. Then sometimes there’s a mug that hearkens to a past era.

Bookcase Day 2.

The next day I pull the notebooks and faded file folders from a lower shelf. And I am back in crafts land. There are magazine and newspaper instructions for paper making, batik, handmade dyes, fabric painting, quilting, watercolor painting. Several files folders are filled with iris pictures on greeting cards, wrapping paper, paper napkins, Kleenex boxes (yes, Kleenex, not facial tissue—Mama was name-brand loyal), calendars, coloring books, magazines.

She did follow through on some projects. She made handmade dyes in earnest, she did some batik and silk painting. And she belonged to a group of fun friends who gathered each Labor Day week, usually at the beach, to do an art project. There is a photo notebook dedicated to the Purple Arts Festival, which I return to the shelf.

(Though eventually it rolled farther afield, the crafts apple didn’t fall far, my children and I made the handprint sweatshirt for her one Christmas, and a shirt for my father that he wore with pride, or duty.)

The last files for the day are her epic project for me. Way back almost before time began, my father promised to make hope chests for each of his daughters for their 16th birthdays. (Yeah, remember “hope chests”? The very name sends a stab of horror to the psyche now; how about we just revise history, and call them cedar chests.) My older sister got hers, right on time I think. My younger sister got hers a few years late. I never got mine. No hope, I guess, or maybe he figured I didn’t need hope, I was good. There’s a whole sad story about how that ended, but I won’t go there.

And at some point my mother made her own promise when she took up quilt making for a while. (She was earnest in her pursuits, and like her middle daughter, didn’t stick with anything long enough to get good at it. She and I were/are dabblers, and I think that is a fine way to be.) Again, my sisters got theirs, I did not. I don’t mean to be maudlin, but it is interesting.

One year, though, circa 2009, with Rebecca’s help (but definitely Mama’s ideas) and that of the local copy shop, she set out to make up for it. She made me a memory quilt. She didn’t finish it in time for Christmas as she had hoped—I learned when I did get it—but by some strange coincidence, I made a lap quilt for her that Christmas, with photos of her life with my father.

Mine for her

And so, there are folders of notes, practice squares, rejects, copies of photographs (on paper and fabric) some of which were copies from old Christmas cards cut in the shape of trees, sleighs, stars, which she had saved, of course, and unused photos. Someday I will find the original slides of all of them, when I dive into that mammoth project.

Hers for me.

Bookcase Day 3.

My last attack, her most earnest project of all, is the boxes and Ziploc bags of the “card project” for Seminary Hill Natural Area. The card fundraising project goes on in the Friends group, with better printing, better technique, better photographs, but it began with my mother. Her own cottage industry. And she saved all the failed attempts. I’ve already discarded the displays and signage, but now are the boxes. (You can see them on the left side of the top photo.) And a metal file box full of sales and expenditures and annual meeting reports on sales.

Before she began getting the photos printed onto the card, she glued them on. There are scads of those, and I rip off the photos for the trash, and put the cards in recycling. Later rejects are packaged with the envelope and inserted in cellophane sleeves. I offer the sleeves to a card-creating friend, and the envelopes to my teacher daughter-in-love (and a few to the Friends), and they accept! While I watch TV, I disassemble them. The envelopes fill one of the 1000-count boxes they came in. Yes, there are that many and more.

The thing is, my mother was not a very good photographer, but she enjoyed it, and she was earnest. She was heartbreakingly earnest.

I leave the six expensive magnifiers, with increasing magnification, in hopes of finding a home for them, and three photo albums for my sisters, along with my father’s retirement ornamental hard hat and my favorite of my mother’s matted photos that apparently was not her favorite. This is the only one like it I find, though others have multiple copies. (My daughter-in-love accepts all the mats for her classroom too, and I separate them from their enlargements.)

Mission accomplished. And now, some time off. I have Christmas crafts and baking to do. See you next year. Happy holidays!

10 thoughts on “Excavating a Home: An Archeological Dig, Part Three

  1. I love that your posts are “too long” and have “too many photos”– they will someday be compiled into a shutterfly book for one of the grands… or the Centralia library? Historical society? Now relax and enjoy these long silent nights. Love, CB

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    1. I wish it weren’t such a challenge to move WordPress posts into a document. I really do need to be doing it as I go so it’s not so overwhelming. I wish I had for all my posts. I do have printouts from my first blog from the garden (it was easier in Blogger, and the photos came with the copy/paste, not so with WP, and which has to be copied one paragraph at a time), and a book based on Daughter on Duty; but nothing from this blog. Maybe it’s good. If the internet shuts down and we return to the mid-20th century, no one will have to decide what to do with my damn books. Love to you!

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  2. Wow. Sooo impressive. Having these conversations now with my 85 year old mom so that she fully understands that all that she leaves—I will be delegating to someone else to sort through. Every time I visit now, we dedicate a day or two to “reviewing, sorting, gifting, and thrifting.” Has allowed some good stories to surface on both sides. Keep up the great work. Oh—and I gifted my own cedar “Hope chest” to a friends daughter when we moved up here to PT—it was time to let that baby go. Still had some Hope left in it…oh—and sign me, the MASTER DABBLER.

    Love your writing and stories. Happy Christmas, Gretchen.

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    1. That is great. The key is to get it out of the house before you leave after said visit! My sisters and I should have helped her more before she got so old. By the time she was in her 90s, she just couldn’t let go of it. She was upset with me for throwing out vegetables with freezer burn, and margarine tubs. Earlier, she would call us and ask if we wanted something. When we told her no, she would put a sticky note on it, and it would stay right where it was before. It’s easier to do without her. Always good to get rid of things when you still have Hope. 😂 Dabble on. It’s time for you to return to 3 of Earth Farm. Just sayin’.

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  3. This actually reads like an adventure log. I have to admit I’m not hating how it’s brought you so elequently back to the page. I love seeing these artifacts as well. Little treasures for someone for sure. (As a middle kid, I consider myself a dabbler too. I think you’re on to something with that discovery !) If you don’t mind the oldest dictionary being used for art, I’ll happily take it off your hands. Great photos here !

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    1. I used to beat myself up about being a dabbler, but I made my peace with it some time ago. 🙂 I don’t see you as a dabbler; you have practiced and perfected your art. Same with photography, and bird watching. I would LOVE for the dictionary to be art! Perfect! It will be waiting for you.

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  4. Oh, the butterfly skirts over the crinoline! (Which is not what we called the latter, but I can’t remember what we did call them.) The skirts were a local fad. Every girl who was anybody in 7th grade had one that year. Many of those who wanted to be somebody (moi) had them too.
    And now you’re going to do Christmas crafts. Hah!

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  5. Dear Gretchen, Such inspiring fortitude!!!!!! In many ways you provide a map for those of us still clinging to boxes of memorabilia we are not ready to let go of. My mom’s death feels too fresh for me to tackle this level of cleansing and honoring, but my sister who lived near her has already done a lot of the hard work for me. Thank you, Ann

    >

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    1. So many exclamation points!! Haha. It’s an adventure. And it is hard, maybe I couldn’t have done it sooner. Also the shear amount of it kind of deadens the loss. My posts are too long, the photos too numerous; but I write for myself. It’s hard to process it all when the task is so overwhelming, and so I write. Thank you for reading it, sweet friend.

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