Excavating a Home: An Archeological Dig, Part Six

When the sun returns after the epic monsoon and flooding, that came on the heels of snowmaggedon, I load the car with another round of paper recycling, several bags for textile recycling, and a pile of blankets and bag of towels for the animal shelter. If I were younger, I would kick up my heels, but I do it mentally. Lightening the load of this house is right up there with hiking on my happy meter. It’s a much more satisfying way to lose weight than not eating cake. And the best part of it is, how much is NOT going in the landfill, which it would if I hired someone with a shovel and a dumpster rather than using my time and a trowel and sieve.


Among the Erma Bombeck yellowed clippings taped to the cabinet door is a 1970 newspaper column with this quote:

“It is my philosophy that when a person throws away anything that has belonged to him, he is discarding his own immortality.”

Hal Boyle, Syndicated columnist

My mother not only took it to heart, she extended it to “anything that has belonged to a family member,” to assure us all an opportunity to be immortal.

Moving away from crafts, I’m really headed into stored “stuff” now. Under the built-in shelving lives the huge trunk full of things saved for “the girls,” with our baby books on top. I close the lid, sweep up the dried centipedes, and shove it back under the shelves. It will wait for my sisters to be here in March.


My mother was a letter writer. She wrote beautiful notes in cards nearly to her end when she finally succumbed to dictation. Even her wavering handwriting—due to vision loss—hadn’t deterred her. I’m sure she wrote far more letters to my sisters and me than we did to her, but another vintage Girl Scout cookie box is stuffed with letters from us. They are separated into plastic produce bags, one for each of us. I take out my bag and put it by my chair in the corner of the living room and return the others to the growing collections for each sister.

She also wrote many unmailed letters, but kept them all the same (previously stored in her nightstand). Some years ago, my older sister Jo Ann discovered a bag of them my mother wrote to me at the time of my divorce and my (inexplicit) coming out. After perusing them, Jo Ann told younger sister Rebecca she was going defy Mama’s instruction to put them in the basement, and throw them out, thoughtfully hoping to save me heartache and/or anger. Rebecca persuaded her that was not hers to decide. Neither of them were wrong. When I looked through them back then—and they numbered in the dozens written over multiple years—I decided I did not need to read them and discarded them. It was gut-wrenching having to acknowledge how agonizing my actions were to her for so long.

Now I find more on the shelf. They are peppered with shorthand and cross-outs and additions in the margins. There are also newspaper columns and church sermons on the subject of homosexuality. I hate the grief I caused her. And I remind myself that she chose to take it on, that I had the right to my life and my decisions. I don’t read these either. What was her motivation in keeping them—did she want me to find them? (I remind myself that I do have my own journals.)

I think I redeemed my terrible self when I came home to care for her. Maybe not in her view, but in my own. And she lived long enough to know how completely misplaced were her fears that my children would drop out of school and become drug addicts. She may have believed I had done the unthinkable as a mother, but, in fact, I remained a “good mother.”

Along with letters in the cookie box is a researched opinion paper on premarital sex I wrote for a 1972 University of Washington psychology class. (I got a B+, due to inadequate reference citations.) My mother made more comments on it than my professor did, and included additional references from Time magazine, Dear Abby, church sermons, and a lengthy bibliography. Did she find it in some box of my saved stuff? Or did I give it to her? If so, what was my motivation? Did I want to make it clear that I was my own person, separate from her? Besides, it was a research paper, not a tell all. Clearly I had no regard for, or understanding of, the fact that it would serve to make her think I was going straight to hell.

Also in the folder is a letter she wrote me and didn’t mail two years before I wrote the paper; or maybe she did mail it and this is a carbon. “You may not like this . . .,” it begins. She admonishes me not to entertain my boyfriend (my first, from high school) in my dorm room, which she at least told me in person. Nice girls don’t do that. She provides a list of activities that are better ways to show love for someone than “kissing and making out.” And how disappointed she was that he and I in “fringed jeans, etc.” were not so neatly dressed as his two best friends “in white shirts, their hair clean, trimmed, and neatly combed” when they picked me up to return to Seattle, “. . . you have so many nice skirts and slacks, why . . . ” It ends with, “I hope you will forgive me when you get over being angry.”


There is a misplaced 1977 Weyerhaeuser calendar in the box, featuring their signature not-great paintings of woodland animals. Misplaced, because there is a whole box of my mother’s calendars on the shelf, also relocated from her bedside table. There is another box of my father’s pocket calendars from his desk drawer. They both used calendars as diaries, as much written after the fact as to remind of upcoming dates. Someday, when I finish this clean-out perhaps, I’m going to look at every one of them. They are fascinating artifacts of two lives.

Before I add the 1977 leaving to the box with the others, I look through it. Two kinds of entries stand out: my father’s frequent job-related departures to points around the country and sometimes beyond the country, and my mother’s health-related memos. There are appointments by doctor name, specialists with whom I am not familiar, though I have known many others. How she was feeling each day: shaky, exhausted, dizzy, lots of flashing, felt good, anxious, commotion in ear, head heavy, neck hurt . . . The diet she was supposed to be following (1 cup of this, 1/2 cup of that, no fiber . . .). How many Valium she took each day, when the doctor told her to discontinue them, and how many she took after that. Days she stayed in bed or didn’t get dressed all day. Nights she didn’t sleep.

In 1977, she was just sixty-one years old. She would have forty years to go.

Also recorded are appointments she took her mother to, but no notes about them; dates of rare arrivals of visiting daughters; taking her Laotian refugee friends to class; and concerts, art shows, and other events. But these entries are overshadowed by the health notes. To my knowledge, she only saw a mental health doctor once (for marital counsel) the kind she most needed to see.


I’ve just read Jodi Picoult’s new novel, Wish You Were Here. This line describes my experience of this project. Through stuff saved, I am learning about my mother that which I will carry to my own grave, even when the evidence is gone.

“Identity, insight, heart: the only things we leave behind.”

Jodi Picoult

22 thoughts on “Excavating a Home: An Archeological Dig, Part Six

  1. Gretchen, your posts fill me with gratitude and sadness at the same time, which is a long story in itself. How it must feel to learn so much about your mother and how she looked at the world! I so wish I had had a similar opportunity with my father. He left nothing in writing. What he did leave behind was his workshop, a wondrous place full of power tools and gadgets that he had designed and built himself. I was not able to go through that treasure trove, as my mother had disowned me a few years before my father passed.
    The main thing I wanted was the last of a series of electric lunch pails that he designed and made for himself and his coworkers at the Western Veneer plant where he worked for 15 years. It was a work of industrial art, though cleverly functional, as he hated taking a cold lunch of sandwiches. Though he built his own power tools that other craftsmen bought from a hardware store, there was nothing else in this world that expressed who he was and what he could do, in spite of his lack of a high school diploma.

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    1. Oh, that makes me sad, David. Your dad sounds amazing. My dad was a creator in his shop too. He needed something, he built it. It’s so great that you know that about him, though. Perhaps the story you carry with you is more important than the evidence.

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      1. Even more sadly, my father’s story is one that none of my four siblings ever knew. The gratitude I carry is that for the last two summers of high school and during college breaks from Willamette University, I was able to work at the same cannery where my father was a machinist/welder. He was a totally different person at work, walking with a skip in his step, whistling tunes and cracking jokes. Not the man behind the newspaper he was at home. I was also amazed to see the machines that designed and built that kept that cannery running. And at how, during the production season, I would see a group of MBA white hats gathered around listening very closely to what this man who lacked a high school diploma had to say. I was so proud to be his son and to feel that I was so much like him. Unfortunately, that is what led to being disowned by my mother. I did the unthinkable, in our family. I wrote him a letter telling him how proud I was to be his son and to be like him. In her disturbed mind, she took that as a statement against her and disowned me. But her emotinal problems are a story alone, I often am brought to tears thinking what my father could have done with an engineering degree.

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  2. I’ve got a letter tucked away that my mom gave me a lifetime ago. It was devastating and why I keep it I will never know. Maybe to show us both how we have changed since those disappointing (for her) years. I’m glad you didn’t read those letters. They really have nothing to do with you, just as the one I keep, has nothing to do with me. You’ve inspired me to toss it. It serves no purpose now as it really served no purpose then. I’m the middle kid too. I get how that factors into things. You have to live it to know. So easy to lose our identity. (It was always ” don’t act like your sister” or “why can’t you be like your brother?”. Yeah, fuck that.) I did a hella job just being me. You did too. Following one’s heart, despite the disapproval of others, can be messy. But I know in my bones that, not following it, is what breaks people. I’ll take messy over broken any day. 

    I have one of those handwritten letters from your Mom and it meant so much to me that she wanted to write it. It’s really a lost art. I am grateful every single day to those people who write to me. Someday, someone will find the letters I’ve chosen to keep and they will be like windows …

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    1. That’s right, your letter—and mine—were from a different story. The current story is the only one that matters. You are doing a hella job right now being you! I hope your parents tell you, but you can bet they know it. They are so lucky.

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  3. My mother kept wall calendars. Luckily I had started a third family collections at the LSU archives. A 3000, fourth generation home was slowly emptied out over a year. The staff left 6 cardboard cartons for me. When they were filled, I called and a volunteer picked them up and left 6 more. I still have more to leave as I am the last of my family. Got in trouble with one letter to my crazy hippie brother detailing the “good drugs” waiting for him in Memphis. One of his friends at my church heard about it. She knew the writer. Ouch. I figured all my mother’s friends were dead and wouldn’t be upset. I forgot about his peers.

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    1. My Michigan aunt and uncle have a collection at the UM museum/archives. I never thought about doing that; and don’t know where I would. Neither of my parents were native to where they lived since 1946. I’m donating the war letters to the Chapman Univ. American War Letters archive in CA, but all this other stuff? I just don’t know. Genealogy work, on both parents’ families, by multiple people, including me. Will somebody have to reinvent the wheel someday? I could input it all in Ancestry.com, I suppose. My daughter did some, but I don’t know how much. And maybe it all is on there. I don’t have the bandwidth for it. The stories are more important anyway, and that’s MORE paper. And as a friend said, the next gens aren’t going to look at paper anyway. And photographs. Ach! Getting a headache now! Too funny about your brother.

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  4. You were wise not to read the letters. The mere fact that she did not mail them to you indicates that they were a vehicle for her to work out her own feelings rather than an intentional weapon house against you. As someone who has no idea of who your mother was beyond these posts I also wonder how happy she was with her own life choices — husband away so much, many ailments, too much valium. We are all so complicated, aren’t we!

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    1. I quickly figured, given the quantity of the writing, that whether she realized it or not, she was working out her anguish the only way she knew how. Why she edited so much, I don’t know, other than she was a perfectionist. (Which she passed on to me.) And was not versed in the “don’t lift pen from page” technique. Why she saved them, and not because she had forgotten them, will be forever mystery. I think my father’s frequent absences were probably hard for her. And completely necessary for him. (And if my mother was anguished my the end of my marriage, he was furious. It’s taken a lot of dream work for me to work through that. He didn’t live long enough to for forgiveness to come in person.) Thank you for your thoughts, Trish.

      P.S. I had no idea about the valium. She hated medication, the years I spent with her, and especially refused anti-depressants. Maybe the valium experience is why.

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      1. So hard to live with an unresolved issue like your father’s anger at your divorce and identity. I think that generation also blamed themselves if their children weren’t perfect, creating another layer of emotional molasses to wade through.

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  5. Just had some 70’s flashbacks…..remembering also when my mom shared some of your mom’s health struggles and the ringing in her ears. Last year I went through 5 bins of memories that included precious stuff from my childhood and my kid’s. Somehow, this treasure remained hidden from me…and some of it came across the ocean….I’m still scratching my head on that🤔.
    Sat for many days by myself sorting through it all ….laughing, sighing, sometimes regretting,..
    Your job is much bigger! Thank you for sharing!

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    1. Your mom had tinnitus too? I t was pretty devastating. I think going deaf in that ear was a blessing. Yes to the laughing, sighing, regretting. Mostly the sighing. Love to you. I hope your folks are settling in to their new home.

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  6. Don’t we all wish we live long enough to know how completely misplaced are our fears …
    You are an amazing daughter and human, and my heart aches for all the judgement and disapproval you withstood. Obviously there was a lot of love too. God save us from righteous religious opinions. They have no place in human to human relationships.
    How amazing (and exhausting) to have such a treasure map of ephemera to tell you who you are, and who your people are.

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    1. Thank you, Nancy. Seeings as I am only now (mostly) seeing the disapproval, it turned out okay. My mother raised a strong daughter! Yes, there was much love. And “ephemera”! I’ve been trying to pull up that word all through this, and all I keep coming up with is “effluvia,” which is not the right word. Yes! And it is like a treasure map, isn’t it? Thank you for that image.

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