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The Things She Kept

I’ve been cleaning and reorganizing, tasks I normally avoid like the plague. There are two black holes into which I have been particularly reluctant to peek, until this week.

Coward that I am, I picked the easy one first – a brown cabinet that once held my mother’s television. I found what I had expected, photo albums, post cards, travel brochures. They were sentimental, but fairly easy to sort and store. The one tough thing was a sleeve of cassette tapes. I had forgotten all about them. We took them to the hospital and played them one after another in her last days. I kept two that were her special favorites. Then with every ounce of strength I could summon, I put the rest into the box headed for the thrift store.

Today was the tougher task, my grandmother’s cedar chest. It sits like a hippo, crouching against the spare bedroom wall. I removed all of the stuff that sits on top and pulled off the lace tablecloth that hangs over it like a shroud. I scooted it away from the wall and pried open the lid.

I knew there were old family photos in there, it hadn’t been too long since I’d rummaged for one to include in an anniversary booklet. I didn’t know about the greeting cards. Nearly every one I’d ever given my mother was neatly stacked in a pile toward the bottom.

I found dozens of handkerchiefs, tatted and embroidered by my grandmother. I found baby shoes and wedding announcements and funeral guest books. None of that was a great surprise, as I knew my mom to be a keeper of things like that. She treasured family memories and would have wanted to keep those things close to her.

The surprises came in other ways, like the issue of Profiles in Courage featuring Jackie Kennedy. I guess she felt a kindred spirit in Jackie. Each of them had their husbands ripped from their arms without warning.

There was a small box with condolence cards that I thought at first were from my father’s funeral. As I examined them more closely, I found that they were expressions of sympathy to both of my parents on the loss of their newborn twins. I can’t imagine wanting to remember that sadness, but she kept it, as neatly tucked away as everything else.

I found a peach silk lingerie top, certainly a memory of happier times with my dad. There was a campy, over-sized Valentine card that she’d sent him a few years before I was born. These surprises made me smile. I could look at the photos of her at that time and try to imagine her in those moments, donning that silk or writing that card.

Going through the things she kept is difficult work. But it has given me another afternoon with my mom. I’ll treasure that.

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