What We Keep

What do the things we choose to keep say about us?

I recently shared a mixed media piece I created using objects that had either been my mother’s or reminded me of my mother, a project directly related to the theme of my upcoming book, Called to Be Creative.

Most of the those small mementos had been stored away in drawers and boxes. I love having them displayed where I can see them  now. Since then, I’ve been collecting items that remind me of my husband David; things like the last piece of jewelry he purchased for me, the tiger pin I wore when I was a waitress at Sambos, (where we met), and our 25th anniversary newspaper announcement. I’m planning an artist-facilitated “Memory Mixed Media” program at my workplace in February, when I’ll complete the project.

With all the talk today of the Kon-Mari method of decluttering and the value of simplifying our lives and homes, why save any memorabilia at all? These art pieces take me on a sentimental journey, reminding me of two very special people I loved, the mother who was the muse for my creativity, and the husband who encouraged me to spread my wings and fly in my endeavors.

What does it say about me that when I faced a move to a 760-square foot house in the summer of 2018, I easily parted with thousands of items; pieces of furniture, clothing, hundreds of books, home decorations small and large, but sifting through piles of paper, files, photos, and letters seemed an impossible task? At least two of the things I chose to keep, my mother’s cabinet and trunk, were with the intention of storing other things.

What does it mean that I saved every letter my mother had ever written me, the few my father did, and many I’ve received from siblings?

Until the winter of 2017, I hadn’t re-read Mom’s letters, but as I prepared to write a book chronicling the creative legacy she’d left behind, I did. In fact, I immersed myself in all things Mom, re-reading letters, her memory book, and notebooks, searching for nuggets of wisdom, like this, to share in the manuscript.

mom talents on loan from GodMuch of Mom’s words that appear in the book will be shared in her own handwriting because of what I kept.

In downsizing, I did manage to dispose of hundreds of greeting cards that had no personal message, only a signature. Because I saved others, I still have my very first “fan letter,” sent to me care of my publisher in 1996, after the release of Homeschooling From ScratchI also have the birthday card my pen friend and prayer warrior Pam Pierre sent me on the first birthday I celebrated without my mother, which also happened to be the anniversary of Mom’s death. That was the last note I received from Pam before she herself died unexpectedly.

I also chose to keep the ledger my mother utilized to keep track of her art sales. I’d flipped through those pages in 2017, marveling at her detailed notes and wondering how she kept track of the art work she’d done after the final listing of a courthouse carving in 1996. Surely an artist who’d carefully numbered her pieces, from the first wood carving at age 42 would have continued the tracking? Perhaps she’d done so elsewhere, in a notebook I didn’t have? I wrote about this in my book:

“If midlife means the mid-point of one’s lifespan, my mother hit hers at forty-one, a year before she’d picked up a hammer and chisel to create her first woodcarving. In the ensuing thirty years, Irma “Amy” Potter would produce 544 pieces of art, according to a ledger that tracked each piece. The entries are not dated, but begin with the first woodcarving in 1970 and end with the relief woodcarving that was commissioned for the Delaware County courthouse in 1996. Anything Mom had crafted before the age forty-two—the wall-hangings, pastel pictures, quilts, or homemade dolls—were not included in this tally. Neither was the body of work she continued to produce between 1996 and her death in 2010. That includes countless pillows, teddy bears, baby quilts, Christmas stockings, handmade ornaments, a painting that hangs in Breitbach’s restaurant in Balltown, Iowa, lavishly-designed walls my sister Pat commissioned Mom to paint in 2001 in the lower level of her Treasure Alley consignment store, along with numerous paintings and wood-carvings now displayed in homes of family members and strangers.

I could not begin to guess how many additional pieces of art my mother produced in those last fourteen years of her life, or why she stopped keeping the log, but suffice it to say, my mother was a prolific artist in the second half of her life.”

It was only yesterdaynine years after the death of my mother, as I searched the trunk for memorabilia to include in my next art project, I picked up the ledger again. Studying those pages of neat handwriting and record-keeping, I marveled at the low prices she charged for her work. Hours of toil on an owl carving amounted to a single ten dollar bill. Four small owls she sold to “David and Mary Kenyon” (me), less than that. I wondered again at that last notation. Why had she stopped keeping track? I flipped through the empty pages until something caught my eye; a lightly penciled notation on an otherwise empty page.

pencil notes about muralsSo, Mom had noted her mural work on the walls of my sister’s shop, though without a date. I flipped through a few more empty pages amazed to discover there were further records at the back of the ledger!

This list, unlike the beginning of the ledger, was not in chronological order. Many were numbers from the previous list, but some were newer, including a piece numbered 1040 (suggesting she’d completed at least another 500). An ad from a South Dakota studio was paper-clipped to the page. Did the Eng studio owner order the “carved Eskimo Girl” my mother noted, or did she own a “carved Eskimo Girl” by the artist? I’m fascinated by either scenario. (I later searched the Internet and discovered that Marion Eng, the co-owner, had passed away within days of my mother)

This. This is why I keep these sorts of things; the letters, a ledger, a list. Pieces of paper to some, precious treasures to me. A rosary, a pencil, a penny dated 1978. My mother wrote this. She drew with this pencil, prayed on this rosary. My husband kept this receipt for my wedding ring, he cherished this Valentine from his grandson fighting cancer. He wrote this note proclaiming his love and chose that necklace for me. Each foray into the trunk or cabinet, a warm hug. Each letter re-read, a visit with the beloved mother.

And sometimes, a surprise… a few previously unread pages, a clipping, a question unanswered. Who carved “Eskimo girl” and where is she?

If I ever find her, I’ll probably keep her too.

 

Must I Write?

This post is my participation in the writing contest “You Are Enough: Your Calling Your Storyhosted by Positive Writer.

“This above all- ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: Must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple ‘I must,’ then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and testimony to it.” -from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet

Must I write? How else to explain my frantic scribbling on a legal pad as I sat next to my husband’s hospital bed while he slept?

“I don’t know how you do that,” he said, eyes suddenly open. Ashamed, I stopped writing mid-sentence. What kind of wife writes while her husband lay recovering from heart stent surgery?

“I’m sorry, I was working on my column that’s due tomorrow. I can work on it later.” I was shoving the pad into a tote bag when his hand on my arm stopped me.

“No. I meant I don’t know how you can write like that; filling pages with words so effortlessly. You have such talent.”

“It’s what I do. I write.” He nodded. It spoke volumes of my husband that he could even begin to understand the pull of the pen when few non-writers do.

Though I’d wanted to be a writer since childhood, it wasn’t until I’d given birth to my fourth child and abandoned the pursuit of a master’s degree that I attempted writing for publication. In the ensuing years I gave birth to four more children and began homeschooling. As an outlet for my creative energy, I turned to my childhood pleasure of putting pen to paper, maintaining a semblance of self amid the selfless act of intense mothering.

baby on backFor the next twenty-five years I honed the craft, working it around mothering; getting up before sunrise every morning to squeeze in an hour of wordplay. When an infant fell asleep in the car, I’d pull over to the curb and scrawl in a notebook I carried in my purse. I’d sit on the lid of the toilet and compose while toddlers splashed in the bathtub. I’d eagerly volunteer for child bedside duty so I could finish up an essay by the dim glow of a nightlight.

Hours after my husband David’s cancer diagnosis in 2006 I pondered how I’d go about writing about it. How else to bear the possibility of losing my life’s partner but through writing? I blogged my way through my mother’s lung cancer treatment four years later. In the months following her death, starkly awakened to my own mortality, I made the decision to take my writing seriously. That winter, I embarked on what would become one of the most creative periods of my life up to that point.

My husband would offer to watch the kids, hand me a mug of hot tea and shoo me out the door to Mom’s empty house, my private writing retreat. There, I found the solitude and silence I’d craved for so many years. I accomplished more writing in those three months than I had in the previous three years, grief the impetus to taking my writing seriously, the legacy of a creative mother my muse.

my writing retreatEven after the sale of the house, the creative fire that had been ignited in me continued to flame. By early 2012, I’d begun teaching coupon workshops, writing a weekly newspaper column, and obtained a literary agent who pitched my ethnographic research on the cultural phenomenon of extreme couponing. My husband reveled in all of it, driving me to presentations to claim a seat in the back of the room. During my first scheduled workshop, as I worked the room animatedly, my glance landed on David. My breath caught in my throat at the look of utter adoration on his face.

“I loved seeing you that way,” he commented on the way home. “You come alive in front of an audience. You’re flying.” David had become the wind beneath my wings. I reminded him I couldn’t do any of it without him.

And then, I had to.

Less than two weeks following that hospital bed encounter in March 2012, my beloved died in his sleep. The next morning, fingers thick with grief, I penned one of the most difficult pieces of writing I’d ever done; my husband’s obituary.

It would have been easy to give up the writing, workshops and public speaking. Instead, remembering the look on his face and those words at the hospital, my writing took on a frantic pace, borne of pain and a renewed determination. A corner of the couch became a paper nest. I’d sit for hours, surrounded by piles of papers and books. I journaled, blogged, wrote essays, polished one manuscript, and began another. Seven months after David’s death I signed a contract for the book that had been his idea. By the time it was released in 2013, my eight-year-old grandson was dying too; losing a three-year battle with cancer.

barnes nobleI’ll never forget that July day, standing in front of a Barnes & Noble window display of my book. I felt nothing, numb with cumulative grief. In the ensuing six years, I’d sign five more contracts, becoming less anesthetized with each book’s release.

In February 2017 I revisited my muse through notebooks and a memory book Mom had left behind. I read letters she’d written me, marveling at how her words and wise advice could still inspire me, years after her death. I flipped through scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings about her art and photos of the various woodcarvings and paintings she’d completed, realizing anew that nothing had stopped her from creating. Nothing. Not raising ten children, poverty, or the death of my father.

mom woodcarverJust as nothing would stop me from writing. I began another book, chronicling that legacy of creativity. In it, I demonstrate how we are all built to create, whether through painting, gardening, music, or like me, as a wordsmith.

Must I write?
I’ve built my life around it.

 

What about you? Is writing your calling? Do you have a story about your writing? I hear it all the time in the writing workshops I teach. “I don’t have time.” “I’m not good enough to be published.” The reasons, the excuses, the self-doubts. If you have it in you to write, don’t let anything stop you. I didn’t. That’s one of the messages in Positive Writer Bryan Hutchinson’s new book “Serious Writers Never Quit.” serious writers