beautiful things, creativity, David, death, grief, love, mother, paper, things

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.

 

mother, Mother's Day

Vignette: A Moment in Time

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It was an unseasonably warm October day. Mom and I had conversed comfortably in the car on the way to and from her doctor’s appointment; about my recent blog posts that mentioned her, how much she liked the new LIVE sign I’d purchased to hang on my wall, and her concern over her cat being attacked by some feral felines. I’d assumed if she’d wanted to discuss more serious topics, she’d have brought them up.

Arriving at her house, I helped her out of the car. Swaying a little, she grabbed my arm to steady herself. She clung to me as we slowly made our way to the back door. When she expressed the desire to stay outside, I settled her in a chair before getting her coffee and cigarettes from the kitchen. There was no sense in arguing it may have been those very vices that had caused Mom’s cancer. It was too late for that, and pointless. On the contrary, my siblings and I seemed in agreement that she should have anything she wanted.

As I set the cup and cigarette pack on the small white table in front of my mother, I asked if it would be okay if I headed home to make supper for my husband and children. She nodded. I remember leaning down to kiss her cheek then, and while I’m certain I would have told her I loved her, I don’t recall actually saying the words.

Inside the car, I started the engine before glancing back at Mom. She was looking straight at me, a gentle smile on her face. She raised her hand slightly, giving a little wave. That one small gesture undid me. Throat filling with tears, I could barely breathe. I quickly looked away, not wanting her to see me cry. My mother is dying, I thought as I headed down the driveway. My mother is dying. I sobbed all the way home.

There is so much we didn’t talk about that day. In fact, I hadn’t mentioned the inevitability of her death in any of our conversations. I’d been with her when the doctor informed her she had lung cancer, had heard her whispered “I wondered what it would be.” We never talked about death, or fear, or even faith, which surprised me, considering how important religion was to her. There were no last-minute lessons, no pleas or after-death directives.

More than six years after Mom died, in the winter of 2017, unhappy with my job and searching for possible answers from the enigma that was my mother, I re-read letters she’d written me, a Memory Book she’d filled out, and the odd notebooks and partial journals I’d inherited. By then, I’d unexpectedly lost my husband and eight-year-old grandson, as well. Still raw with cumulative grief, I needed a mother to turn to. And there she was, in the words she’d repeatedly written.

“Utilize your God-given talents.”

There was never a question that each of her children and grandchildren were born with inherent talent; it was her greatest desire that we discover what it was, and follow God. Mom’s own gifts were apparent in the way she made our home a haven. Multi-talented, she concocted delicious meals from garden produce, eggs, and the chickens Dad raised. She created colorful wall hangings, rag rugs, and beautiful quilts from scraps of cloth, and drew pastel pictures of her children. She was the kind of woman who, at the age of 42, picked up a kitchen knife and a piece of wood and decided she’d carve a statue. She then honed her artistic talent to begin a home business that sold well over 500 pieces of her art.

Reading Mom’s words again that winter, it occurred to me that she’d already said it all. There was nothing more she could have said that she hadn’t already modeled in a life filled with creativity, integrity and faith. Her last lesson was in facing death with dignity, grace, and the firm belief she would soon be joining both our father and Our Father.

That October day was the last time I was alone with Mom before she suffered what we assumed was a stroke from the brain radiation she’d undergone. My next visit was to take my turn caring for a mother who struggled to walk or communicate. While her gentle smile remained, there was no more shared conversations. In the ensuing days, my siblings and I cared for her, watching her drift into unconsciousness and die on November 3, my birthday.

In my mind’s eye, I can still see my mother sitting outside at that little table, a cigarette in her hand, a cup of coffee in front of her. Her face is lit by a beatific smile, her eyes filled with love. She lifts her hand to wave.

“I love you, Mom,” I imagine saying, waving back.

angels, grace, grief, mother

A December God-story

December remains a tough month for me. There is that heightened awareness of loved ones missing from the festivities and then the date of my grandson’s cancer diagnosis (eight years ago today). For some reason, I really needed a God-story this month.  One like that December day in 2015, when a former junior high teacher, Robert King, delivered a special package to my workplace.

Mr KingI was experiencing a particularly dark time back then. Having my mother’s beautiful statue come to me forty-five years after she carved it just when I needed it was an answer to a prayer.  Michael the Archangel has been proudly displayed in my home office ever since, serving as a symbol of God’s protection.

St, Michael

Saint Michael came with me to work yesterday, in anticipation of today’s presentation, “Dark Night to Daybreak,” at Shalom Spirituality Center’s Winter Breakfast.  Of course I had to explain the presence of the wooden angel to my co-worker Neal. Shortly after I told him about my artist mother and the meaning of the statue in relation to my presentation, a woman appeared in the adjacent office doorway.

“Is there a Mary Potter Kenyon who works here?” she asked. Our office administrator, Susan, pointed her in my direction.

“You don’t happen to be related to an Irma Potter from Earlville, do you?” she asked, and when I told her Irma was my mother, her face brightened and she grabbed my hand to clasp it in hers.

“I loved your mother! She was in the Ruth Suckow Association with me. I used to give her rides to meetings and we’d have wonderful conversations in the car,” she gushed.  She gave me her name and suggested we go out for coffee sometime. After she left I looked over at Neal.

“Do you have any idea how extraordinary that is; that you would be talking about your mother and that woman would show up?” he asked.

Extraordinary indeed.

This morning I spoke of my mother, David and Jacob, as well as the hope and light I found in God’s grace during the winter of the soul that grief brought. I unveiled the statue at the appropriate moment, hearing gasps of awe. When an older woman approached me after the speech, I wondered at the tears in her eyes.

“Are you Irma Rose’s daughter?” she asked.

“Yes, my mother was Irma Rose Potter from Earlville.” For the second time in two days my hand was grasped…one soul recognizing another. “You knew my mother?”

“I was your mother’s best friend in school. Until Irma Rose Weis came to our school, I was the only girl in a classroom of 13 boys.”

What is your name?”

“Edna. Edna Ginder.”

Just one other girl in Mom’s class, and there she was, in the room, as I spoke about mom and miracles? It was my turn to gasp. We reached out to hug each other at the same time.

I’m not sure how many times we hugged as I recalled other things; how I was with Mom when the Hospice team visited her for the first time in October 2010; Amy and Rose. Amy was Mom’s artist name and Rose was her middle name. When Mom heard the name of the nurse assigned to her care, she’d grabbed my hand in excitement. “Edna? My best friend’s name was Edna!” Mom had felt as though God himself had orchestrated this team who would companion her through her final days. Which of course, he had.

“It brought her great comfort to discover her nurse’s name was Edna,” I told her childhood friend, whose tears now flowed freely. We promised to get together soon for coffee and to talk about the young Irma she’d known and loved.

“Two women in two days who knew your mother,” my co-worker remarked when I told him of meeting Edna. While you were working on a speech about your mother and had brought her statue to work. No one can tell me that is a coincidence. That’s God.”

Edna Ginder
Edna Ginder, my mother’s childhood friend, front row, far left

My God story.