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.

 

On This Day…

According to Facebook statistics, every day more than 90 million people utilize their On This Day app to reminisce about moments they’ve shared on their Facebook page in previous years, and I’ve consistently been one of them. Sometimes the memory pops up in my Facebook feed. Other times I search for them, reminiscing.

But not today.

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Today, I made the decision not to look at the memory of six years ago, or at the very least, since I obviously got a glimpse, not to click on it and read the rest.

August has consistently been a difficult month for me since Jacob died in 2013. For my daughter Elizabeth, it is June, his birthday month. Which makes perfect sense, since she carried him underneath her heart and gave birth to him that day. We were aware Jacob’s cancer was terminal earlier in 2013, but he was doing fairly well until after his eighth birthday, when we saw his health steadily go downhill. No one saw it up closer than his parents, particularly his mother Elizabeth, who slept on the floor next to the couch where he spent the majority of his last days. The hospice nurse had told them in early July it would be just a matter of days. Days turned into weeks.

Certainly, painful memories have popped up in July, memories Facebook didn’t need to remind me of as they are so etched in my mind: My daughter’s posts on the Jacob’s Ladder page, posts that were filled with such faith and hope, she was touching the lives of thousands of others, just by sharing. My getting up repeatedly at 2:00 a.m. to drive past my daughter’s house to see if the lights were on and she needed me.

But today, when I saw that memory from six years ago pop up, I looked instead to the framed photos I can see from where I sit drinking my morning cup of coffee.

Jacob phonto

I made the conscious decision not to read the August Jacob’s Ladder memories, to not “go there,” revisiting my daughter’s pain, Jacob’s struggle to let go…hanging on, and on, and on, until the hospice nurse wondered why, before discovering one day the explanation; inexplicably the expanding lung that should have caused his death, had pushed the small heart to the other side of his chest.

And there I went, despite my good intentions. Do I imagine it, or is someone reading now thinking: There she goes, with the grief thing again. 

Secondary loss is real. While primary loss is the death of the person we loved, secondary is all the future losses as a result of that. I didn’t just lose a husband, for instance, I lost the primary breadwinner of our household. The father of my children. The partner who shared a wedding anniversary. The man who believed in me and my writing. Who held my hand and listened when I needed to talk. The person who took out the trash and changed lightbulbs. My experience of secondary loss is heightened at weddings, parties, even in church. I am so much more alone in a crowd.

So when I look at those framed photos on my cabinet, I see my beautiful grandchildren, yes, but I see something else. I see the child missing from future photos, the granddaughter, now nearly sixteen, growing up without her buddy, the boy whose big brother will never carry him on his back, like he does his little sister.

I also see my daughter, who cannot yet bear to pose her remaining children for a family photo because the absence of one is too painful. The daughter who once blogged regularly, becoming my spiritual mentor, who now finds it difficult to write anything at all.

Parents who have lost a child understand that, but would others? I know a woman who takes a photo of her empty porch every August because each year on the first day of school, she loses her son all over again. This year, it would have been second grade, this year third, this year fourth.

Is it true that there are those who cannot understand a loss until they have experienced it themselves? I firmly believe that. I acknowledged my parent’s wedding anniversary with a card to my mother that first year after my dad died. I may have even done so the following year, but only since experiencing the death of my own spouse, do I realize that she likely looked at the calendar every single June 25 for twenty-five years, remembering with a twinge of sadness.

Is it also true, as everyone says, that thoughtless comments to grievers are well-meant? “I don’t think I believe in Heaven,” someone said on my porch, sitting near me, within days of my husband’s death. Where did they think David was then, I wanted to shout, but didn’t.  Could the comment have come from their own doubt that needed reassurance? “If my husband died, I would never date or fall in love again,” I was informed when I expressed loneliness and an openness to loving again.  Was that judgement I heard in the tone, or my imagination? When Christmas is difficult for the mother of a little boy who loved the holiday, is it helpful, or hurtful, to tell her to “think of her other children and their enjoyment?” (Hint: It’s hurtful. She does think of them. It’s still hard.)

I’ve heard there is a way to turn off those Facebook “memory” notifications, but I don’t really want to. So many of them bring a smile to my face, a tender memory, a funny incident I shared ten years ago. A photo of me in 2009 pops up, and I think to myself “That was before. Before my mother, husband, and grandson died.” I feel sorry for the woman with the husband’s arm slung across her shoulders, her bright smile, clueless as to what was coming.

Then I reflect on who I am now, who I am because of those losses. The woman who wants to be a better person because of those good, loving people she lost. One who looks to Heaven for answers, who now knows what it is to have a personal relationship with Jesus, who glimpses small miracles everywhere, and believes we are here to walk each other HOME. The woman who facilitates grief groups  and grief retreats, who can authentically talk and write about grief because she “gets it.” Who talks and writes about creativity for the same reason; because of the creative mother she lost. I am the woman who writes these words in a poem, and believes them.

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So, while there is an option to turn off the Facebook notifications, I won’t. There’s too many good moments I want to revisit. For now, maybe for the rest of August, I’ll choose to look away from those “Jacob’s Ladder” memories.

Just like the person who doesn’t want to read about grief or secondary losses, or God and faith, can choose to look away from this blog post.