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.


David, stuff

Blast from the Past: Time in a Tote

This might say something about my general housekeeping, but in cleaning today I was vacumning around the two totes sitting at the end of a shelf in our office/playroom/schoolroom.  “What’s in this top tote?” I asked Abby, and she told me her toys were in it.

“What about the bottom tote? Is that toys too?”

“No, there’s just pictures and stuff in that one.”

Pictures and stuff? What kind of stuff? I was intrigued. When we moved here four years ago I had purchased these nice colorful totes for the purpose of organization. I am sure I must have touched them since then, but I truly can’t remember when.

Since David’s death, I have frantically searched for any greeting cards to include in a scrapbook I am planning on making, to no avail.  Yes, I’d found a couple recent ones, but while we were dating and in early marriage, we’d given each other greeting cards nearly every week. I distinctly remember getting rid of a lot of our “love notes” years ago (of course now I wish I hadn’t) but not the cards.  Well, I hit paydirt in this forgotten tote. Not only had I forgotten about an entire scrapbook full of cards David had given me, but I spent the better part of the afternoon traveling down memory lane. I cried, I laughed, and the children got a peek into my checkered past.

Along with a love note and the many cards, there were tickets and a program from a show David and I had seen at Strayer Wood Theatre.

Family photos:

Going back farther in time, I discovered some of my report cards from grade school:

Of course, my children had to point out that I was NOT the straight-A student I had always claimed to be in grade school:

Funny how our memory changes things.  Then, in sixth grade, some genius decided grades made young people feel badly about themselves, so we no longer got letter grades.

It amazes me that I have known what I wanted to be ever since I was a young girl making books for my mother.

Not very good books, I admit, but books nonetheless. I laughed out loud at the poetry in this one;

Children gaily dancing, teenagers fastly dancing…”

Gaily? Fastly?    Really, Mary? I wonder if my mother thought she had a budding writer on her hands, or a delusional one?

My poetry was slightly better in high school:

That angst-ridden teen poet also kept some of her hair.  Evidently, I wasn’t the blonde I liked to think I was.

A precious find; a note from my Dad;

Also, from high school, I couldn’t just wear my white lab coat for Advanced Science class when we dissected cats. I had to “decorate” mine.  This was on the back of the white lab coat. My children were surprised at their mother’s twisted mind.

Speaking of twisted minds, my brother Bill sent me a bill for my stay at his apartment in 1978.

I don’t think my children realized I had some awards hidden away; blue ribbons and medals from speech contests, Thespian Awards for drama, and even an award for being feature editor of the high school newspaper! Coming full circle, 35 years later I am writing for a newspaper and “acting” in front of people when I do my workshops, playing a crazy coupon lady!

I never did get back to my cleaning but memories come before messes, and despite the tears I shed, I enjoyed this afternoon’s trip down memory lane…


Timing is Everything

I spent another afternoon in my mother’s house, writing. With soft music playing in the background, a cinnamon candle burning, and copious amounts of tea, I wrote for a good three hours. I have managed to accomplish as much in the last three weeks sitting at my mother’s table as I did in the previous three months. Whether it is being surrounded by her creative spirit, or the lack of Internet connection, I am not sure, but I can see how I will be able to complete my book with ease by the end of April if I continue my mini writing retreats at the old homestead.

 After each writing session I find myself wandering the nearly empty rooms, looking for something, but not sure what. Deep down inside, I know what I search for, but I feel foolish even writing it. 

I want a message from my mother. Or at least a direct connection of some sort.

We all do, I think.

 One of my sisters has gone through all the photo albums my mother left behind, sorting and scanning pictures to share with us.  Another is meticulously typing out the contents of my mother’s calendar/journals for all of us to read on our family web page.  We have incorporated our mother’s things into our own homes with great pleasure. Her paintings and wood carvings are more than just simple art; they are a reminder of the beautiful woman that our mother was. It has been almost four months and the ache of her absence has intensified for all of us this winter.

 While I drove home today, I fought the mounting sadness that has plagued me since November 3rd.  I did not find a message in the books I rifled through today or the empty drawers or closet I peeked into. There was no note taped to the back of a picture, no little piece of paper that my mother had written her secret desires on.

We are luckier than most. We had the previous two months to prepare ourselves for her death and to show her how much we loved her, and we had each other to lean on when the time came. We have two books she wrote for us, her calendars, letters and photos.

 And we have this:

I gave my mother this leather bound Memory Book for Christmas in 1985 and she dutifully filled it out. It took her almost three years to do so. The last entry is dated March 25, 1988 and is in response to the question: What do you look forward to in the future?  Must be knowing my Mother may die soon is something I don’t look forward to but can happen any time at her age of 91. My mother says she looks forward to it.

I clearly remember thanking my mother and hugging her when she handed me this completed book.

I didn’t read it then.  I don’t know why.  Instead, I promptly stashed it away.  I still hadn’t read it when we moved here three years ago. In fact, I nearly forgot all about it. Perhaps I was just waiting for the right time.

I decided on the way home that today would be the right time.

I knew where I’d put it.  I’d stashed it in the back of my lovely rose cabinet in the entryway. I dug it from behind several photo albums and flipped through it.

This book consists of a question and answer format, with many pages in between for memories not related to the questions.  I remember being a little disappointed that my mother hadn’t filled all the pages, but now I see that she’d answered over 50 questions, some with two or three-page answers.  Other questions she skipped over entirely, like this one: What plans do you have for future travel? One she answered with one single word. That question was: What would you like your epitaph to read? Her answer was: Catholic.

Now that I have these messages from my mother to read, the connection that I have yearned for, I’m not sure I can bear to read it.  I started to, but after I read the second page’s answer to the question: What was the most meaningful gift you ever received? I found myself crying. After chronicling some childhood gifts and toys, she’d added, “I’m thinking that the people who gave me these meaningful gifts were the gifts in my life. Meaningful, as is said these days-I would better say means so much to me! A card, a letter, a phone call or a visit means so much to me because of the person doing it.”

Tears coursed down my cheeks when I read that one. How many cards, phone calls and visits had she had from me in the three or four years before her cancer diagnosis? Not nearly enough.

What was the most meaningful gift you have ever received? I ponder this question and realize that none of the answers I would come up with are expensive and the majority of them aren’t even material items. Some were items my mother had made for me; others would be small gifts from my husband. Meaningful cards and notes would top the list, as would the gift of time and support during David’s cancer, my mother’s death and our grandson’s cancer.

But one of the best gifts of all?

That would have to be the gift our parent’s gave us in the form of many siblings.

Because only they can understand why I had to put the memory book away for awhile.

And why the right time to read it might be when I am with them.