Last updateTue, 19 Sep 2017 5pm

Excavating a life: A Piece of My Mind

My husband’s mother, known to friends and family as “Dimi,” died at age 102. I went with my husband to help arrange funeral services and reacquaint ourselves with family. We stayed in his boyhood bedroom in his mother’s abandoned house in Pennsylvania.

The house had been rented for a year to a family connection, who had used the first floor. Nearly all Dimi’s belongings had been moved to the second floor. They included a couple of bedrooms’ worth of furniture, a couple of closets full of her clothes, plus boxes and baskets of documents, oddments, gewgaw and bric-a-brac.

As a relative by marriage only, I enjoyed going through the boxes, bins and dresser drawers, which had been jumbled together. The closer relatives seemed relieved to have an unemotional eye sorting through the accumulation. It was exciting to explore, as if I were doing an archaeological dig through the strata of a life.

I found a newspaper clipping with a picture of Dimi when she was approximately 18 and starred in a college play. On her 90th birthday, she listed as one of her regrets, “I never acted on Broadway.” We had thought she was joking. Was it a real dream at one time?

In a bureau drawer upstairs, I found a wedding photo. We had thought that my husband’s parents had not been able to afford a fully costumed and documented wedding in 1933, the beginning of the Great Depression. Yet here they were – the groom looking dapper and debonair in a suit and vest, complete with a watch chain; she glamorous in a swooping hat and full-length white lace gown, carrying an enormous bouquet.

I found a letter dated April 1945 from a soldier thanking Dimi for a newsletter she had sent as college class correspondent. He said it was like a breath of spring to hear from her, and asked to be remembered to the professors and the college president he had admired. Did Lt. C.E. “Dutch” Eby of the USS Barron survive the war?

I found a note from a young woman, a childhood friend of Dimi’s daughter, saying that she had always thought of Dimi as the ideal parent and had tried to model her own parenting after Dimi’s.

I found notes from people whom Dimi met on her travels, from Guam, Australia, Hawaii and Norway, with whom she had kept in touch and in friendship for decades after their chance meetings.

I found notes written between Dimi and her husband of 40 years, including the last heartbreaking one when he was in the grip of his final illness, knowing he was near his end, just before his death.

I found lists of Christmas presents, which Dimi had given year by year. In later years, many of these presents were ludicrously inappropriate, mis-sized or obviously pre-owned. We laughed with other family members about the too-small shirts, the ladies’ sweaters given to grandsons, the tarnished necklaces with missing stones. Yet these lists showed how much thought and care she had taken so that no child or grandchild or even great-grandchild would go unremembered as her family grew.

On my return home, I looked at my bulging closets and crammed desk drawers with a different eye. I know Dimi so much better since I delved into her life.

Maybe one day my children will learn to know me better also, thanks to the clutter I leave behind.

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