A friend from graduate school has been scouring top to bottom her gorgeous antebellum South Carolina home in preparation for putting it on the market. She and her husband have gone a little OCD about the endeavor, she says, and this morning she’s sent me a note warning of the dangers of overdoing it.
Many years have passed since she and I could share leisurely lunches at one another’s kitchen tables. Anyone who spends time with me these days knows there’s very little risk I will “overdo it” when it comes to housecleaning. Myopia has its benefits.
But I am on a mission to de-clutter. The basement is so empty it echoes (full disclosure: I hired men to help with this). And while the loft over the garage remains a terrifying maze of boxes and abused furniture, I am chipping away at closets, going through the large plastic tubs into which much of the detritus of our modern life has fallen.
The strategy of tossing junk into stackable containers has worked for the last six years or so, but eventually, one must sort and purge. Less mucking out than patient mining, the task can yield its unexpected nuggets of gold.
A folder of papers I’d inherited from my Aunt Ginny turned up in one of those plastic tubs stowed in a spare bedroom closet, along with a potpourri of notebooks, papers, and out of focus drugstore reprints one of my daughters left behind after heading to college. Inside the folder I found my paternal grandfather’s will and an accounting of his estate; a substantial, glossy photocopy of my father’s discharge papers; and a number of formal portraits.
There’s one of my father at age ten or eleven, and several of my aunt as a young woman: smiling broadly after her graduation from nursing school, and lining up against the façade of a stately brick building with three dozen other students all in white. In another, she’s clearly served as a maid of honor; post-ceremony, she stands beside her good friend, who wears cat-eye glasses and holds a cigarette in her free hand.
And then, there was an envelope: unaddressed, three inches by seven. Inside, an invitation to my grandparents’ wedding, a tiny card announcing my aunt’s birth, several miniscule newspaper clippings, and what is perhaps the last letter my grandmother, Elsie Buel, ever received, written by her mother, Ada Louise Tyre.
My dear Elsie,
Just a few lines, to tell you we arrived home all OK at 7 pm. Had a cup of tea at Alma’s, all the rest had ice cream, but me. I did not want any. Mrs. S staid all night with me. She was delighted with her trip or I should say visit; she thinks you are a wonderful hostess and housekeeper, I agree with her. You surely did it all up fine. Everybody was fine, and your dinner was fine! I thank you for all your kindness to us all.
I will think of the nice time when I am alone here in the eve. My thoughts will all be happy of all my visits with you all. I have been busy all day, went down town . . .in the morning then had a lot of work when I came home. My coat came at noon but I have packed it up to send back. We don’t like it, and they did not put the buttons and loops on. I don’t know where I will get one now. Maybe I will go to Asbury later on, after Mrs. S gets there. This pen will hardly write so guess I will have to hurry along. Well. Willetts forgot the bag with the bread so Alma had to stop in one place and get some rolls.
Now I hope John’s cold is better, and that you were none the worse for your work. We all think the kiddies were fine, and I was very proud of you all. Ada V. was a real little lady, and John too was very good. We talked about it going home in the car. Now I must send a few lines to Mame and Fanny but not tonight. I am too sleepy, take care don’t get any more cold, dress warm, the children too. I will send those things later.
Now will say good night
lots of love to all,
again thanking you
Excuse this scribbling
A two-cent stamp sent the letter -- posted Tuesday, October 28, 1930 -- on its way to my grandparent’s home in Wilmington, Delaware, from Toms River, New Jersey. Ada V. was my Aunt Ginny, and John is my father. Alma was Elise’s sister; the forgetful Willets was Alma’s husband, and Fanny and Mame were stepsisters.
Those undisclosed items promised to follow might have arrived, but were almost certainly not enjoyed or put to use. Elsie’s brief obituary, a mere 128 words, preserved on one of the yellowed clippings, says she died November 8th of a brain abscess, “which developed from an abscess of the ear, which started last Sunday.” She was 42 years old.
Elsie with Ada Virginia
Two more clippings were also enclosed in the delicate envelope. In one, a tiny inch of newsprint, a single line describes a bridal luncheon given by her future mother-in-law. In another only slightly larger, a concise report documents the couple’s “quiet wedding” on a Wednesday afternoon in April 1913 at Elsie’s parent’s home. The unattended bride wore a travelling suit of steel-colored French poplin with a matching hat, and carried white roses. Following an informal reception where Elsie received “a large number of beautiful gifts,” the newlyweds honeymooned in Atlantic City.
Time has left this little trove too fragile to handle repeatedly. The clippings are dry and crumbling as the wings of desiccated insects, and in just a few hours of examination, I’ve aggravated the envelope’s fraying fold. I’m grateful that in my zeal to clean, these misplaced treasures -- the wedding invitation from a century ago, the notices of what constitutes the public moments of our private lives, and that poignant letter – were not lost.
I knew of Elsie and her early death, of course, and have wondered what effect that might have had on my father, who was only six at her passing. As with all of our beloveds gone too soon, something of a mythology spins about and shapes the sorrow. I do know that the woman who eventually replaced her in the household lacked much of anything resembling human warmth. As a teenager, I found a photo of Elise seated in a wicker chair, and drew her portrait in pencil. Faded now, the eyes remain impossibly large and dark, her wrist slender as a child’s, as I captured without comprehending a perfected image of what was lost.
Of all the newly recovered items, it is the letter that stays with me most. I suppose my grandfather kept it and the envelope’s other contents safe among his personal papers. I find myself imagining what it might have meant to Elsie to receive such loving and appreciative thanks. Maybe too she needed the reassurance her mother gave her that indeed everything “was fine.”
As in the case of that simple sketch I crafted as a kid, whatever we read – novel, text, the unending stream of e-mail – we interpret in the context of our own pain and joy. It’s not possible for me to read that final letter without thinking about the last conversation with my own mother. She had become ill seven years ago this autumn. Usually, I’d see her during the day, but one evening, something told me to just run over.
I’d brought with me an album of photos of the kids, and I sat beside her hospital bed as we looked through it together. It was an exceptional evening, a few days before Christmas; after long weeks of suffering, she appeared free of both pain and care. Her smile was as bright and the smooth oval of her face as lovely as I’d ever known them to be. Though I had the privilege of being with her when she passed the next morning, it was the short hour we spent the evening before I hold most dear, when everything seemed, for want of a better word, fine.
I too will think of the nice time, as did Elsie’s mother, when I am alone here in the eve.
This column appears in the October 2013 issue of award-winning The North Star Monthly. Visit their site: THE NORTH STAR MONTHLY