The other day I opened a plastic bin filled with my mother’s personal things. When emptying her apartment months ago, I had stuffed into them files and papers and notebooks and photographs and more notepapers from drawers in her desk and nightstand and metal files. I then covered the bins with their tight lids as if to preserve her life, in a state just as I had known her.
But it wasn’t until I had released the lid of one particular bin, did I learn of her what I hadn’t known—from the things she kept.
There were envelopes of faded black and white photos, a young twenty-something smiling and laughing. The places she’d been and the fun she’d had . . . I didn’t know of this. There was an address book, and a small plump one of yellow-tinged white leather embossed in gold with her initials, containing 365 pages, one page for each day of the year where birthdays of family and friends were marked. I thumbed through the pages and noted how most of these people were no longer living. Perhaps this one she kept to hold close the people in her life and their places in it—a longing to remain connected. There were small flowery notepads of dates and leftover to-do’s, blank note-card stock for birthdays and especially religious ones—a diligence in note-sending for any occasion I hadn’t realized.
And then there was a small black notebook. Pages in red ink chronicling her days starting sometime during the pandemic when isolation allowed her no visitors. I noted her detailed diary-like entries of health concerns where the what and when and how and maybe why were annotated just like any good reporter would write. Just the facts. Perhaps this documentation was her way of coping with what was happening in the world, and with her failing health. It read like she was losing control. I thought she was doing okay.
I thought about how the things we keep can tell a lot about ourselves. Diaries and journals bear witness to our emotional states and private thoughts, and calendars make public our busy connections with others. How busy our minds are with fleeting thoughts that shift from one notebook to another as we leave pages of one unfinished and another to be continued.
How the photos and books we keep are testaments to deeper selves with pictures and with words.
With each grab of an envelope or folder or notebook, paper in varying sizes escaped, slipping in separation of their confinement. As I grabbed each one and looked closely, I saw poems on these pages.
“You’re a friend who passes/Every warm and heartfelt test/For being there and being true . . .” begins Bruce Wilmer’s “My Best Friend”, roughly photocopied. In “Dandelion Summer” by Lisa Wingate, “We do not live in this world at random, bodies drifting through empty space, forming and colliding by mere chance . . .” One from Harriet Beecher Stowe on small note paper with a stem of pink roses running alongside, “The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone.” A photocopy of “Footprints in the Sand” begins, “One night I had a dream. I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord, and across the sky flashed scenes from my life,” and ends with “it was then that I carried you.”
And then there was the last page, handwritten with no author attribution, that began, “Remember me when I am gone away. . .”
I had never known my mother to reference poetry of any kind as poetry is so literary as to express ideas and emotions through sounds and rhythm. Yes, she maybe could recite a good line from Olivia de Havilland in Tender Is The Night, perhaps this being poetry to her, but I didn’t think my mother got into much of a poem’s meaning. I didn’t think poetry was her thing.
I saw each poem as a layer of understanding and a new story about my mother I had never read before—the importance of best friends to her, her life in this world and her connection to others, death and legacy, her connection with God. Perhaps she did understand each poem’s meaning.
I thought about how the things we keep uncomplicates the meaning of ourselves beyond mere recordings of our lives, but in illustration of it.
Reflected in errant pages of poetry that we keep.