Dust to Digital

The ancestors live on ...
The ancestors live on …

About a month ago, our middle son returned after a year of work/travel abroad. He’s an easygoing sort, as comfortable nestled in a sleeping bag in the highlands of New Zealand as he is on a ratty basement couch. A good thing this. While he was off with the Kiwis, I was feathering his old nest in vintage Attic style. Out with the bunk beds and Pink Floyd posters, in with the Colonial end table, the Empire rocking chair, the spool-turned, “three quarters” bed. Matt, who stands at just under six foot two, must stretch out diagonally to comfortably sleep. Moreover, he wakes each morning to see his great grandfather’s Dental License hanging on one wall and opposite, a series of ancient family crests, all of which I’ve been meaning to re-frame but well, haven’t. A squirt of Windex and a firm swipe and they’re (almost) mildew-free.

Matt (full name Mattingly Payne … see how that noble crest makes the room his own?) is a good sport about his Attic-inspired digs. (Does he have a choice as he deliberates his future while working three part-time jobs?) He’s such a good sport that he’s agreed to help out with The Attic Project, Phase Two (part-time job number four!). At long last I’ve begun to sort through the mangy boxes and bins I dragged last spring from my mother’s house to mine, and somehow I’m now a little less enamored with, for example, the non-functional travel iron, the stained taffeta trousseau dress, the broken down high chair and my old Easy Bake Oven.

My school lunch box, circa 1968. No reason to save this, right? Then again ...
My school lunch box, circa 1968. No reason to save this, right? Then again …
“Will not Heat.” Good to know, Mom!

What in the heck do I do with all this stuff? The temptation to heft it straight up to my own attic is strong. This has become my husband’s greatest wish. Never has he been so eager … I can carry those boxes on up for you. There’s plenty of room up there! I refuse him. I know myself too well. As long as these treasures remain close at hand, stacked and gathering dust in plain view, I will eventually make myself organize and properly store them. Once it’s all out of sight? No dice.

We begin with the letters. Hundreds of letters. Include the sundry Christmas/Valentine’s/Anniversary cards, and it’s a clean thousand. Cross my heart. Matt reminds me he’s a bit of an expert at archiving, having worked just out of college for a company called “Dust to Digital,” where he scanned and preserved papers and albums left behind by forgotten folk artists. Parfait! So I’ll take the old fashioned tasks and he’ll digitize. Armed with new acid-free, archivally-safe sleeves, I open out yellowed missive number one, June 1938, penned by my mother, still single, a 19 year-old Agnes Scott student, to my father, a recent Georgia Tech grad who’d taken a sales job with National Theatre Supply Company in Albany, NY. I slide the pages and their matching envelope into the sleeve, tag it by date, and move on. Only I don’t move on. I stop to read the letter. And the next one, and one more, and soon I realize Matt is scanning and documenting at a rate of about five to my one.

A small sampling of the notes, cards, letters saved.
A small sampling of the notes, cards, letters saved.

Ah, to be young and efficient again. But look here … after a summer and autumn of bi- or tri-monthly letters sometimes mundane but often flirtatious, my mother one January day pauses, mid-letter, to announce: “Ed, I feel that I must tell you something right now …” Uh-oh. “… Above all, a person must always be true to himself …” Mother! “What I’m trying to say is this–I am in love with someone in Florida. You told me last fall that I must tell you whenever I fell. Well, on New Years’ Eve I suddenly realized that it had happened to me. As you’ve probably guessed, it’s the dentist.”

The dentist?!? A love interest kind of dentist? I’m so intrigued I read the letter aloud, even the part where Sara begs Ed to remain her friend (!). “It would hurt me terribly if I thought you didn’t understand … You are one of the finest people I know. Don’t ever change your big ideals!” And she signs off not “Love,” as previously, but “Always, Sara.”

By now, my youngest has joined us in the kitchen … “That’s so weird Mom,” he says. “I know!” I say. “A Dear John letter!” “No …” he says. “I mean, the way they wrote back then. So weee-ird.” Well, yes. They used pen and paper. And full sentences! Punctuation even!! But I know what he means. There’s a strange and somehow innocent formality to my parents’ correspondence. It’s still there later, after my father–who wasn’t about to give up the fight–invites my mother to come up and visit the 1939 Worlds’ Fair. After much fretting that my grandfather couldn’t afford the train fare, she tagged along on a friend’s road trip. By this time, sweet Sara was sending Ed her love again and flirting right along. Two weeks after the Worlds’ Fair weekend, she writes, “This afternoon I was putting a few things in my scrapbook and what memories they brought back. Ed, it all seems like a dream now! Will you ever forget the Waldorf Astoria? The other night I listened to Guy Lombardo’s orchestra and pretended we were dancing together again …”

Letter my mother wrote the evening my father returned to Albany after their outing to the 1939 Worlds' Fair.
Letter my mother wrote the evening my father returned to Albany after their outing to the 1939 Worlds’ Fair.

A year and a half later, they were married (see Stardust Memories, Parts I and II, there in the sidebar, just a click away!). Today, November 8th, would have been their 74th anniversary. I look around at my house strewn with papers and odd souvenirs (and archival sleeves!) and decide, yeah, it’s worth it. Thanks to Matt, my brothers and sister, my nieces and nephews, my children and (yikes) grandchildren, will be able to enjoy this little slice of family history. Maybe they’ll think, “Hmmm. Weird.” But they might smile while they’re at it, the way I can’t stop doing myself.

Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad, no thanks to the Florida dentist!Fancy Joe and Pop

PS! You might notice I’ve tinkered with my blog’s layout. I may totally rework it soon … comments and suggestions welcome!


Scarecrows and Tin Men and Bears!
Scarecrows and Tin Men and Bears!

The Classics
Raggedy Ann, Tom Thumb, Snow White, and Bambi and boom, by the time I was four I’d met with little people, creepy dolls-come-to-life, a mother’s death and a princess.

Babes, Prayers and Kittens
Babes, Prayers and Kittens
My mother wasn’t what you’d call hands-on. When I was a kid, we didn’t spend afternoons together making macaroni necklaces or finger painting. Messy crafts in particular weren’t Mom’s thing (though I do remember a Zoom Loom). Later, I don’t think she ever pulled up a chair to help with homework. And SAT prep? Um, no. As for shooting hoops or kicking a soccer ball around the yard? We-e-lll, let’s just say she didn’t have the proper shoes, her thin-soled white Keds notwithstanding.

Emily Post, recipes from Old Dixie, a Party Encyclopedia ... the keys to homemaking success.
Emily Post, recipes from Old Dixie, a Party Encyclopedia … the keys to my mother’s homemaking success.
This is not to say she didn’t care. My mother cared a LOT. In fact, as the last of her six children, I was expected to fulfill her fading parental dreams. She wanted me to be the best damn finger painting-macaroni-necklace-making-zoom-looming basketball star in the state of Georgia, as long as she didn’t have to dribble a ball or risk soiling her blouse. There were exceptions. In matters of fashion, Mom led by example, taking me along to mall, boutique, discount house and fabric store alike. More importantly, she was into books, way into books. Before I could read on my own, she read to me (though not that often by today’s standards). The Little Engine that Could and Grimms do come to mind.

Books old and older.
Books old and older.

Attic reading
Attic reading

More, more, more!
More, more, more!
But mom was a reader herself, a devourer of print, and I became one, too. A case of successful parenting-by-trickle-down, I suppose. Books were omnipresent as I grew up, and my parents’ house remained stuffed full of them right up until the day Mom died. During last spring’s house purge, I saved cleaning them out for last. I didn’t really plan it that way, but I think as long as Mom’s books remained, I could feel her there with me too, her spirit tucked between the pages of everything from James Joyce to John LeCarré. We found books upstairs, downstairs, stacked on shelves, filling up secretaries, piled in tattered boxes under attic eaves, hidden under chairs and tables. There were hardcover and paperback; literary fiction and biographies, mysteries, and spy novels; first editions and worthless mass markets; cookbooks, travel guides, books on architecture and politics, Bibles (one dated 1827, from my Dad’s side of the family), and of course, Catholic How-to Manuals (wouldn’t Pope Francis be proud?). Among these were Birth Control for Catholics (rather brief, that one) and the Catholic’s Guide to Expectant Motherhood. There were so many books that finally, I ran out of time to decide if this one would go to the public library, or that one to Goodwill. Needless to say, lots came home with me. I suppose one day my sons and daughter will be forced to go through them all again, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

A little bit of everything
A little bit of everything

A crumpled stack tied in gold, Spenser's Faerie Queene among them. Mom's note reads, "Books my mother read in school. Salem, VA, 1910-1915."
A crumpled stack tied in gold, Spenser’s Faerie Queene among them. Mom’s note reads, “Books my mother read in school. Salem, VA, 1910-1915.”
I thought of Mom and her books the other day when a post popped up on my Facebook feed noting a drop in ebook sales as compared with print. Too, it seems studies keep showing that folks (even millenials!) like the feel and smell of a physical book. Well, after sorting through thousands of pages, some of them mildew-stained or harboring crumbled insect remains, I have to say I can see why.

And hold on a minute, here comes a memory … I did have finger paints! That smell! Sure, there was a box of them in the back of my closet, right under the Tiddly Winks. Alas, I believe that by the time my friend Diana and I finally dug out the jars and donned our own smocks, the paint had evaporated, leaving behind a crusty, pocked rainbow. But hey, we had books to spare. For a while, we even got into copying them, word for word, into spiral notebooks, though we kept that strange little game to ourselves. Today, Diana and I are both writers. And my sister is a journalist, one brother is an ad man/copy writer, another writes PR and speeches for Coca Cola. Hmm. 

Thanks, Mom. Really.

Mom's books now displayed in our downstairs hallway.
Some of Mom’s books now displayed in our downstairs hallway.

And more in the family room ...
And more in the family room …

Family Guy

My dad as clown, with my mother and my niece, Laura Lee, circa 1980.
My father as photo-bomber, with my mother and my niece “Labba Lee,” circa 1980.

Of the thousands of photographs and slides to survive the years of heat and dust in My Mother’s Attic, my favorites are those that feature my father as a young man. I wish there were more. I’ve never seen a likeness of Dad as a baby or a young child—inconceivable in this age of photo op overload. The shots I do have reveal a confidence and affability those who knew my father later might expect, but they also hint at a deep silliness that Ed Mattingly, successful man of business, reserved mostly for his family.

Consider his favorite means of waking me on high school mornings: As I lay curled in the last luscious moments of teenaged dreamland, he would poke me between the ribs and say the word, “asamunigots!” which really is not a word at all. Having rustled many a teenager out of bed in the years since, I do not recommend this method. It’s a wonder I didn’t haul off and slug him.

But “asamunigots”? What does that even mean? We never knew. I don’t think it occurred to my siblings and me that it meant anything at all. It was just one of those things Dad said, and did. The word never came without the poke, and the poke never without a funny flick of his wrist. We saw the flick and the long fingers and knew what was next, but there was no squirming out of his reach. My father was quick as greased lightning.

Dad, with paddle board, long before he became a dad. Circa 1935?
Dad on a bad swimsuit day, long before he became a dad. Circa 1935?
Cadet Mattingly, 4th row, left of center.
Cadet Mattingly, 4th row up, left of center.

Come to think of it, our young lives were peppered with Dad’s whimsical  wordplay. We vacationed each summer in the Smoky Mountains and sometimes, as we  walked together down a rutted back road, he’d stop short, a devilish grin on his face, and cry out, “Dahn-ge-ru Skip-awah!” I’d laugh and look up and there it would be–written in red across a chain link fence: “Dangerous. Keep Away.” Dad’s favorite summer drink had three syllables: “Ice-ed Tea,” Our fiftieth state was  “Ha-wa-yah,” a good seafood dinner “Shrimp-us,” and the topping he preferred on every dessert? “Whupp-ed cream.” My father favored nicknames, too. Whether you had one or not made no difference. He was glad to oblige. My nieces and nephews, my children, took on fresh personas for him–Laura Lee became Labba Lee, Liz, inexplicably, was Hootie, Sam, Sambo. Matthew was Mattu and the six-foot, four-inch tall grandson remained always Little Ed. Dad didn’t stop at family either. Fellow insurance agents became Buzz and Podner, and perhaps my personal favorite, he dubbed his old pal George, The Egghead Flash from Newnan, Flash for short.

As a young man, Dad had his nicknames, too--Matty, E.H., sometimes just plain
As a young man, Dad (at right) had his nicknames, too–Matty, E.H., sometimes just plain “H,” for his middle name, Hagen.

It’s funny, the things we remember about our childhoods, and the things we don’t. My father never said much about his upbringing. We knew only that unlike ours, his was motherless and unstable, filled with challenges, even tragedy. What details we did glean came mostly from cousins or aunts and uncles who stood helplessly by as Dad and his brother and sister were shuffled away from their troubled father and in and out of orphanages until they landed in the capable arms of my Great Aunt Louise. I’ve only just begun to read through some of the letters The Attic has coughed up from this period in my father’s life, but already I sense this much–The Twenties failed to roar for his family, and though its clear that loving people had an eye on him, there was little levity in his life.

Father of five, 1956
Father of five, 1956
My father lets his grandson Ben take the wheel, circa 1988.
Grandson Ben takes the wheel, circa 1988.

And yet, he ended up with this playful sense of humor, a knack for putting others at ease. My father had his faults. He liked things done a certain way–his way–and my brothers remember a quick disciplinary hand, but he was not a bitter man. His humor never became biting or sarcastic, and though he could be Mister Gloom when it came to foul weather or the failings of his sports’ teams, he believed deeply in humankind’s basic goodness and strength of will. We, meaning the inhabitants of God’s Green Earth, he believed, would persevere.

It mystifies me, why some folks emerge from dark backgrounds angry and resentful while others come out determined to leave the darkness behind. My father simply refused to look back. He loved his Swing music and his Broadway musicals and had no patience for stories with sad endings. Denial? Maybe, but as the patriarch of a sprawling and spirited family, it worked. Dad made us smile. He bucked us up. One of his most constant refrains, especially as he aged and had trouble coming up with the right turn of phrase, much less a clever one, was “Prouda you!”

Like any family, we have our issues, our rivalries and jealousies, our failures and broken places, but in the end, we offspring of Ed tend not to take ourselves too seriously. And this has had everything to do with keeping us close, even through the grief and cleaning out and divvying up we had to do after our mother’s death, stuff that can strain the bonds of even the most tight-knit families. Somehow my father managed to keep things light for eighty-nine strong years, and that made all the difference.

Father of the Bride!
Father of the Bride
Dad and his brood, June, 1993. Two grandchildren, my daughter and youngest son, were yet to come!
Dad’s brood, ’roundabout Fathers’ Day, 1993. Two grandchildren–my daughter and youngest son–and fourteen great-grandchildren (so far) were yet to come.

Mamma Mia

Mom avec my brother Tom et moi, Fernandina Beach, circa 1964
Mom avec my brother Tom et moi, Fernandina Beach, circa 1964.
Big splashy holidays like today sometimes still my fingers on the keyboard. Hard to come up with a single original thought at a time when the entire planet is striving to do the same. Besides, to adapt a bit of Lucy Van Pelt, we all know Mother’s Day is just another commercial racket, run by a big Eastern syndicate … In this happy vein, I happened upon a Facebook post yesterday that called for a moratorium on all things Mother’s Day. Think of the millions, it asserted, for whom this day brings heartache–those who have lost mothers, and grandmothers, those who have toxic mother-child relationships, those mothers who have lost children and those women who want to be mothers and were never given the chance, for whatever reason.

The post gave me pause. Who am I to share photos and tell stories that might bring pain to so many? Then I thought, hang on a minute, I’m one of them! I’m motherless on this day for the first time, I’ve been grandmother-less for thirty years, and ironically, today is the last day our family calls the house my parents designed and built, the house where I grew up–my mother-home, so to speak–our own. Yes, My Mother’s Attic has disgorged her last mournful scraps. She’s been emptied out and swept clean. Tomorrow, a new family will sign on the dotted line and before long, some other mother, a box of dusty souvenirs in her arms, will bash her shin as she climbs the old girl’s steep wooden stairs. I can hear her cursing under her breath now.

Mother's Day morning, 9 AM delivery from my girl.
Mother’s Day morning, 9 AM delivery from my girl.
I admit I’ve felt pretty wistful the past few days, though really, I can’t complain. I have four healthy children who like me well enough (most days) and all of them called. The youngest even joined us for lunch and my daughter ordered up a vase of roses and lilies from her room at the sorority house. It was delivered at nine am by, who else? A mother! We wished each other well and she didn’t seem the least bit upset to be doing a good turn for another mother lucky enough to be lounging in her pajamas while she made her rounds.

I saw a lot of women my age out today, their living mothers bedecked with corsages and leaning on their arms for support. Funny thing is, they made me feel better. Sure,  when I scroll through the hundreds of tributes posted from sons to mothers and mothers to daughters, every dog, cat and fish to its surrogate mom, I get a little twinge, but I keep at it. Mostly, I smile. Turns out we’re a social species, one that thrives on emotion. Being alive often hurts but maybe in the long run, we do well to open ourselves up to the whole messy shebang–the happy thoughts, the teary memories, the moments of deep gratitude and the ones we can’t help but resent, whether that resentment involves those who have what we don’t, or our very mothers themselves. Maybe it boils down to the obvious: If you’re on this Earth, whether old or young, you have or had a mother, and God knows it doesn’t take long to develop some mixed feelings towards that woman who made you eat Brussels sprouts and called you Sweetie in the school hallway. But even if she did it poorly sometimes, she did what no one else could. She gave you your one particular life.

My grandmother, a cheerful and briskly efficient woman, pictured with my grandfather and my mother at about a year old.
My grandmother Bernice Agnew Lee, a cheerful and briskly efficient woman whom I adored, pictured with my grandfather and my mother at about a year old, circa 1920.

Hope you enjoy these photos of my mother and my two grandmothers, all wearing their Mamma hats (or in Mom’s case, scarf and curlers, like any good mother would, on the beach, in the ’60s.) Happy Mother’s Day everyone, and cheers to you, Mom. I owe you the world.

Generational pic, with handbag :) More importantly, with a true smile from Mom. May 2010.
Generational pic, with handbag 🙂 More importantly, with a true smile from Mom. May 2010.

Wooly Bully

Skeins from Mom's knitting phase, which apparently was short-lived. (See below for half-finished product). But you gotta love that wool! Receipt dated Feb. 2, 1957.
Skeins from Mom’s knitting phase, which apparently was short-lived. (See right for half-finished product). But you gotta love that wool! Receipt dated Feb. 2, 1957.
The sweater that wasn't
The sweater that wasn’t

I have a natural aversion to wool. It’s itchy, it smells when wet (or old—boy does it), and worst of all, you wear it in winter. Ah winter … long cold nights, mold and dust, dry coughs, cracked skin … (Is my Seasonal Affective Disorder showing?) It’s not all bad, you’re thinking, and sure, I love a good crackling fire, a little hot cocoa, silver bells and the occasional boule de niege, but with sincere apologies to all the knitters, Pendleton execs, and fat furry Merinos out there, wool gives me the willies.

My mother, on the other hand, was a great fan of Cotswold and English Leicester alike, a lover of gabardine, houndstooth, tweed in all its many manifestations, a veritable wool-monger, she was. I clued in early on, during a jaunt through the British Isles when I was all of ten, to my mother’s respect for—nay love affair with—wool. In every village north of Liverpool, she scoped out the corner shop with the fisherman’s sweater in the window and the rafters draped with tartan plaids. “Turn in here!” she would cry, and my father, every joule of energy dedicated to keeping the rental car left of the centerline, would pull over with a sigh. Inside, I found I stood just about bolt-height, which is to say, no air. I breathed in wool, left and right. My eyes watered and the hairs on my neck stood on end. I scratched and wiped my nose while my mother the seamstress swooned over a length of wool crepe, imagining it as a pleated skirt, or coveted a bit of McKenzie green, dreaming the smart blazer she might wear to a ladies’ lunch back home.

Wool dreams
Wool dreams
Making do with remnants
Making do with remnants

She simply couldn’t resist. She bought meter after yard, reams of the stuff, not only from the Scottish and Irish shopkeepers she quickly befriended but back home, from Atlanta stores like Hancock’s, Davison’s fabric department, later Sew Magnifique, and a place called Penney’s (or was it Penny’s?) that once sat deep in the heart of Buckhead. I liked our Saturday morning visits to Penny’s. It was open and well-lit and I was able to hide happily among the silks, to breathe in the cleaner scent of the cottons while Mom sorted through her jersey knits and herringbones.

Sweater in Kelly Green, proudly purchased in Scotland, and don't you forget it, my mother seemed to say when she pinned on the errant tag for posterity.
Sweater in Kelly Green, proudly purchased in Scotland, and don’t you forget it, my mother seemed to say when she pinned on the errant tag for posterity.

When my parents added on a family room in the mid-seventies, I guess it was only natural for my mother to have a cedar closet built into the attic space above it. Now, after having spent the last week sorting through the closet’s contents, I wonder if the family room wasn’t an excuse for that cedar closet, which is a shrine really, a temple consecrated to mom’s wooly obsession. (And I’m here to tell you the cedar is a miracle tree. Fifty plus years of fabric and moth-holes only in the single-digits.)

The closet
The closet

Sample Contents: (values approximate; wool, unless otherwise indicated) 79 skirts, mostly tea-length, some to-the-knee or maxi, 2/3 home-sewn. 37 suits (skirt and jacket, the occasional wool shell), a few Jaeger, some Chanel, more St. John’s Knits, and again, the better part home-sewn. 29 overcoats, a couple men’s styles included. 16 pair of slacks (though a closet-ahem-feminist, Mom fought the ’60s fashion overhaul to the end). 41 silk blouses (mais oui, moths eat silk for dessert), and countless–seriously, to count them would exhaust even Ebenezer Scrooge–wool remnants zipped or tied into plastic bags. These include strips and squares leftover from finished outfits, swatches brought home to be mulled over, and stacks of uncut wool, some of them color coordinated, others with notes attached that indicate Mom’s master plan. Good black flannel, she might write. Pants for Marth?–that sort of thing.

Slacks? She made them, but hardly wore them.
Slacks? She made them, but hardly wore them.
The blue collection.
The blue collection.
Some of Mom's finery …
Some of Mom’s finery …

As we sorted through all this (Save for Family Distribution? Give to Goodwill? Toss in Trash?), we made sure to check pockets for forgotten treasures. Hoping for jewelry or hundred dollar bills, we found instead (see below) dozens of balled up tissues, emery boards, chalk (?), a toothbrush (??), and several notes-to-self. But we also discovered a startling number of unfinished projects, skirts and suits Mom began and stored away, thinking she’d get back to them. She was also a fan of the Re-Do. The closet thus coughed up many store-bought items with rent seams or dismantled collars, designer outfits my mother with her tailor’s eye just knew she could improve upon, if only she had world enough and time.

Pocket treasures?
Pocket treasures?

These unfinished pieces sadden me. I think of Mom’s last years, years filled with the stasis of the very elderly. She sat mostly, in her favorite chair in that added-on family room she came to love. She read, until her eyes went. She watched television, until her short term memory went, and along with it, her ability to logically follow a storyline, while just above her head in their cedar shrine these half-baked dresses, these cut-outs with their filmy patterns attached, awaited her expert hand. Too, I can’t help but think of my file cabinets, their drawers stuffed with poems I began then abandoned, stories, even a novel, compulsively revised but never published. I guess I’m not so different from my mother after all. And maybe it’s the process that sustains us, the joy of creating. Though we can never finish all that we start, we can sure go down trying.

Unfinished business.
Unfinished business.
And another.
And another.

My youngest son, 16, is lucky enough to be part of his high school theatre department and this year, I’ve served (sometimes kicking and screaming) as the Props Mom. As such, I work alongside the Costume Mom, whose job is gargantuan. It hit me mid-week that I should start her a stack from the Cedar Closet, and I’m happy to report she accepted every skirt and overcoat and dress I brought in. In fact, one of the leading ladies in the next production (set in the 1930s) has decided to wear one of Mom’s old ball gowns in the final scene. It’s a china blue taffeta with a tastefully plunging neck line, and a perfect fit. I think Mom would love the way she wears it.

Odds and Ends Revisited, en papier

My papers and memorabilia from Live Oak cedar chest, wrote my mother. Here, the Adventures of Little Jack (o'lantern, presumably)
“My papers and memorabilia from Live Oak cedar chest,” wrote my mother. Here, the Adventures of Little Jack (o’lantern, presumably)
I like Florida oranges … Sept. 28, 1926
I like Florida oranges … Sept. 28, 1926

Today, a hodgepodge from the Attic because for one thing, I like the way the word rolls off the tongue. Hodge-Podge. It’s perfectly acceptable to hyphenate it by the way, and even its synonyms bring a viva voce sort of pleasure: mishmash, muddle, pastiche. Pastiche! A phonological wonder, that one, and wow, phonological! How’s that for a phun stream of sound? (A thousand thanks to my Word thesaurus on this phine Sunday.)

My mother loved words, as the contents of her attic fully reveal. (And I’m not talking about books. Yet.) Here under the eaves, boxes of travelogues and perhaps every brochure she ever picked up in a museum, cathedral, or botanical garden. There on a sagging plywood shelf, a tupperware bin exploding with preschool drawings and early elementary worksheets (some of them my mother herself completed, in the mid-1920s). Beneath a basket of crumbling dried flowers, a muddle within a mishmash–pages and pages of newspaper and magazine clippings stuffed into grocery bags, zip locks, manila envelopes, and in bits and pieces scattered about, all manner of perfectly useless print: stacks of old bank statements, acceptance cards from wedding guests–my sister’s and mine–and calendars dating back to the ’70s, some with reminders scribbled in the boxes (slightly interesting!), but far too many blank (decidedly not interesting). And of course letters–decades, almost a century’s worth of letters.

Keeping track of time
Keeping track of time
Saved from the AJC's book section
Saved from the AJC’s book section
And another …
And another …

One day, I’ll organize it, right? Catalogue it all, create a paper trail that will lead us back to Mom whenever we miss her most. Perhaps, I will. I hope I will, though at the moment, my sisters-in-law and I can only chuckle and curse under our breaths as we debate whether the city recycling folks will take the calendars with those little metal spirals attached, and the bank statements with those pesky plastic view windows. (Hey, we can’t save everything.)

So what’s it all about? Why was it my mother couldn’t bear to throw any of it away? Had it been up to my father (alias Mr. Clean) we’d have nothing but the signed photo of Georgia Tech’s Coach Bobby Dodd and the ticket stub from a Glen Miller Dance concert. It’s hard to say why. In part, surely the Depression’s to blame. They lost so much, those Depression kids, not only during the economic doldrums but just after, during World War II. Maybe my mother could never shake the feeling that if you had something you liked, for whatever wacky reason, you’d better hang on to it lest you lose that, too. Did she live too much in the past? Probably. I mean what forward-thinking soul would save a Christmas card her milkman in 1962 tucked into her tin milk box one frosty December morn?

Greetings from your Milkman, circa 1962
Greetings from your Milkman, circa 1962

Still, I believe my mother’s tendency to hoard, to cling to these papery keepsakes that may seem meaningless to us, is more a sign of hope than anything else. I’ve alluded to this before, and maybe I repeat it because I’m more than a little like Mom this way. Sometimes, to toss small treasures away–maybe that program from my daughter’s last gymnastics’ meet, or this boarding pass from the trip we took to see a few shows on Broadway with our youngest son–takes every ounce of willpower I can muster. It is about hope, about embracing the past, yes, but also looking to the future, anticipating the day I’ll pull out that boarding pass and think, that was a good trip, a good time, let’s plan another right away. For tomorrow will be good, too.

The note my mother wrote to inform my grandfather that she was pregnant yet again, for the fifth time in eight years.
The note my mother wrote to inform my grandfather that she was pregnant yet again, for the fifth time in eight years.
And the sweet conclusion …

And if I’m not here to revisit the pleasure this slip of paper or that postcard brought, maybe one of my sons will be, or my daughter. Yes, maybe my daughter will pick up something that was mine and feel the warm rush of shared emotion I get when I read the letter, pictured here, that my mother penned to my grandfather (how did it make its way back to her? Via my Grandmother’s Attic, of course).

“We are having our fifth baby in October,” Mom wrote, just after she discovered she was pregnant with her youngest son, my brother Tom. “Bum (her sister, also pregnant) told me this was her year, but I had to have one, too … Love, Sary.”

There’s always tomorrow, these words, and the whole darn pastiche of them, seem to say, and I like to think it’s true.

Whistling Warden

Rosie the Riveter ain't got nothing on this chick.
Rosie the Riveter got nothing on this chick.

For days I’ve been stuck in my parents’ post-Pearl Harbor correspondence, adrift in an age shrouded in confusion and fear. Maybe this is what it means to be a time traveler—not whisking back and forth in a souped-up DeLorian (though that would be more fun, and cleaner), but suspended outside of time, one foot in this world and the other elsewhere. It’s a little like visiting a live Nativity, or a battle reenactment, only more heart-stopping. Just when you begin to lose yourself, to be swept into the dream, someone steps onto the stage cloaked in a persona you half-recognize, and Mon Dieu, it’s the person who raised you.

My father’s WWII ID card, December, 1944. He’d jumped from Private to 2nd Lieutenant by then. Pretty sure mom was a career Air Warden, and glad of it.

Here, a photo of a young man who looks familiar (if you dressed him in tee shirt and ball cap, he could be one of my sons), and wow, it’s my father. There, a crumpled ID card. I examine the signature and discover that within half a year of her breezy, flower-strewn nuptials, my mother traded out her veil of ivory tulle for an Air Raid Warden’s helmet.

An Air Raid Warden? This is nigh on impossible. My mother, the belle of the ball, outfitted in khaki, with a whistle around her neck and a gas mask cinched to her belt? Glory be! I’ll have to ask her about this, I think, forgetting for a moment that she’s no longer in a position to answer. This happens often here in the attic. We find something that piques our interest (the egg carton stored in plastic, the vodka in a mayonnaise jar, my father’s silk “honeymoon pajamas”?!?), and my heart tilts down the stairs to the den, where Mom ought to be perched in her favorite chair, enjoying her meatloaf and Chardonnay.

Vodka and Harvey's Scotch, labelled so by my father, who did not drink.
Vodka, and Harvey’s Scotch, labelled so by my father, who did not drink.
"Ed's White Honeymoon PJ's," presumably never to be worn again
“Ed’s White Honeymoon PJ’s,” presumably never to be worn again

If only we’d started this cleaning out business while she was still with us, you might say. If only, but alas, my mother wouldn’t have it. The very suggestion could bring her to tears. It was all my sister could do to toss the soured milk from the fridge during visits home.

You must know the people in your Sector well … reads the Handbook for Air Raid Wardens. To them, you are the embodiment of all Civilian Defense. You must seek to gain their confidence so that in any time of stress you may more easily reassure them and avert panic 

Uh, oh. Mom was a worry-wart, and somewhat prone to panic.

On patrol, your first duty is to clear the streets. People should be told to go to their homes. You must see that drivers park their automobiles at curbs and in such a manner as to leave a passage for fire engines and ambulances. Horses should be taken out of the shafts and tied to a lamp post 

Horses in shafts? In the streets of Atlanta, in 1942?

When the warning sounds after dark, the blackout will be enforced. You will warn householders of any light showing and if it is not at once turned out or covered, report the fact to the nearest policeman. 

This is so not my mother! She was well-liked, yes, charmer of bus driver and boss man alike, but she could order a dog to steal a bone and it would run the other way. And at five foot two and 104 pounds, could she be expected to direct traffic, and corral large animals? In disbelief, I dig around some more and there, in a stack of envelopes held together with a limp rubber band, is a pertinent letter penned by my father in Atlanta, who had yet to receive his orders, to my mother, in Florida at a friend’s wedding.

Dear Sweetie, I’ve just come from my warden’s meeting. My work as a warden is just beginning to interest me. Possibly it’s because I’m at last seeing the light–up until now I’ve had a very poor understanding of this war and our role in it. Perhaps in a few weeks I’ll begin to know what I’m supposed to do, but for now I’m sure of one thing–I’ve got to have an alternate warden, and there is only one person in this world I want as that alternate! 

Dad went on to point out my mother’s sweetness, reliability and strength of character. He was a persuasive guy, and sly like a fox, to coin one of his favorite clichés. I’ve found no evidence of my mother’s response, but the ID card is authentic, and dated June 1942, the same month as Dad’s letter. In fact, it’s dated before the postmark on the letter. I believe my father presumed, as he was wont to do. I imagine Mom didn’t much like that. I feel for her. The ink on their marriage license was hardly dry, their first apartment still lacking curtains–who knew what would be asked of them next? Many of her friends’ husbands had been shipped off. My uncle was about to be deployed to France.

I’m sure Mom bucked up. I bet she kept those khakis starched stiff, and her whistle polished to a sheen.


Stardust Memories

My father in his Army Dress, circa 1943

Meet my father–orphan, teetotaler, puller-up of bootstraps. WWII Veteran, Laundromat owner, Roman Catholic, one-eyed tennis ace. Successful man of business, devotee of Big Band music, swing dancer, and apparently, a closet romantic.

With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, it seemed high time I opened a few of the hundreds of letters we’ve found stashed willy-nilly in rotting cardboard under the attic eaves. There’s quite an array–notes from my grandparents to my mother, my mother to my aunt, my father to his aunt, my sister to my mother and my brothers and me and vice versa, my best friends to me and my cousin to my mother and back to their father. Then, take all these fine folks and shuffle them in whatever permutation you like, and I’d bet a crisp dollar my mother’s attic houses some sort of missive between them. It’s overwhelming, the reams of yellowed paper and the lines and lines of grimy print, overwhelming and dear and on some other day, I’ll fret over how sad it is to think our grandchildren won’t even know what they’re missing. Or will they? Maybe they’ll get a hankering to jet through cyberspace in search of our late children’s texts and Instagrams. At least their hands will stay dust-free, carpal-tunnel notwithstanding.

My Parents' Wartime Correspondence
My Parents’ Wartime Correspondence
May 15, 1940, from the Hotel General Forrest in Rome, GA, to Agnes Scott College
May 15, 1940, from the Hotel General Forrest in Rome, GA, to my mother at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta

Where was I? Looking for love, actually, and for better or worse, I found it. It’s a little strange, in a mostly good way, to discover the people our parents were before we existed. For me as the youngest of six, born when my father was 46 and my mother 41, reading letters they exchanged in their twenties is a little dizzying. By the time I grew old enough to consider them a couple, my parents seemed like genial companions, loving with us and caring with each other but never showy. No PDA in our house! My sister, their first-born, confirms that though devoted to each other, they were reserved even in their youth. So imagine my surprise to read this letter my father penned six weeks before his wedding day, from The Eagle Hotel in Concord, New Hampshire, where he was on business with the Coca Cola Company–

In case you didn’t know–I’m in love with you, Young Lady! There’s something in my heart that keeps saying, Sara, Sara! I want to have you as my own, to make you happy, to love you the rest of my days! That voice rules me. I’m helpless under its spell–and terribly happy in being so!

Dad had a rough childhood. He lost his mother at four to the 1918 flu epidemic. His father, a sweet man when sober but mean when not (which was all too often) wasn’t up to raising three kids. Dad’s baby sister was sent to a convent, my father and his older brother to an orphanage, until the day his spinster aunt stepped in to adopt them, making do on her secretarial salary even through the Depression years, which hit, and hard, when Dad was a teenager. Yet somehow, my father emerged level-headed, steady as she goes, bound and determined to build his American dream, along with the stable family he never had.

But gushing with love?!? No, not him! And yet …

October 4th, 1941, five weeks shy of the wedding, from the Stratfield Hotel in Bridgeport, Connecticut–

I can see myself racing to catch the train. Everyone will wonder why I appear so excited. They would be, too, if they were going home to make final arrangements for marrying the loveliest, the sweetest, the grandest, the most wonderful girl in the world! (Pardon my exuberance–you see, I’m in love!). My mind will be glued on one thing–you–on the vision of your face, the sound of your voice, as you whisper in my ear that you love me! When I drive in at 207 Helvenston Street, you had better watch me! I’ll be so happy at seeing you I might sweep you in my arms and kiss you right there in broad daylight!

In seventeen four-page letters over the course of six weeks, often two in one day, my father thus expounded, with great urgency, on the attributes of true love (the fruits of life-long cooperation, finding the path to true happiness in each other …) My mother, oldest daughter of a small-town dentist, was home with her parents in north Florida, busy planning their big day. He addressed her as her My Sweetie and My Dearest and Bright Eyes (that one stuck), and he signed off as Matty, or Your Own Devoted, Ed. My mother answered, in more practical and compact prose, by confirming her devotion then moving quickly to the details of the ceremony. In fact, there’s an anxiety between the lines in these letters, one that had to do mostly with religion.

My mother was raised Southern Baptist, my father, Catholic. They met at a fraternity dance in Atlanta, Mom a freshman at Agnes Scott when Dad was a junior at Georgia Tech (he worked for three “gap” years to pay his way). My mother loved the city and the social life. She dated lots of boys, and danced with even more, but my father was the smartest of them all. “I knew I’d never be bored with him,” she used to say.

One of Mom's Dance Cards, April 8, 1938
One of Mom’s Dance Cards, April 8, 1938
And the line-up … Frank seemed a bit smitten. She kept a few of his letters, too.
And the line-up … This Frank was a bit smitten. She kept a few of his letters, too.

Though my Baptist grandparents liked my father, they didn’t cotton to Protestant and Catholic commingling. They would eventually come around, but thornier problems arose. There was no Catholic Church for miles. This was the Bible Belt. An itinerant Catholic priest made his rounds through town maybe once a month, but he was less than dependable and say they could get him there–where was there? Would they marry in the high school auditorium? The courthouse? The local 4H? Or maybe outdoors? The wedding date was set for November 8th, the announcements ordered, but this was north Florida. You couldn’t trust the weather.

My father, who loved little better than a clear blue day, wasn’t worried.

November 1st, 1941, from his aunt’s apartment in Atlanta—It looks like I was a bit off in my prediction about the full moon. Tonight, old man moon is almost full. He will have grown to his full size by Wednesday night, but he will still be pretty Saturday night, even if he does get up later. More important than the moon is the weather in general! We can very well sacrifice the moon for two beautiful days Friday and Saturday!

Well, like my father and his moon, I’ve waxed on far too long today. I mean, you know the ending, right? So go take a spin around the dance floor this Valentine’s Day Eve, and feel free to tune in tomorrow to learn how ol’ Matty manages to win his best girl.

Sara Lee and her gaggle of guys
And with a gaggle of guys, all not my father
Mom on the right, beaming up at a chap named Billy Paxton
Dad with someone not my mother!
Dad holding his own

Odds and Ends, Mostly Odds

Egg carton top, saved in paper sack labelled “Nice picture.”

I’m headed back to the attic today. It’s a steep ascent, one it’s hard to imagine my parents having climbed at all as they aged, much less bearing the swollen boxes they toted up over the years. But tote they did, well into their 80s, sometimes making it only as far as the dusty bank of shelves that runs alongside the staircase. The stuff of these shelves represents a variety of eras, and is often laughable (see egg carton remains). In fact, I can hear mom now, kicking back with her fresh copy of To the Lighthouse (Woolf was a particular favorite) and chuckling at our labors. It is Our, by the way. We’re a small village up here. Otherwise, this project would be endless, so here’s a shout-out to my sister and sisters-in-law, my daughter and nieces. We get by with a little help from our friends, and along the way we laugh, a lot.

Swim cap
Swim cap
"Travel Cosmetics"
“Travel Cosmetics”

So put away the tissues and come on over to the lighter side, the pack-rattier side, where my mother reveals her true hoarding colors, and proud of ’em. At left, Exhibit One: A swim cap. My mother liked to swim, sort of. At low tide, she was wont to pull on such a cap to wade knee-deep into the sunny Atlantic as my father floated just beyond. Now and then, she took a few free-style passes through the gentle waves, but the last time I witnessed her taking her lady-like dip was in the early 1990s. Yet here we have a nearly new cap, tucked in its original Jantzen bag, along with the receipt (from Atlanta Beach?!?) because who knows when one might be inspired to fetch down such a treasure for return. It might have gained value!

Above right, Exhibit Two: A cardboard pear crate, its compartments jammed with miniature toiletries pilfered from any number of hotels and motels around the globe, their lotions and shampoos gone stiff and gummy with age. Taped on the lid is a note that reads “Travel Cosmetics” in my mother’s neat cursive. Oh how she loved to travel, and were she still doing so today, she’d have no trouble getting her carry-on through security.

The lady preferred Hanes
The lady preferred Hanes

Final Exhibit (for today) and perhaps my favorite: Stacks and stacks of old catalogues–Calico Curtains, Pierre Deux (ooo, la, la), and Hanes’ Underwear. Did my mother prefer Hanes? The jury is out. Certainly Maidenform bras, generic girdles and flannel PJs populated her lingerie drawers, but these were jumbled drawers. A Hanes’ cami could very well have been in there somewhere.

Well, I’ve developed a case of the sneezes and the recycle bin is full. The Christmas card collection will have to wait. I’ll leave you with one last gem–the program from one of my brother’s Pop Warner football tournaments (in 1954!). With four boys in the house, there were lots of sports being played. Mom wasn’t much of a fan, but it seems she was paying attention after all, and keeping up best she could.

Go Team!
Go Team!

Of Ghosts and Goldfish

IMG_2757Before I leave the sewing room (fully reserving the right to return), a word about ghosts. I don’t much believe in them, but I’ve come to expect them nevertheless. This is a contradiction I can live with, and nowhere do I experience it more than among the stuff of my mother’s creative passion. Maybe it’s the dusty Butterick patterns stuffed into drawers, or the wooly smell of the moth-eaten skirts in the closet, or the sweet droop of the faded curtains that hang over the table where Mom used to spin her magic, whether finishing up her mother-of-the-groom dress within hours of the rehearsal dinner, or whipping in a final buttonhole on an outfit for me in the wee hours of Christmas morning. But somehow I, a non-believer, can feel my mother standing beside me, looking over my shoulder, ready to cry foul when I dump her treasures into my industrial-strength trash bag.

“But Mother—it’s a mess in here. Look at the dust bunnies around the rusted bobbins that are balanced over the old tailor’s ham that’s perched on those remnant boxes … under the bed!”

“We-e-l-l-l, Marth. I’ll think about that—tomorrow,” says my mother-spirit. “Ok then, Scarlet,” she adds with an ironic roll of her Vivienne Leigh eyes. A smart, self-mocking specter, she’s proud to have snatched up the Gone With the Wind reference before I could pounce. IMG_0621

Mom seems happy in this hybrid room, as she always was before, and she’s got company. There in the corner are my miniature pet turtles, dripping with salmonella. Their soft bellies bared, they teeter on tiny green feet and scratch at their plexi-glass prison, just as they did in life. And over here, on the table beside the bed, Oscar the goldfish—who like all domestic carp, got his death sentence the minute I dumped him out of his bloated plastic bag—swishes about unawares in water no one warned me to de-chlorinate. Best of all, my gal pals sit crisscross-applesauce on my pink gingham bedspread, fans of Crazy Eight cards in hand and boxes of Red Hots in their laps. It’s way past our bedtime. I can tell from their soft giggles and the still darkness at the window.

I feel better now. Once I’m done ditching yards of mildewed swatches and sorting all the buttons for Goodwill, I’ll be okay to leave this room behind. It’s a good cozy place. Maybe some young couple will recognize that it would make a perfect nursery. A changing table would be nice under the window, and a bassinette could fit beside the closet that leads to the master. But they needn’t bother with a music box. The tap of a shadowy foot on a pedal, the snip-snip of threads, the phantom whirr of a Singer engine going full steam–these were my lullaby, and I slept like a baby.

Vivienne … See what I mean?
Vivienne Leigh, alias Scarlet O’Hara
Vivienne–See what I mean?