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From Issue #55 November 6, 2014

Brittle Memories

A well-traveled set of bedroom furniture yields an invaluable secret a half-century old.

By Jessica L.H. Doyle Twitter icon 

“So, did you want your bedroom furniture?” my father asked. This was last summer, when he was in the process of cleaning out the house in which he and my mother had lived for the previous 18 years, before her death in March.

We had already been through the basement, rescuing video cassettes of family vacations and debating what to do with computer games on 5.25-inch floppy disks. At one point, I held up a paperweight in the shape of the state of Kentucky with a mix of question and confusion on my face. He stared at it for a moment, then smiled: “That was from the first case your mother worked on.”

My mother was a lawyer; my mother was a collector who never threw anything out if she could help it. As I was clearing out her belongings with my father, this sometimes made me laugh, like when I found clothes in her closet with 20-year-old dry-cleaning tags still on. Sometimes I had to duck my head so that he wouldn’t see me crying, such as when I opened a random folder and found the receipt from the hotel where they spent their honeymoon.

But I didn’t expect to find anything interesting in the child-sized desk, dresser, and bookshelves my father was talking about. I had always vaguely known that it had been my mother’s bedroom furniture before it was mine, just because of how upset she’d been when I once took crayons to the inside of the desk drawer.

She wasn’t usually one for reminiscing, though. She didn’t tell me about the dolls she must have stored in the drawers or the homework she did at the desk. As a kid I had the assumption that my parents didn’t truly exist before I was born, and long after I’d grown I kept complacently thinking of the furniture as just mine.

And because it had been mine, and because my older daughter was almost old enough to start getting homework of her own, I said, “Sure.”

After the furniture arrived in my daughter’s room I took lemon oil to it — probably the first time in all the years of it being “mine” I had seen fit to clean it. I screwed the loose knobs tightly back on. I slid the drawers out to be able to get rid of decades’ worth of accumulated dust. And when I pulled one small drawer out and reached back, I felt the crackle of old paper. There were three sheets in total. They came easily when I pulled, despite their fragility. I had to stare at them for a moment before I understood.

John John long gone

She was a collector; her mother, less so. At some point — possibly when my grandparents retired and moved from White Plains, New York, to Florida, possibly before — my grandmother threw out most of the knickknacks and toys her grown children had left behind. My uncle still reminisces about his lost baseball-card collection and its showcase Mickey Mantle, and my mother would sometimes wistfully describe her Kennedy papers.

She wasn’t yet a collector, but she was 10 years old when JFK became president and 13 when he was shot. In the interim she saved newspaper articles, wire photos, maybe even small souvenirs like coloring books. After the assassination she assiduously kept a scrapbook of newspaper coverage. And all of it had been tossed.

Except.

The three pieces of paper that had somehow fallen behind the drawer, and then remained there for 50 years and five moves over three states; and how many times had I opened and closed that drawer? How many times had she? They were a Life cover of JFK Jr. as a chubby baby; a page torn from a different Life issue, featuring Caroline at four and JFK Jr. at 18 months; and a New York Post page dated December 18, 1963, with the headline “The Fatal Pause Between Shots.” They had to be three pieces from that collection my mother had kept, long before I knew her.

It’s been a year now, and I haven’t framed the papers or otherwise figured out what to do with them. I keep them atop a dresser in my bedroom; they’re disintegrating rapidly. Next to them is a basket that contains her law school student ID and her Costco card. (She loved Costco. I used to joke that she was the High Priestess of the Costcult.) Every so often I pick up one of the cards just to study her face. Or I take the three papers down, smooth them out, and look at them, trying to picture my mother as a 13-year-old with a ponytail.

In college my mother majored in history. She knew that history gets made in part by what gets saved and what gets thrown out. She kept as much as she could. Was she trying to make her own history, as a girl growing up and then as a young lawyer and then as mother and then as grandmother? And now how much of her is present in these mementos? How much of my mother do I get to keep with me, now that she’s gone? Or are these bits of paper only reminders that she is gone and past and nothing can be done to change that? I don’t know. I don’t know. I keep looking.

Photos by the author.

Jessica Doyle writes about business education at Economist.com and previously covered the southeastern United States for the Economist. She has a master's in city and regional planning from Georgia Tech, where she was a researcher at the Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development.

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