Remembrance of Things Past: She Kept His Sweater

Jane Martin Walters never attended a single Elizabethtown High School Class Reunion, and Dr. Norman P. Will no longer attends college graduations as a president emeritus at Florida State College at Jacksonville. Yet, they both linger in my memory though Jane died in her mid-twenties and Dr. Will in his late-fifties. I have vowed to get rid of memorabilia in anticipation of down-sizing one day, but I can’t – I just CAN’T – part with the pieces of paper that attach their memory to mine.

Jane was smart, very smart, and excelled in college prep track classes in high school. Unlike mine, her learning appeared to be effortless. And her home life quiet and orderly too. After a snow day off from school one winter Jane remarked that she loved snow days because her Mom would pop popcorn, and she and her family would sit by the fireplace and read or play games. In contrast, after the thrill of sledding on traffic-free roads passed, our house was noisy, no hearth for refuge in sight.

Jane and a note from my mother who saw her in Harrisburg at the MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) relief sale.
Jane and a note from my mother who saw her in Harrisburg at the MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) relief sale – 1960s

You might get the impression I felt envious. But I didn’t. Jane was poised on a pedestal in my eyes, and I admired what appeared to be her calm cadence through life. When I heard she married and worked at the Library of Congress in the Congressional Reference Department, I was pleased. Maybe I’d visit her in Washington D. C. some day. But some day never came. She died of cancer shortly after after her marriage and at the beginning of a promising career. Aunt Ruthie told me, “She ate a nice dinner with her family, said her goodbyes and died in her sleep that night.” I was devastated.

*  *  *

Dr Will_Campus newspaper_FCCJ

I admired Dr. Norm Will too, though in a vastly different way. An English professor had become a college president: All’s right with the world! College operations purred along smoothly with Dr. Will at the helm. He advocated free thought, offering friendly evening colloquia for faculty on diverse topics like current ideas in neuroscience and the health of Florida’s St. Johns River. But on the first day of Convocation in 2005, Dr. Will did not appear. He had died the night before while sipping wine and reading The History of God by Karen Armstrong, a text I later happened to reference in my paper for The Oxford Roundtable.

In her piece “Dealing with the Dead” (The New Yorker, October 11, 2010), Jennifer Egan discusses the deaths of three close family members and observes that she has kept an article of clothing from each: her grandmother’s 3-tiered necklace of fake pearls, her father’s navy-blue wool V-neck sweater, and her stepfather’s gray and burgundy argyle sweater. Though the pearls eventually broke as she rounded a corner in the East Village, Jennifer vows to wear the sweaters “until they unravel into shreds” because she likes their feel against her skin. Author Egan shares wisdom gained from loss as she opines:

  • “Wearing the garments of a person I loved was like being wrapped in a protective force field.”
  • “When the clock stops on a life, all things emanating from it become precious, finite, and cordoned off for preservation.”
  • Keeping items from those who have passed on “is a way of keeping them engaged in life’s daily transactions—in other words, alive.” [Italics mine.]

I will add a quotation of my own from Shakespeare’s King Richard III: So wise so young, they say, do never live long.” And then from Scripture:

  “So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”           Psalm 90:12  KJV

*  *  *

Have you experienced loss? Is your story like any of the stories I tell or very different? Here’s the place to share it.

Advertisements

38 thoughts on “Remembrance of Things Past: She Kept His Sweater

      1. My brother-in-law found comfort in something from my dad. My strong, gregarious dad died a few years after we were married and my mom was giving away his clothes. Since Don (my husband) had many brothers, she took the nice ones down to Don’s mom. His youngest natural brother took the jammies. He went through many trials and tribulations in the following year and he said wearing his “Cliffys” ( my dad’s name) always comforted and gave him strength. He said he thinks he still has a pair in his drawer-30 years later.

        Like

        1. Welcome, Sue. From your story, it seems more than cats have nine lives. It’s interesting that your dad’s name is Cliff, just like my husband’s. Thanks for reading and commenting today.

          Like

    1. Thank you from one blogger to another, the one who has a southern garden with northern attitude. Yes, I have checked out your blog too. Please do visit again. Thank you for the compliment too!

      Like

  1. Only 19 years older than me, my mother died of cancer at the younger-than-me-now age of 53. She drew her last breath — quite literally — in my arms. My world abruptly upended and I believed I would never see sunshine again, regardless of the weather. For years I kept my mother’s tightly-folded nightie in a ziplock-style bag because captured within its fabric, her lingering scent fed my strongest sense — that of smell.

    Another wonderful, thought-provoking post Marian – thank you.

    Like

    1. According to writer/researcher Diane Ackerman, smell is the sense most closely associated with memory. Your anecdote suggests that fact to be true. Wow – you did lose your mother at a young age. And the fact that she passed away in your arms suggests your closeness long before the event of her death. Thank you for sharing this poignant story, Laurie.

      Like

  2. Marion, you are such a wonderful writer. Your blogs are full of food for thought. I especially admire your discipline to keep writing on such a consistent basis.

    Like

    1. I appreciate your comment, Pat. About the discipline involved: I made a commitment to post twice a week last year and now my readers have come to expect it. Besides, I enjoy the camaraderie and the shared anecdotes. Do stop by again soon.

      Like

    1. You have taken full advantage of embracing adventure in all of your “current moments” which has made for a rich, full life from my observation, Mary. Thanks for reading and commenting today.

      Like

  3. Thank you for sharing. I only have an old sewing machine and a paperweight from my grandmother, but they both mean so much to me. I’m going to need to part with the sewing machine soon. Not happy about it, but need to.

    Like

    1. It sounds as though you are attached to that sewing machine from your grandmother. Maybe you can think of a way to keep it in the family somehow. Thanks for checking in today – and for the comment, SK.

      Like

    1. In my back yard, there is an old milk-stool from my dad’s shop holding up a potted plant. In Cliff’s art and music studio is a clutch of cow and horse medicine bottles also from my dad’s shop that have no earthly use. Probably my children will end up throwing them out someday. It’s all about connection, I suppose, and the mystery of loss.

      Like

  4. Thanks so much Marian for this .. deeply thoughtful and poignant. Just the other day I was wondering about a beautiful pair of pyjamas I bought for mother a long time ago when she was old and frail. When she died I kept and wore them .. why not. I was wondering more recently what happened to them. I still have my father’s Oxford graduation white fur that was worn around their robes …
    Loved the comments and your responses to them… thank you.

    Like

  5. Ah yes. I have a steamer trunk filled with ephemera from the lives of my mom and dad who died too young when I was in my early twenties. I don’t look through the trunk often but when I do it always brings me to tears. Perhaps the most visible tangible thing I keep with me are my mother’s dishes. I wrote about them recently on my blog http://lindahoye.com/washing-dishes/. Also, believe it or not, is am still using Mom’s slow cooker, almost thirty years after her passing. I think of her every time I take it out of the cupboard.

    Like

    1. Linda, I remember reading your post on washing dishes and even commenting shortly after one of our grandsons broke a piece of china-ha! Your china is exquisite. I imagine you will be soon using her slow cooker with all of your garden bounty. It’s so nice to have treasures from our loved ones. They represent both the aesthetic and the utilitarian, but most of all they feed our souls. Thanks for reading and posting and comment, Linda.

      Like

  6. Another poignant post, Marian. I have handcrafted items from my great-grandmother and grandmother. Probably the most precious item I own is a black cape dress that belonged to my grandmother, was redesigned and sewn to fit my mother after Grandma Hess’s death. Now it fits me.

    Like

    1. Now that’s an heirloom with a special provenance. I don’t see any cape dresses in my mother’s or aunt’s closet anymore. The ones I wore teaching at LMS were donated to the “Missionary Closet” with instructions not to give any of them to prospective or current LMS students. A phantom of Sister Longenecker–Eeek!

      I’m curious about the black cape dress that fits you now. Will you give it to Julie? A third generation Mennonite dress sounds like an historical as well as a family treasure.

      I assume you are replying from the comfort of your home back in Harrisonburg. Peace and joy to you!

      Like

      1. Yes, home for four days and then we fly away for the month of July. The dress will definitely stay in the family. I’d love to see Kate wear it next. We gave Julia a hand-made old-order Mennonite dress soon after she was born. Haven’t seen her wear it yet.

        Like

  7. I just read LOVE,LOSS AND WHAT I WORE a play by Nora Ephron based on a book by Ilene Beckerman. I saw it listed on The Writer’s Almanac on public radio and it caught my interest. The author wrote the book, in the 30’s if I remember right and she had illustrations of all the clothing items that went with the memory/vignette.

    I have a hand woven woolen scarf that was my father’s…I never wear it as I am allergic to wool, but I keep it folded up in my basket with my other winter mittens and scarves. I have an apron, pullover with a crossed back and huge pockets that belonged to my paternal grandmother. I don’t wear it but it hangs in my kitchen closet on hook with other aprons. I have 3 wire hangars that were my maternal grandmother’s….she covered the triangular part with batting and the fabric to make her own version of padded hangars. The fabric is from dresses I remember her wearing. The key chain I have used for the last almost forty years is a 3″x1″ rectangle of blue Lucite my brother made in shop class…he said something to the effect of ” hey, do you want this?” at the time.

    I probably have dozens of things like these that I touch or see or smell everyday, some I use, some I just cherish…they all act as place holders of memories, little reminders of those passed away but still with us.

    Like

    1. What a treasure trove, Anthanasia. Of course we want and love all of these things (referencing your brother!) because they are such tangible links to them and to our past.

      I am familiar with Nora Ephron of course, and enjoy her direct writing style. She, like you, had the gift of taking memories that drift through our minds and making them anchor points. I have read the Beckerman book too and love the simple but eloquent illustrations. The melding of words and drawings certainly appeals to me. Thank you!

      Like

  8. Mostly what I have are photographs of my mother, my father, my grandfather and my first love. All taken too soon, although Pappy, my grandfather, was eighty six. I have my mother’s wedding ring and my fathers signet ring though. The things don’t matter as much as the memories in my heart.

    Like

    1. Absolutely! I imagine we treasure these photos and pieces of jewelry just because they connect us directly to those heart-felt memories. I always appreciate your comments, Marie.

      Like

  9. You wrote this beautifully, Marian. What you said about these people you’ve lost has made them live again, if even for just awhile, in the minds of your readers, and that’s a true tribute.

    When we downsized, I vowed to clear out many boxes and suitcases, but none of the relatives wanted any of the keepsakes. So I still have valuable drawer space and shelves of one closet filled with things I can’t make myself lose: part of an old quilt, hats and purses made by my grandmother and her sisters, more than 30 children’s books with the practice writing and art of numerous aunts and uncles in the margins…and 6 sweaters! I knitted one of them for my dad when I was in my 20s; the other five my mother and grandmother knitted for family members. I know the time and love and hope that goes into thousands of knit-purl stitches in each sweater, and the memories are too strong to give away.

    My Brethren Pennsylvania Dutch grandmother used to say that we are made of the memories we protect in our hearts and our hands.

    Like

    1. Your memories live on in your assemblage of artifacts. You have so much to cherish. There is only one more thing to add: “Blessed be the tie that binds”! Thank you, Marylin!

      Like

  10. Beautiful post, Marian. It brought back memories of my ex-husband who died in a car crash. I recall saving his flannel shirts. My youngest, who was 11 1/2 wore them as she slept, treasuring that link to her father. I’m not sure if my oldest, who was 13 1/2, did the same.

    What I have trouble parting with is old photos and letters, tangible memories of those I love.

    Like

    1. I understand the reluctance to part with memorabilia. When I photograph artifacts for my blog post, I tell myself that it’s time to part with these tangibles–sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t. Funny thing is: I don’t consider myself a pack rat. Unfortunately, nostalgia is my bag! Thanks for commenting with a poignant example, Judy.

      Like

  11. Wonderful post, Marian. You were fortunate to have had these people in your life. Your post arrived on my wedding anniversary when I did not want to think about death. But it’s funny because later that day I partially cleaned out a “junk” drawer and found letters that my older daughter’s fourth grade class had written to me after I visited them to talk about history. One of the letters was from the young woman who has been her friend since kindergarten and who is now a teacher and will be in my daughter’s wedding this summer. It definitely brought back memories!

    I have an old sweatshirt of my Dad’s that I wear sometimes–it’s been washed many times, so its not the scent, but when I put it on, I always think of him for a second.

    Like

  12. Thank you for once again linking artifacts to history.

    You remind me too that I need to clean out a junk drawer or two now that I’ve returned from PA after 10 days away. But I have a habit of cleaning out, finding stuff, and then going off on a trail of nostalgia.

    Like

  13. Yesterday, a man and his wife visited although I hadn’t seen him for 45 years and had never met her. He wanted to tell me how much my husband and I guided his life when we knew him in 1969. He was wise to make an effort to thank people while they’re alive. Our life, our cells, our hearts are permeated with those who are no longer on this side. I wear Vic’s old broadcloth shirts for sun protection in the garden (as I always did) and a few of my friends have his shirts, too. Most precious to me are his handwritten words in the margins of books. And now off to thank some people. First, thank you.

    Like

    1. Elaine, your writing often sounds like poetry to me, even your comments. I love the lyrical lilt.

      You have spent a life-time sowing seeds of kindness and wisdom. Now it’s coming back to you. The “visitors” story is a case in point. Thanks for adding to the conversation. I’m happy this post resonated with you.

      Like

  14. My best friend and I pooled our money at the Fair one year to have our picture, taken together, embossed on fabric pennants. The day my friend died, she and her siblings were packing her parents’ belongings (they died tragically 8 months before) and she found her pennant and talked about me. Her brother gave me her pennant, so now I have 2 identical pennants, which won’t make sense to anyone else, but mean the world to me!

    Like

Thank You for Leaving a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s