Moments of Discovery # 2: Dad’s 1921 Report Card & Mom’s 1989 Car

The bustle in a house

The morning after death

Is solemnest of industries

Enacted upon earth, —

The sweeping up the heart,

And putting love away

We shall not want to use again

Until eternity.

Emily Dickinson was referring to the morning after the death of a loved one, but such hustle could also refer to what happens weeks or months after a loved one dies, and the bereaved are required to sift through that loved one’s possessions.

There is no shortage of articles on how to tackle this bittersweet task. Sara Davidson in a piece in The New York Times asks, “What to do with Mother’s stuff?” which in her case too involved dispatching with a car, furnishings, and memorabilia. Following Joan Didion’s rule, she tried to follow the principle of touching an object only once, making a decision and moving on.

The most emotional aspect of cleaning out a house is sorting the belongings, says Elizabeth Weintraub in an article “Cleaning Out the House After a Death.” She suggests sorting items into three piles or tagging them with color-coded stickers: Items to keep, items to donate or sell, items to throw away. Wendy Schuman outlines “9 Tips for Cleaning Out Your Late Parent’s Home.” She remarks, “Consider the cleaning-out job a labor of love. As hard as it was, clearing out my mother’s home was the last important service I could render her . . . .”  

Recently, my sisters and I said our goodbyes again and again as we sorted, reminisced, cried, but forged ahead, emptying drawers, closets, and eventually rooms.

Some discoveries are hidden. Out of sight. Others are hidden in plain view. Last week we uncovered my dad’s first grade report card from 1921-22 in a box on the upper shelf of the closet. It’s a document, really, a fancy booklet with flowing cursive penmanship. The opening page announces the teacher’s name and school, Frank R. Mauss at Washington School, like many schools of the era on the same grounds as the church, in this case Bossler’s Mennonite Church.

Ray Longeneckter_1st gr report card_4x5_300Ray Longenecker_report card1_inside_5x3_300

There are no vague S’s or U’s for satisfactory or unsatisfactory. Not even an A, B, or C. No, the grades are recorded precisely as percentages: 86% average for the first reporting period. And a 90% for behavior, not quite the teacher’s pet!

Ray Longenecker_report card2_inside_5x3_300

*  *  *

And, yes, other discoveries are hidden in plain view, like Mother’s Dodge Spirit. With 98,000 miles it’s been around the block more than once, but certainly not worthy of an antique license tag. What to do with it? After some deliberation, our sister Jean suggested we offer it to our friend Edda, a member of Bosslers’ Mennonite Church. A first-generation immigrant from Colombia, Edda is getting a foot-hold on a new life in the USA while enabling her son to get a college education. She is tickled pink with our recycled gift. A bonus for us: We get to see Mom’s car parked at church when we visit on Sundays.


Cards and cars – both have a second life, one an artifact to hold – the other, providing a pathway to the next step in adventure for a brave woman.

Valuing the past and the present, both solemn acts, both borne of love. As Wendy Schuman concludes, As I sorted through her things, I felt surrounded by her presence. In a way, it helped me say my final goodbye.”

Have you had to say goodbye to someone or something you have cherished?

How have you learned to say “Goodbye”?

Coming next: Mom’s Accessories: Bonnets, Hankies, Pins, and More


Secrets of My Report Card & Other Tall Tales

My mother saved all my report cards. When I retrieved them from the attic, only grade 8 was missing. They are tall documents, sheathed in a coarse, brown envelope. And they speak for me as a student: mostly A’s with a smattering of Bs. Once I got a C- on a history final exam the year my brother Mark was born.

Marian_2nd grade report card_outside_4x4_300

Aside from letter grades A – F (No S’s, N’s or U’s in the 1950s), there is a full page of my elementary school report card devoted to behavior, including attitude toward school work, recitation, and conduct. In second grade, Miss Longenecker checked the box for “Gives Up too Easily.” I was beyond surprised. I was stunned that my teacher who was also my aunt would think that I was a quitter. What made her think that, I wondered. Did I throw down my pencil when I couldn’t do arithmetic? Or start bawling? The next marking period, the box for “Shows improvement” was checked.

Marian_report card_inside_8x6_300

In 5th grade negative check-marks showed up for my conduct. Imagining my teacher Mrs. Elsie Kilhefner would not notice or care, I whispered, earning the tick beside the box “Whispers too much.” The report cards following show I whispered constantly, every once in a while showing a tendency to reform my chatty ways.

Of the 23 ways behavior could be described on these old-fashioned report cards most were negative. Only three indicate something positive, one for each category: very commendable (attitude), very satisfactory (recitation), and very good (conduct). The adage “Children are to be seen and not heard” was prominent in the adult-centered society of the 50s. Not one teacher that I remember told us we were special and destined for greatness.

Since then American culture has leaned more toward the child-centered. In the 1970s my children Crista and Joel heard Mr. Rogers tell them on TV “You are my Friend, You are Special.”

They sang along with the Gaither tune: I am a Promise, I am a possibility. I am a promise with a capital “P” with one stanza that shouts: “You can climb the high mountain and cross the broad sea . . . .”

Cover: Gaither "I am a Promise" album
Cover: Gaither “I am a Promise” album

In 2012 David McCullough Jr. made a 12 3/4-minute speech to the graduating class of Wellesley High School in Massachusetts before a group of privileged, upper-class teens and their perceived-to-be “helicopter” parents.  The speech went viral on YouTube. Entitled “You are Not Special,” McCullough argues that if everyone is special, then no one is.

Other rich points:

1. We have come to love our accolades more than our achievements.(Don’t go to Guatemala so you can impress admissions at Harvard or Yale. Go because you want to serve the people there.)

2. “Selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself.”

3. Climb the mountain so you can see the world, not so that world can see you.

YourTube screen capture
YouTube screen capture

In other words, through service to others, stand tall  – like my report card from days of yore.

I’m always happy to see your thoughts here – thanks!