How my mother’s clutter helped me get to know her better

In defense of keeping old junk

How my mother’s clutter helped me get to know her better
Through his mother’s mementos, Jim Galloway was able to piece together untold stories and learn her history.

Photograph courtesy of Jim Galloway

This may sound odd, but as Mother’s Day approaches, I would like to offer a few words in support of pack rats—those governed by the impulse to squirrel away, in drawers and closets and under beds, the minutiae of one’s life. Yes, it can be done to excess. No doubt many of you, after emptying the home of a dead relative, have vowed never to bequeath that chore to those you leave behind.

But decluttering can be insidious as well. My points of view are both professional and personal. As a retired journalist-turned-struggling historian, I now find myself trolling through the papers of dead white Southern politicians of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s clear that, before donating their papers to public archives, many eliminated those certain portions that no longer sparked joy in the voting population. Erasing them had the advantage of easing history’s final judgment. The urge to self-edit one’s legacy can be irresistible, whether to create a friendlier obituary or merely to erase any literary evidence that you and your spouse once burned for each other. One must think of the children, after all.

It is possible that my wife didn’t truly realize who she had married until 20 or so years in, when she discovered the hall pass from high school that I’d kept—for reasons that aren’t quite clear even to me. I blame the blended DNA of two highly proficient hoarders. But likewise, I can truthfully say that I know my late parents—my brash mother in particular—better after sifting through their detritus than I did when they sat alive and breathing in front of me. Though my mother could talk the ears off a sugar bowl, neither she nor my father indulged in autobiography. In fact, when it came to matters of personal importance, silence was the preferred form of communication in our family.

In the absence of spoken words, my parents’ artifacts became all important when we were kids. My father’s past was both more dramatic and more accessible—whether in the top drawer of his dresser or a box under a bed. I pored over his yellowing sketchbook from World War II and his texts on dead-reckoning navigation—the latter from the time he tried (and failed) to lift himself up from aircraft mechanic to airline pilot.

My mother’s secrets were buried deeper, under the layers of artwork, report cards and class photos her children brought home day after day, year after year. Which meant her stories were mostly out of reach, save for the piles of curling black-and-white photographs that one or another of us would occasionally try to bring order to, writing the names of lost friends and relatives on the back.

And so my parents carried the evidence of their past lives across the decades and across the continent, in cardboard boxes that eventually became plastic tubs. From New York, where they married, to Ohio then Georgia, Florida, Texas, and Oklahoma. Mom died in Tulsa in 2008. Dad and their artifacts made a final stop in California, where he died in 2014. Their boxes went into a warehouse, where they stayed until last year—when I finally made my way to California to help my sister dissect and distribute their memorabilia among we six siblings and four grandchildren. For the better part of three days, we behaved like dealers at a blackjack table, tossing snapshots, birthday greetings, and wedding announcements into the smaller boxes that circled us.

Eventually, we unearthed our mother. In her best years, she was loud, outspoken and more than occasionally impolitic. Given the right circumstance and the wrong audience, she could be an emotional wrecking crew of one. Her self-confidence was astounding even when misplaced. She was thoroughly tone deaf. But in church, she sang with a gusto that sometimes cleared the three pews in front of her.

I had long wondered where that self-assurance came from. The breadcrumbs she left behind told me she had to reach for it. My mother grew up in the tiny Illinois farming village of Eldred. Its population stood at 340 in 1940 and would shrink by 42 souls during World War II and its aftermath. My mother would be one of those who left for a larger life.

How my mother’s clutter helped me get to know her better

Photograph courtesy of Jim Galloway

She graduated from high school during that twilight period between the surrender of Nazi Germany in Europe and the atomic obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Her graduation announcement says so. That fall, within a month after her 18th birthday, she was in Omaha, Nebraska for a three-month course in “radio engineering.”  By February 1946, she had a job in the communications department of United Air Lines at LaGuardia Airport, living with a set of roommates in an apartment in nearby Flushing. She kept her many company IDs, which noted her age, weight, and birthplace.

She was “Imy”—short for Imogene—when she left Eldred. She had become “Jean” by the time she arrived in New York. Jean was a young single girl in a big city, and it’s clear she had the time of her life. Her boxes were littered with first-time tourist snapshots, along with a souvenir photo from heavy-weight fighter Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Bar and Cocktail Lounge in Manhattan, which might have introduced her to the delicacy that is cheesecake. Then there’s the large, red velveteen program from “The Queen of Skates, Sonja Henie, With Her Hollywood Ice Revue” at Rockefeller Center, circa 1947.

How my mother’s clutter helped me get to know her better
The cover of the souvenir photo from Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Bar and Cocktail Lounge

Photograph courtesy of Jim Galloway

How my mother’s clutter helped me get to know her better
The souvenir photo

Photograph courtesy of Jim Galloway

But there are strong hints of unquiet—if not alarm—during her LaGuardia years. She left behind a small scrapbook obsessively filled with gruesome newspaper accounts of a string of local aircraft disasters—in particular, the May 1947 crash of a United Air Lines DC-4 bound for Cleveland. Thirty-eight people died. Did she know any of the crew? Was one a suitor? We don’t know.

Pasted inside the scrapbook, without comment, is a teletyped, day-after message from airline president W.A. Patterson to UAL employees. He assured them that “the cause of this accident comes about as close to being an act of God as any we have ever observed.”

Hard partying was an antidote to the whims of an unpredictable God. Blurry black-and-white photos in her collection suggest this. But the hard proof is the 1948 cease-and-desist letter from the landlord’s attorney, aimed at my mother and her two roomies. A surplus of gentlemen callers—“the guests who visit your apartment from time to time”—was implied among the offenses. Lawyer John M. Duffy didn’t just threaten to have the cops throw these misbehaving women to the curb. He would tattle on them, too. “We do not believe your respective employers would relish the attending publicity to such a move, but we must advise you that we shall take all proper steps to protect the interest of our client, regardless of the consequences to you,” the lawyer promised, closing the letter with a snarky “Yours very truly.”

Mom hadn’t yet turned 21. I smile every time I read that letter. And then chuckle when I remember the solid, upstanding matron who—two decades later—broke down in embarrassed tears when one of her two sons flushed a cherry bomb down the toilet at his elementary school. Not me. The other one. “We’ll end up living in a trailer park,” she’d wailed.

There is no date attached to it, but a small booklet of photos taken around Mom’s hard partying period begins with one of my father—dancing with another woman. He was a skinny airplane mechanic with a charming, native Scottish lilt to his voice that would surface after a drink or two. Obviously, mom pried dad away from his dance partner. They married in 1950. Mom kept her job until, presumably, she became pregnant with her first born, a daughter, in 1952. The couple moved to Ohio soon afterward, to be closer to his family. A second daughter arrived in 1953. I showed up in 1955.

Money was tight. Mom became a self-taught seamstress. A good one. She preserved the first by-mail tutorial she ordered from the Singer sewing machine company.

Deeper within my mother’s collection of keepsakes we found nine envelopes. One had been hand-delivered by our next-door neighbor. The rest carried postmarks of September or October 1957. I had never seen them before, but we knew what they were even before we opened them.

Soon after I was married, I traveled to Cleveland with my new bride to introduce her to my father’s family. During a kitchen-sink encounter with my Aunt Mildred, the family historian, the size of my parents’ large brood of children came up. Seven, my aunt said. I corrected her. Six, I said—and named them. “You’re leaving out Karen Sue,” Aunt Mildred said.

I was thunderstruck—and clueless. This unknown, fifth sister had been born in September 1957 and died the same day. She was quickly buried in the city cemetery down the road from the hospital where her mother—our mother—remained. My father was the only mourner in attendance, burial records would later tell us. There was no grave marker. No doubt the funeral itself had drained my father’s wallet.

It had already been a hard year for Mom. Her father had died four months earlier at age 52, of a massive stroke. We found his death notice among those nine sympathy cards for her dead child. I don’t know much about Grandfather Chapman, except that—according to a family photo—he played at least one semi-pro baseball game with the great Rogers Hornsby. My mother rarely spoke of her father. And would never mention her lost child.

Observing the family rule of silence, we did not press her. All too soon it became a moot point. In 1997, a stroke much like the one that killed her father snatched the power of speech from this woman who loved to talk about everything but herself. She would spend the next 11 years struggling to form simple sentences. The nine envelopes she left behind were the only expressions of grief she passed on to her other six children.

At one point, I did gather the courage to ask my father why he had never mentioned Karen Sue. “I told you at the time,” he replied. End of discussion. I was two years old in September 1957. My oldest sister was five.

Oceans-going ships come with watertight compartments to keep them afloat in heavy weather. My parents were built the same way, though my mother was far better at putting lids on past lives and past troubles, then moving unburdened on to the next challenge. Perhaps it wasn’t the best survival tactic, but it worked for her. She would have three more children—two girls and a boy. She and my father would retire to Florida, where one of her great fears was realized. They indeed ended up in a mobile home park near Tampa. But it was a nice one.

To those hoarders among you, I ask that you think about what you haven’t said or simply can’t say—and leave clues to that silence for the puzzled people you leave behind.

To those destined to clean up after a pack rat’s passing, I acknowledge the process can be daunting and often unpleasant. But it can be enlightening, too. I point you to Hilary Mantel, the British master of historical fiction. “History’s what people are trying to hide from you, not what they’re trying to show you. You search for it in the same way you sift through landfill: for evidence of what people want to bury,” she wrote.

One last note: Karen Sue Galloway’s grave now has a marker with her date of birth and death. Not all silences are forever.

How my mother’s clutter helped me get to know her better

Photograph courtesy of Jim Galloway

Jim Galloway is a former political columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.