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Finding long-lost memories in a dresser drawer

My March “Life Lines” column running in the current issue of Catholic New York:

I decided to clean out some dresser drawers last weekend, and mixed in with the shirts I no longer wear and the silks scarves I forgot I had were little pieces of my past. Noah’s handprint in clay from when he was just a year old. A puffy foam heart necklace made by Chiara for a Mother’s Day gone by. Olivia’s old letters to Santa and one to the Tooth Fairy demanding to know what she does with all those teeth anyway.

As I sorted and stored, dusted and dumped, I turned up one memory after another, moments I’d lost that were given back to me just briefly in the guise of a de-cluttering project. And then I stuck my hand into an old silk travel jewelry bag I’d purchased when I was in China 30 years ago, and I pulled out a torn and yellowed envelope. My first name was scrawled across the front in familiar handwriting, my mother’s handwriting, the mother I haven’t seen or heard or smelled or touched in almost 26 years. And I felt a little stunned, like the wind had been knocked out of me for a second or two.

I guess I knew I had this letter. After all I had the forethought to store it inside a plastic bag inside a silk bag with some of my old rings and charms, someplace hidden and protected. But, to be honest, I totally forgot that this letter existed. I have very little in the way of personal mementos belonging to my mother—a necklace, an outdated Sunday missal, the beautiful mahogany wall unit that graced the living room of my childhood home and held some of her own treasures and memories. But those are all “things,” material belongings that really don’t convey much meaning. This letter was another story, like a stolen conversation, a voice from my past.

As I unfolded the letter, I didn’t even need to read a word to feel the connection. Just holding the pages my mother once held and seeing her handwriting and “Mom” signed at the bottom was enough, but as I read on I was so grateful for words I remembered now but had long ago lost sight of. Although the letter wasn’t dated, I could tell from its content that my mother wrote it when I was older—maybe in college or just after, and it was written on my birthday. My mother wrote more of these birthday letters, but this is the only one that survived.

I used to write similar birthday letters to Noah when he was young, and I have journals for each of my three children, not baby books (we have those, too), but actual diary-type books where I write to them about being their mom. Noah’s book has the most entries, Olivia’s just a few, and Chiara’s only one or two. I guess somewhere in my heart and head I remembered how much I loved those notes from my mother and wanted to give my kids the same thing, but life got in the way, as it often does. And while there’s a case to be made for living life in the moment rather than taking notes about it on paper after the fact, finding that letter made me realize that these little glimpses into the past can resonate in powerful ways.

That short handwritten note took me back to a time I’d lost, a love and friendship snatched away too soon. It reminded me that my mother was everything I remembered her to be, not some figment of a child’s imagination. With every passing year, it has become easier and easier to imagine—to assume—that perhaps I had sugar-coated the image of my mother and the relationship we shared. This lost letter proved to me once again that it was all so very real and beautiful.

So excuse me while I put pen to paper and leave some memories for my children.


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8 Comments Post a comment
  1. This is beautiful, Mary. How wonderful to have this chance to reread her words and feel her touch in your heart once again.

    March 8, 2014
  2. Shelly #

    What a treasure. My father was the family scribe and wrote to me weekly after I left home. His letters are scattered in cookbooks, journals, drawers, pockets etc, never to be thrown away and always a gift to find.

    March 8, 2014
    • Mary DeTurris Poust #

      Oh, that sounds wonderful. How I wish I’d saved more of these letters.

      March 9, 2014
  3. Rayna #

    I finally sat down with my CNY newspaper today, and I want to tell you how much I enjoyed your essay (so much, that I went in search of your blog!). You’ve motivated me to do SOMETHING for my three children (still young – almost eight, almost five, and almost five months!), though I’m not yet sure exactly what form that will take! I used to have a blog in the public domain, but it made me quite self-conscious after a while and started to encroach upon my family life – no good! So now I’m thinking maybe a Shutterfly album – with captions! – for each year.

    This week’s column was very touching and inspirational at the same time! Thank you!

    March 11, 2014
    • Mary DeTurris Poust #

      I was so happy to read your comment! Thank you for taking the time to write. And good luck with your family memory makers!

      March 12, 2014
  4. Lori #

    I lived away from home for 15 years (from age 29 to 43) and received many letters, cards and notes from my mother over the years. She never got over the fact that I moved so far away and kept in touch regularly. I saved most of those notes and they are in a box somewhere upstairs in my house. I live again near my family and I am blessed to still have both my parents. My thought has always been that I will take the time to sort and read all those papers when they are both gone. When I need to again feel that connection, I know that I’ll have a way to “hear” her voice again and keep that part of her alive in my heart.

    March 13, 2014
    • Mary DeTurris Poust #

      You are so blessed to have that collection of letters and cards! Treasure them.

      March 13, 2014

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