Touching mementos of a dear friend

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By Janny Wilcke

I once heard a preacher say that the value of souvenirs or mementos is that they can serve to unleash a string of memories. I tend to agree.

Last August my husband had several job-related reasons to go back east, not far from where we grew up and where his 95-year-old mother still lives in the care of his youngest sister. As his mother’s old farmhouse is finally being sold, most of her possessions were being divided among her five children. With encouragement from his siblings, my husband drove out to his meetings in a pickup, thinking to bring me home some mementos after visiting with members of his family.

My husband’s mother has suffered from progressive loss of short-term memory for about 10 years; in fact, I don’t think she remembers clearly who I am. This lovely woman, who welcomed me into her family and embraced me as her own decades ago, now spends her time quietly and hazily in a distorted past.

Because that saddens me, I was happy when my husband came home with some of my mother-in-law’s possessions chosen especially for me by a sister-in-law. Among them was her sewing machine. My mother-in-law spent many hours at that machine in a corner of her large country kitchen crafting items for church bazaars, sewing Christmas gifts for her daughters (me included), mending, and – I especially recall – freely helping me with difficult sewing projects. Her sewing machine is now in my craft room waiting for me to clean, oil, and bring it alive again. I do cherish it.

Among the other treasures sent home to me with my husband were several large storage containers filled with craft items, including a substantial stash of scraps of cotton material. I had great fun going through them with my nine-year-old granddaughter, who is taking sewing lessons. On Christmas morning, she proudly presented me a patchwork pillow she had made for me from the material with her mother’s help. I was touched, not only by her gesture, but also by the image of those old scraps cut for a brand new pillow – a symbolic linking of four generations. I treasure it also.

Two other items selected especially for me were Mom’s dry sink, which I put in our dining room, and her large turkey platter, which now sits on it. When I pass through my dining room and see that sink and platter, it’s as if a switch is turned on in my mind and I’m transported back 30 or 40 years ago to family dinners we shared in Mom’s own dining room. Sometimes, it feels momentarily that I can almost hear the noisy chatter of the 20 or more family members happily gathered around.

“Mom” is a very special person, who was always kind and generous in giving of her time to her family, and her church and community. What strikes me as most unusual and endearing was her absolute attentiveness in conversation.  No matter what she might have been doing, she always took the time to really listen, never giving you a feeling that you were taking her attention from anything as important.

The last time I saw my mother-in-law was a few years ago when she was brought here by two of her daughters. She was frail and forgetful, and might not have understood exactly where she was. The twinkle in her eye was gone, but she still listened attentively when I spoke to her, although she had little to say in return.

But now Mom speaks to me again every time I use her platter, or pass the corner cupboard where some of her china sits, or think about the best way to fix her old sewing machine. We can’t retrieve the past, but we can still hear it and see those old times if we simply listen and look. A memento – a pillow or a sewing machine – can bring that past alive for us again, even if only for a few precious moments.