Yesterday, I was handed a priceless piece of history that fell out of the walls of our house. It was a Catholic Bible the size of the palm of my hand. On its cover was a watercolor of Jesus with outstretched arms, welcoming the shipping boats in from the sea.. I can only imagine the artist wanted to capture one of the many lessons Jesus shared at the edge of the water, whether it was feeding a village or walking on water.
When I say “fell out of the walls,” I’m not kidding – it literally fell out behind the cedar plank in our office. We’re renovating our entire basement and demotion started this week. Usually you find old newspapers dated back to when the house was built, but our house is special. It was built by a newly-married mason in 1950 as this side of our Seattle Queen Anne neighborhood hill was starting to take shape. Our community was built around a catholic church down the street. I often joked about the “Jesus nook” that likely housed a Mother Mary statue, one that I found in the churches of my German Catholic grandparents in Andale, Kansas.
While I don’t know much about the original owners, their lives, loves, family, I do feel this energy in our home of love and care. Of intentionality, of kindness. As I opened the Bible, I saw a love note spill out on the first page to Gunvor, the builder and patriarch of this family, from his new wife, dated July 30, 1950.
“A wee token of love and continued prayer for you, always. Love, Grace”
It made me think about the ways our stories and kindness, once published or written down, transcend across time and space. I feel the love that Grace had for Gunvor. I wonder if she gave this to him for an anniversary or as a “just because” present. I think about the gifts or notes I’ve given Dave over the years, just because, and always smile when we pull them out. I wonder if she ever thought someone would read it 72 years later, and how it would make them feel.
How do our stories resonate over time? Will someone stumble over the stack of journals I’ve amassed over the years and find something worthwhile? Knowing that someone decades from now could read my work, does that change what I share? Does it make me more selective or more open to vulnerable honesty? Sometimes the truth lies somewhere between what is said and what is omitted.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my great grandmother lately. She was Edna to the world and Nana to me. Her vivid image is permanently frozen in my mind as the woman with the white permed hair that curled just above her shoulders, like a ball of cotton candy with silver sparkles. I can still smell the sugary sweet lotion from a sundry of nightcreams she tried – successfully – to smooth her aging skin. She wore houndstooth coats, pressed trousers and her signature cashmere sweaters, never without a set of pearl or diamond earrings. My first picture with her holding me as a baby included this signature outfit, and I remember her being buried wearing something similar 16 years later.
That woman had style. She had a look and a brand before we even knew what that was. I’ve never seen a picture of her where she wasn’t completely polished, from candid family photos to snaps that photographers used to take as women walked out of Henry’s department store in Wichita, Kansas. The 1960s paparazzi for the midwest splashed them onto the society pages of the The Wichita Eagle and Beacon.
We made a lot of memories during our time together, but she was a guarded woman. When I asked her about her mother, my grandmother would usually pipe in with anecdotes and Nana would sit silently. When I asked about her father, or what it was like to be a mom to my grandmother in all her orneriness and sass, she had a few one-liners she’d recycle about how “we don’t talk about people of the past (namely, her father) because they’re not here to explain themselves,” or “ah, she was a child, I’d never tattle on her.” She evaded sharing the deeper truth of her life, even going out of the way to lie about her birth year on her tombstone so that no one knew she was too much older than 90.
I spent most of last year researching into my Nana’s and grandmother’s past through newspaper clippings and family photos that my mother sent as she cleaned out my grandmother’s home. With each sepia photograph and faded letter, I discovered that my Nana held a treasure troves of unspoken histories. Some of the photos were labeled with dates, making it a bit easier to put the pieces together. In these large boxes of memories, nothing was penned by my Nana. She wrote no letters, told no stories. It only included letters she received and pictures taken of her, often when she least expected it.
Within those candid moments, I saw my great grandmother, my Nana, in a new way. Not only was she a woman with many secrets, but even though she never shared about her own emotional or mental health, her body told a different story. A newly-married Nana had a joyful smile and open, caring eyes – like how I’d imagine Grace was with Gunvor. As a newly-minted mother, her smile dimmed, her eyes glossed over and gazed in the distance. A look I know all too well when I was in the throes of postpartum depression. At my mom and dad’s wedding, she was a dutiful hostess with a pursed lip, scanning the crowd and greeting friends. As a newly-minted great-grandmother, I saw that first joyful smile again.
There are so many stories when you read between the lines, or the pictures. If she wrote it all down, I truly believe it would’ve laid bare the struggles and triumphs of an entire generation longing to be seen. Those small moments, whether with me and my Nana or Grace and Gunvor, are the ones that inspire people we may never know.