It’s a safe bet that I’d find clothes in your closet, boots, maybe a tennis racket. But I don’t think I’d find an otter hat, a movie camera, a stack of paintings or a ruffle iron. Sorting through ninety years of accumulation, my sisters and I have found all that ~ and more in Aunt Ruthie’s closet.
What We Found
It had taken the better part of a day to pull out, exclaim over, and assign a new niche to each piece. Each discovery illuminated what we remember about her interests: home movies shot, oil paintings from a class she took, vocal music conducted at school. An otter hat we remembering last seeing in the attic . . .
Lots of oil paintings found on shelves. They extend the gallery beyond those you can view in this post, Aunt Ruthie: Art Through the Ages.
Photographic gear for preserving memories, including the amazing 16 mm movie camera with an autographed case
The closet stands empty now, except for a suitcase from the 1940s once used to bring Pennsylvania Dutch meats on flights to families in Florida.
And on the dresser . . . a pearlized pink Bakelite vanity set
What We Didn’t Find
No skeletons! Metaphorically speaking, we didn’t find skeletons in the closet unlike those in Rhonda Gibson’s romantic mystery What’s in your Closet?”
But like all families, we have family secrets, some of which may be disclosed in my memoir. Author friend, Kathy Pooler, conducted a lively discussion about the conflict writers feel when deciding what and how to disclose intimate details of family life. Here’s her post, Do Mothers have a Right to Write their own Story?
What’s in your closet, dear reader . . . actually, or metaphorically speaking? You get to choose!
What great finds, Marian! I love the vintage ruffle iron and the oil paintings. The second painting reminded me of Little House in the Big Woods.
As for what’s in my closet…purses, tons of purses. I have a problem. 🙂
Yes, this painting is reminiscent of the drawings in Laura Ingalls Wilder books, hers a little more quaint than Ruthie’s, I think. Thanks for making the connection.
As for a purse problem – if that’s the worst fetish you have, you can be forgiven. An idea just popped into my head: Maybe dedicate a purse to notable comments about your book. As a matter of fact, you may need two to fuel inspiration for your next book. Hmmmm
The hard job of sorting and re-assigning these pieces also includes making memories. Nice to have you alongside, sister Jean! 🙂
A difficult but interesting Job and some interesting finds. My own stab at memoir writing has a lot of skeletons ahead and I’m not sure I can share many of them. Too many of the secrets are not mine to tell.
You could write about some of your secrets and call it fiction instead of memoir – a possibility.
I’m glad you enjoyed looking through the closet with me. Thanks, Marie!
Marian, your unearthed treasures tell the story of a vibrant, talented woman who lived life to the fullest and with style. Aunt Ruthie’s paintings are exquisite. What a beautiful legacy! And thanks for the generous mention and link. 😊
I had seen some of her paintings but others were a surprise. She took a painting course in the 1980s when I was taking care of family, pursuing a graduate degree, and teaching. I particularly like the fluttery orange bird.
It seemed natural to link our posts because you advocate so ardently for women to release their stories, come out of the closet, so to speak!
Aunt Ruthie’s paintings are exquisite. And the otter hat quite a find!
I agree with Marie, some secrets are not ours to tell. But fictionalising them is a way out, or through, or over that problem if the desire to put the skeletons in writing is strong. And it doesn’t have to be for publication.
I’ll check out Kathleen Pooler’s link just now … thank you.
The Memoir Revolution (Jerry Waxler), a social movement which highlights the power of story to heal, to change the world even, encouraged all to write their own story. However, it doesn’t have to be published widely. It could be in diary form, or printed for a small circle of family members. My own memoir began as a collection of 15 stories for my children more than a dozen years ago, printed and spiral bound by Kinko’s.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts here and then visiting Kathy’s post, which deals more with the psychological implications of owning one’s story.
I checked out Kathleen’s link re: Maureen Murdock – would have loved to have left a comment but saw no comment button! A powerful read – so many relevant points of view. When Murdock showed (Joseph) Campbell her book, he said, “Women don’t need to make the journey.” That riled me …
You found the right post, but you have to scroll down pretty far to join in the 25+ comments posted there: http://krpooler.com/writing/do-mothers-have-a-right-to-write-their-own-story-by-maureen-murdock
I made a big fuss about the Joesph Campbell quote too, which made more sense when I understood the larger context. Kathleen would love to hear from you, Susan.
Good morning, Marian! Another fascinating post.
I just showed Doug the photo with the iron. We have one that looks very similar–it’s sitting on the divider between our kitchen and living room. He found it in a crawlspace in our house many years ago.
My mom’s hallway closet is filled with paintings. Mine is just a mess. 🙂
I’ve seen shots of your kitchen, so I have a faint idea of how that iron may look in the setting. Tell Doug to take another look in your crawlspace – maybe more hidden treasures – ha!
Your mother is very talented with using bold colors as I recall. Just for the record, studies have shown that creative people are seldom orderly. Take comfort in that, Merril.
Love the items you chose to feature here, Marian. They bring back memories and illustrate, again, what an unusual woman your aunt was for her time and place. Imagine how many months of her teacher’s pay must have gone into that monogrammed leather case and 16 mm camera. I love the snippets of your childhood you have shared here, presumably taken with that camera.
As for my own closets, I move often enough to keep them manageable. We are getting close to our plan for Pittsburgh, and I know I’ll both purge old things and re-organize the space to share with the people who rent our place for the academic year.
You are right, Shirley. Her teacher’s salary in the 1940s could not have been more than a few thousand dollars, but she was frugal and saved. My blog would have a different appearance and tone without the advantage of her pictures and video. And my mother’s snapshots too for that matter.
How fortunate Kate and family will be to have you alongside come June. Do I see another Nanny Diaries coming into focus then? I wonder.
“Otter” hats off to my sister Marian for these beautiful photographs. Thank you for taking the extra time to set up and snap the pictures that are now family treasures. Brings back lots of emotion of our time together laughing and crying our way down memory lane.
And now our family & hospice hover by our aunt Ruthie’s side as she slowly glides onward toward the heavenly shores.
The hard job of sorting and re-assigning these pieces also includes making memories. Nice to have you alongside, sister Jean! 🙂
You found so many treasures. Aren’t those paintings wonderful?
Thanks for the kind comment, Fiona. I realize now her palette was usually pastel, except for the woman by the stone wall. I like how you combine both pastel and bold in your photos.
I’ve been going through book shelves. I can part with anything easier than the treasured books in my library. My husband is working at finding good homes for them, so our basement now has books in different piles all over the place. The books remaining on the shelves now have space to breathe, and I can add others if I like because there is more room (although downsizing is my purpose!).
Thanks for the link re what to publish and what not. A dilemma when writing memoirs!
Love your aunt’s paintings. What will you do with them?
I completely understand the emotional and physical strain of sorting through treasured friends. Fortunately your good buddy husband is helping to find good homes for some of them, a chore I call “sparking joy.”
What will we do with Aunt Ruthie’s paintings? I have the one with the Canada geese ready to hang in my breakfast nook. Close relatives will find homes for others. I can’t imagine giving any of them away.
I find myself gazing long and swooning (?) at Aunt Ruthie’s art. Seems like what my ancestors were striving for also in their art, though they did not have much guidance, and it turned out more rustic. Thank you for sharing your findings with us Marian.
Rustic is good too! Ruthie would maybe groan (but appreciate) if she knew someone was swooning over her art.
Aunt Ruthie’s took a painting course in the 1980s which I’m sure is reflected in a more refined look. When I was her student at Rheems Elementary School, art was a favorite. We colored as she read to us, worked construction paper into fanciful objects, and even used a jig-saw to create wall hangings. Thanks, Dolores. Art can be powerful, rustic or refined. I am guessing you have art treasures to share too, maybe with children.
I love all of the things you found. Going through that closet must have been like a wonderful party, discovering further who Aunt Ruthie really was. I love her paintings, especially the first one with the bird. I wonder what she was thinking as she painted that day. Thank you for sharing this wonderful treasure trove.
You’re welcome, Joan. I have wondered about the fluttery bird. She loved birds, but I don’t think this painting was necessarily her style. After all, she took a course and perhaps the instructor had brought an artifact. She is too far removed from all of this for me to ask about it. But, then again . . .
Marion, thank you so much for sharing about your Aunt Ruthie. We had a similar experience when going through my Aunt Becky’s things. Going down memory lane is certainly a lot of fun. I enjoyed the one comment from someone who says “creative people are rarely organized people.” That made me chuckle. Your Aunt Ruthie was truly a treasure. I can’t imagine unloading that big house. I’m sure you have many hours to go. I’m sure you have many hours walking down memory lane.
You can picture the big gray Victorian house I’m sure and know it’s stuffed to the gills with treasure. It’s nice to see you in this column today. We are coming up in mid-March. It’s possible we could get together then. What do you think?
Alas, we grand-nieces and nephews never found Narnia in our quests- the closets seemed right, and two grandfather clocks should have provided some means to ‘the other side’.. we did, however, find our imaginations saturated with the best that a woods, quarry, ancient mechanisms and supportive grand folks could provide.
Thank you for speaking in behalf of at least two generations of Aunt Ruthie’s relatives. More power to us all in the search. 🙂
How lovely! I know a bit about the big job you’re doing, Marian. At this point, everything left from my grandma, my mom, and Vic’s mom is in my house in my dry storage areas. I’m sorting, but not fast enough. I’m saving what I can for family (and what they want), but if I don’t know who is in the photo and it’s unlabeled, it goes in paper recycling–unless I love the image without knowing who it is. This gives me a hint about what will happen to Vic’s and my photos if they aren’t carefully labeled–and Vic’s photos aren’t digitalized yet. Sigh… I love the oil painting of the Dutch woman by the stone wall. It says so much.
Fortunately, I have full permission to write about my sons, one’s wife, and one’s partner (girlfriend is too weak a word for their relationship). Vic’s mom likes knowing I write about her, but isn’t interested in what I write. (A few years back, she had a health aide read my book to her. The aide said she especially enjoyed the one sex scene and was glad we were “having fun.”) I guess I haven’t crossed the line so far, but we’ll see how that unfolds in time.
You are probably sorting fast enough, Elaine. I predict you will probably pick up speed when plans to move actually became more definite. Writing and living are a lot like knitting, sometimes you have to cast off.
Memoirists like Kathy and Maureen would applaud your wide-open permission to write about family. I love your mention of Vic’s mom relishing the sex scene in your book. I have a feeling she will appear as herself or fictionally in your book. Remember this: Thorns-in-the-flesh add so much flavor to the soup.
My feelings are bittersweet as I read your fun and yet touching post. My brother and I have had to ‘clean out the closet’ of my mother’s life lately, also. It feels like cleaning out a ‘life,’ and that feels so sad and unacceptable. But no one else wants the left-over memories of another, even though those memories (and otter hats) are precious items that still contain the spirit of the person who lived through them. I LOVE the photo of your sister in the hat. Don’t you wish we still wore such attractive accoutrements now? (Except, of course, without the otter ….) 🙂
You hit the target with your comments and riveting question. Cliff and I have gotten rid of at least 1/3 of our stuff, but we are not fools enough to think that carefully curated stuff won’t be purged further or even moved to the curb. Our Gen-X kids don’t seem stuck on nostalgia.
I feel the pain in your words “clean out the closet of your mother’s life.” Ouch! Like your mother, Aunt Ruthie has left legacy beyond her possessions. Still, it feels unacceptable to make judgments about her possessions in a vacuum.
If Julian Fellowes ever does a prequel to Downton Abbey (as is rumored) he could help himself to some fanciful, filigreed Victorian brooches and belt buckles. On second thought . . .
I love all those treasures hiding in the closet, Marian. There is enough there to start a small museum! I still remember my mum’s ruffle iron, even though I didn’t know that was the right term for it, and I remember using it before steam irons became available.
As for skeletons, if you haven’t got any, you probably haven’t lived! 👍
Famtima, you are the second person to mention the ruffle iron. Yes, the stuff we have found (and have yet to un-cover) could start a small museum.
I like your comment about skeletons in the closet – you’re probably right! 🙂
Love that iron! My closet is full of shoes and purses, lol. 🙂
I picture your closet with shoes in every color and texture, one (or more) for every outfit. Many writers are not fashion plates; you’re an exception. And I say go for it!
Whatever you do don’t mention the loft 😜😝😖😤 I think you have just got away with it 😂😊 . I think I mentioned in a previous post about our loft, it’s in serious need of sorting.
Please tell me the ‘Otter Hat ‘ isn’t made out of otter skin …it is isn’t it …oh dear times have changed …thank goodness.
I read that book by Julie Myerson , in fact I’ve read many of her books , she ‘s good. I think both mother and son needed that book to go public . Both were at fault in my eyes …if a mother can love TOO much , she did ,and if a son can be LOVED TOO much …he was . If you read it you will know what I mean .
I can only say I hope to goodness they have made peace with each other now .
I can’t be responsible for my Grandma’s wearing a REAL otter hat. Back then, people were not as socially conscious as they are now and people wore animal skins on their heads, backsides and feet. I guess you’ll have to forgive them all – ha!
Your messy loft doesn’t bother your friends/readers one bit. I have a feeling you don’t hold grudges and inflict damage on your friendships – just a guess. Have a great weekend!
I love how you turned what might have been the melancholy chore of “cleaning out the closet” into a joyous, memory-making, family event. Such treasures! And although you probably won’t keep all the treasures, making photos of them was a brilliant idea.
You’re awesome, Marian. I also appreciate the links, jumping over to check them out now.
Hi again, Tracy. I just visited you on Goodreads and now I notice you here too. Lucky me!
Yes, the sorting through the contents of another house is daunting, and indeed melancholy at times. Fortunately, I’m not doing this alone. I am shoulder to shoulder with my sisters. Included in the mix is the contents of a small barn, a stuffed garage and landscaping to trim up before the sale in June. And you’re right, We can curate but not keep everything. 🙂
How wonderful to find these items in Aunt Ruthie’s closet. These things always tell a lot about the person. Love that hat. If it could talk, the stories it would tell.
What an idea you sparked – a talking hat. With a bit of research about fashion and my family in the 1910s, I could do something with that. You’re a genius, Darlene. That’s what constant story-telling does to the brain – ha!