These Walls Can Talk: A Thanksgiving Family Discovery


I have all sorts of stuff up in the attic – everything from my aunt’s 1932 magazine article about the dearth of health care during the Depression to my son’s fourth grade school papers and my daughter’s poems, to the samovar that I brought from Russia in 1968 (which I’m trying to sell in the classified ads). And anyone who has read my book about my mother, Josephine, knows about me finding her diaries and letters from 1910 through the 1930s.

But just in time for Thanksgiving, more family history appeared by magic, but not from the attic.

About a month ago, while crawling into the back of a cupboard on the west side of my house, looking for the bound edition of the 1952 Beachcomber, I noticed that the back wall was disintegrating 1930s wallboard – the wall board that was supposed to be removed when the house was remodeled in the late 1980s. I poked it and my finger went through it. So I called AJ, my ever-ready handyman, who said he’d fix it when he had time. I said I wanted a piece of cedar and some insulation. He had the insulation, and I tried to cadge a small piece of cedar from a builder friend.

Then I remembered that we were remodeling the bathroom at the Barnegat Light Museum, originally the Barnegat Light schoolhouse. Our vice president, Reilly Sharp, a mostly digital handy man, was doing the hard labor. The stall with the swinging door that hit the knees of any sitting adult was getting ripped out. I said to Reilly, “Save me the door.”

How a propos to have the door that sheltered me in grades one through five recycled to the back of my cupboard. When Reilly had the room cleared out, he put the very solid and heavy door into my car, and at home I dragged it out onto the ground. Just before Thanksgiving AJ came with tools and a scrap of insulation, cut the door down to size and went to work.

To avoid the noise and mess, I retreated to my office. But soon after he started, AJ yelled, “Pooch, come here, you have to see what I found.”

Next to him on the floor was a pile of paper debris mixed in with crumbles of wallboard and scraps of ancient insulation, like something out of a trashcan. But what trash! I spotted my mother’s distinctive handwriting on an index card, a yellowed scrap of a 1935 newspaper, a small book with a leather cover encrusted with a bloom of white mold with circular patterns that looked like the surface of the moon (Walt Whitman’s poems, a few legible only in the center of the book), remains of a rotted cardboard file folder with little holes nibbled at the edge, envelopes in various stages of erosion with all writing faded and a damp, string-bound notepad, curled into a roll but with legible writing inside – all this artfully sprinkled with mouse turds. AJ pulled it from between the studs. How did it get there? We’ll never know.

The 1935 date was a pivotal clue. This was the year my parents finished the tiny cottage, perched on pilings close – too close – to the bay, one large room with two bunks and a potbelly stove, small kitchen and bathroom, and an equally small room for the baby. Me. And what was on one of her lists? “Get diapers.”

I put the salvageable papers in the sun until they dried and I could read them. One list on an index card was headed “Attend to” and followed with reminders to get the Franklin (car) out of the garage, “write will, repair vacuum, buy table and print film.”

Each page of the notebook has a sub-category. Under “Construction” my mother wrote: “Putty on south windows; west windows water-tight; tighten windows, porch leak (porch? What porch?); leaky roof (this one is crossed off, guess they fixed it); outdoor shower, hay (to keep the sand from blowing away?); and finally cesspool. This last item makes me think the list is even earlier. No cesspool for a year? That didn’t affect me as I was in diapers, but my parents? So now I think the list could be from 1934, the year of original construction.

But the next list, under “Miscellaneous Get” is surely post-cesspool: “embroidered pillow slips, complete set blue dishes, cocktail glasses, coffee cups, finger bowls.” Finger bowls! My father might have grown up with those “don’t lick your fingers, dip them in the bowl and use the napkin” bowls. But I never saw one until I was old enough to eat with the adults at Aunt Milly’s. (Aunt Milly never learned to cook, but she married a man who could afford to hire one.)

Another page headed “Winter Clothes” listed about a dozen outfits from gray suit and checked skirt to black satin dinner dress. (Hey, Mom, you are leaving Manhattan and coming to a sandy barrier island with no sewers and heat. You won’t need the dinner dress, or the purple crepe or yellow satin one.) But on the following page, titled “Jo Wanted,” she got more practical. Two items: wool socks and washable sleeping pajama. (This must be as opposed to lounging pajamas; she wouldn’t be doing much of that.)

With my son in Maine and my grandson in Sweden, this unexpected visitation from the past was as close to a family Thanksgiving that I got this year.  But that’s OK, as I had another kind of experience to be thankful for: a William Wordsworth “spot of time” – several days spent with the spirit of my well-organized, industrious, talented and loving mother, and in the same house she worked so hard to make a home.

Margaret Thomas Buchholz of Harvey Cedars is author of Josephine: From Washington Working Girl to Fisherman’s Wife, published by Down The Shore Publishing, and other books about the shore. She can be reached at lbipooch@comcast.net.


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