Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Magical Side of Family Research: A True Tale That Surprised Two Daughters

Some costume jewelry from our mother's collection, that was a big hit at our garage sale in June of 2010. It had a treasure mixed in with it.

Last June, I had just about reached the limit of my ability to sort through my parents' possessions.  They had died within months of each other just half a year before, and I was a bit wrung out. I asked my sister--told her, actually--that if we were going to get rid of all the stuff left over from their lives--stuff I had rather ruthlessly piled in the garage--I wasn't going to be able to manage a garage sale on my own.

My sister rose to the challenge and with the help of her loyal spouse, the three of us mustered a weekend of garage sale recycling:  you take our junque, and we charge you almost nothing if you just get it the heck out of our driveway.

In the course of this exhausting event, we almost sold a precious item we shouldn't have--but something caused my sister to hold it back.  We had no idea what she had saved until this week.

The discovery came as I transcribed letter #214 of my father's missives from World War II, written to my mother as they spent eleven of the first twelve months of their marriage, apart--separated by the inconvenience of the bloody Battle of Okinawa.

By the time I had reached letter #214, it was September 14, 1945. The Japanese had surrendered and the war was over. My father, sitting on Ie Shima with the 1902 Aviation Engineer Battalion, was now spending most of his time playing ping pong and trying to figure out how and when he was going to be allowed to go home to his wife.

Their first anniversary was just two weeks away, and in letter #214, after a discussion of their budget, he writes:

"This afternoon, I made a little pin for you from sea shells.  It is supposed to be worn on a suit or something.  I'll get it in the mail tomorrow or the next day.  It looks something like this ..."  and then he draws a picture of the pin.

The sea-shell pin, in the drawing, looks a little bit like a ray or a skate, two kinds of sea life he might easily have seen as he swam off Ie Shima in the China Sea.  The strange thing is that there was something familiar about the pin. Had I seen it in Mom's things? Had I sold it in the garage sale? The strangest feeling came over me as I seemed to recall my sister's hand reaching into the box of costume jewelry I had on display in our driveway and removing that pin.  "I think we should save that," she said, or at least that's what I thought had happened.  "It looks like somebody made that for Mom."

After I finished transcribing letter #214, I scanned a copy of it and emailed it to my sister.  "Do we still have that pin?"  I asked her in my message.  "Didn't you save it?"

Thanks to a whole set of things unavailable in my father's day--electronic mail, digital phography, and the Internet--my sister quickly sent back this image from her home in Colorado to mine in California.

"Let's let it be your 'versary gift," my father had written to my mother in his letter, referring to October 1, 1945 when he knew it was almost certain they would still be apart as they celebrated the first anniversary of their wedding. "I hope you like it but it is rather crude.  If you can't use it, the shell will make nice buttons."

And there it is, with my sister in Colorado. It sits, once again, on our mother's dresser.  We had the dresser for sale too, but my sister decided she didn't want to part with that either. My mother always kept her jewelry in that dresser--so the two have yet to be parted.

It is a quixotic little pin.  My sister and I think it is amazing that our father, who was neither the King of Style nor the Prince of Arts and Crafts, actually made this for our mother.  She was, indeed, in future years, the Empress of Glamor and we imagined she might, looking down from such a height, barely deign to notice such a primitive object d'art.

Yet, she did not turn it into buttons, and she did keep it with her for sixty-five years, until the lovers and the gift were finally parted by death.

Something caused us, the daughters, to keep it too.  And we marvel at it: this little treasure made of shells from a foreign shore.  The pin is a story:  it tells of an engineer's love for his wife and his need to tell her so with the only things he had to give her from thousands of miles and an ocean away.

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peretzklein said...

Good thing "told" her to help! Your father's gift that he literally engineered; it was a good save.

Robin Chapman said...

As with everything he put his mind to, it was well-made and enduring. My sister is thrilled that it was saved. She is older than I and I think she has some sensory memory of seeing it on one of Mom's jackets or coats as a little, little child. I never did see it, that I know of, except in that pile of costume jewelry. In any case, I'm so glad she had some kind of brain wave that said "don't sell that!" Those shells of Ie Shima are worth a lot to this family.

Don Meuler said...

Sweet! This makes me feel better about life, fate, and cosmic balance.

Robin Chapman said...

You are so right: nothing is more amazing than some of the true things that happen to us.

peretzklein said...

you and your sister seem to be making a good team of late. Perhaps that is the real hidden treasure.

Robin Chapman said...

What a thoughtful observation. I'm learning that God gives us many unexpected blessings. In sorrow we often also find joy. I'm glad I've lived long enough to learn these things.