My husband and I devote a lot of energy and emotion these days to separating the junk and the treasures that have made up the tapestry of our life together for 50 years.
It’s an ongoing and overwhelming task, and one that seems never to complete itself to the satisfaction of both parties. That’s a civilized way of admitting that although we both enjoy and cherish many of the same things in our home, sometimes it’s a temptation to dismiss as junk something of one or the other’s treasures.
There’s a certain angst that one or the other of us suppresses, remaining patient, with the hope that the offending item will be packed up and delivered to Second Glance or another local secondhand shop in the city, perhaps to the delight of someone else.
After the death of my husband's father, followed several years later by his mother’s passing, we were called upon by his family to deal with their possessions and dispose of what was left. Both of my husband’s brothers lived afar, one of them even settling abroad. Neither expressed an interest, after taking a cursory inventory, of what remained of their parents’ belongings.
Among some of the more appreciated and useful items of furniture that we chose to keep was a pair of beautiful and huge wooden, reinforced file cabinets, custom-made to his mother’s specifications.
My mother-in-law, whom I loved dearly, was the most organized person I have ever encountered. When her file cabinets joined our family, we found everything meticulously organized. By that time though, most of the contents had been emptied of what was essential in settling her estate. Still, what remained was a copious volume very full, and very, very heavy. It took three strong men and an industrial “dolly” to get the file cabinets into our house where we wanted them.
Each of the matching cabinets measured 4 1/2 feet high and contained four drawers, each 17 inches wide and 30 inches deep. When I tried to help move them into my husband’s office, I was of no use whatsoever; I estimated they weighed tons, so I bowed out.
They proved immensely helpful to my husband as he tended to his mother’s affairs and correspondence. After that, they simply graced his home office where they stood, quietly handsome pieces of "furniture." Years passed as he now and then waded through the remaining nonessentials that rested within.
He dealt with the unhurried task with the top drawers of both first, throwing out reams and reams of paper every so often, making room, little by little, for our own papers. Occasionally, we came across a tender memory saved, like a drawing done by one of the grandchildren, many of whom now have grown children of their own.
This week though, I unearthed a very special photo album that I knew existed somewhere, but had neither been seen or thought of for many years. As we’d emptied, read and disposed of appropriately the files of my in-laws, we had occasionally filed away some long-forgotten things of our own.
At the age of 12 or 13, I had discovered the International Friendship League, an organization that bloomed after World War II and sought to heal the pains and horrors of the generation following the war by making “matches” among young people. The idea was to request pen pals from a huge list of names and countries, engaging in a friendly sharing of ideas and dreams of a world that would be healing for a long time.
I didn’t need to be asked twice to hook up with one. I chose and chose again, until I had letters coming from all over the world. For a year or so, hardly two weeks went by without receiving a letter. How can the internet compare, I wonder, to the thrill of a letter in hand, a photograph of someone holding a cat or dog they loved, a foreign stamp or coin, a postcard of someone’s village, a black-and-white snapshot of someone’s home?
There were girls and (I dared) boys from Nigeria, Turkey, Belgium, Australia, Sweden, Canada and two each from Germany and England. This mad frenzy of communication continued until I was 14 or 15. We were all growing up, and many of the communications dwindled to Christmas or birthday cards.
But several of my 12 or 14 correspondents hung on longer. And one remains even to this day. The contact that I made with Eileen Conlon (Hillier now) was made by crossing a different bridge: the Gloucester Daily Times.
She lived then in Gloucester, England, when she discovered this “other Gloucester” existed. She wrote a short letter addressed to “The editor of the newspaper in Gloucester, Massachusetts, USA,” requesting a “pen pal.” I don’t think I ever asked her if she got responses other than mine, but I was terribly excited, and responded with a letter immediately!
If I recall correctly, we were about 13 at the time. We have corresponded pretty regularly all these years, all through growing up, getting married, children and recently (for her) grandchildren.
She and her husband have a daughter who is a flight attendant, so they have travelled extensively, and not long ago surprised us with a brief and lovely visit during a layover in Boston. Unfortunately, the sun didn’t shine, but I think the warmth we all felt for that short time has sealed us into a friendship that will see us to the end.
Gloucester resident Susan S. Emerson is a regular Times columnist.