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Chapter 32: Evocative Objects

In the bedroom chest of drawers at Mother’s apartment, I found a box containing cuff links, lapel pins, pocketknives, and some other small items that had belonged to my father. There was something uncanny about them. I was a little reluctant to touch them.

Herb’s membership pins

The cuff links. I had never known my father to wear a shirt that needed cuff links, but apparently at one time he did. Nor had I ever thought of him as a particularly sociable man, but the lapel pins were evidence to the contrary. There were two fancy pins with the initials CCHS on them (Cherokee County High School). They look like fraternity pins. Graduating from high school was a big deal in 1920. Two of the lapel pins in the box incorporate the image of a frightened or angry black cat, the symbol of the Concatenated Order of Hoo Hoos, the lumbermen’s fraternal and service organization.

There was an annual lumberman’s picnic in Kansas City in the 1930s. We always went. The city was smaller then and everybody in the lumber business either knew each other or had mutual friends. Little kids roamed everywhere. The picnics stopped during the war. Nobody was in the mood for picnics. Besides, people were too busy. And after the war everything was different. Lots of new companies started up. There were new technologies, too—aluminum windows, for instance—that threatened some of the older firms.

During the war Mother and Dad began losing touch with their “old gang” from the Covenant Presbyterian Church. Mary Ellen stopped giving smoky bridge parties and backyard picnics, and after the war, the “gang” didn’t reassemble. The men had reached an age when their careers required close attention. So did their families. Some were divorced and had remarried. Some were making a lot more money than others, which made things awkward. Also, by this time some of them were attending different churches.

There were two Phi Alpha Delta lapel pins in Dad’s box, one Masonic pin, a Pi Alpha Omega pin, and a small gold cross. Phi Alpha Delta was his law school fraternity. Phi Alpha Omega is a service fraternity that encourages college students to work with volunteer organizations. College students? My father never had anything to do with college students. Then I learned it was an organization connected to the Boy Scouts. That explained it. Dad was a Scoutmaster; I was his troop’s mascot when I was a little boy. He dropped out of Scouting when he changed churches but volunteered again in 1943, after he coerced me into joining. Finally, the tiny gold cross. He probably wore it in his lapel during the years he taught Sunday school.

In another box were several pocketknives and what looked like a coin. One of the knives was engraved with Herb’s initials. It was a gift from a sawmill in a town called John Day, Oregon. The coin was actually an advertising token that came from the Emerick Lumber Company of Brooklyn, New York (Evergreen 9-5100). There’s no date on it, but it must have been distributed in the 1930s for it bears the motto, “TIMES WILL CHANGE—FAITH.”

And, wrapped in tissue paper, I found the gold tooth Mary Ellen made him replace before she married him. Talk about “remains”! I hastily rewrapped it and put it back. I can imagine him grinning sympathetically at my squeamishness.

I found a book of Edgar A. Guest’s poems in one of Mother’s bureau drawers. It was a gift from Gwen Wurth, the linotypist. No date, but it was a Christmas gift from the 1920s. A note on one of the end pages speaks of Mother’s wonderful sense of humor. That was pretty stunning. None of her children were aware of her sense of humor.

Mary was looking through the drawers of Mother’s dressing table. She found bracelets, rings, necklaces, and fancy pins that Mother had inherited from Gram and Auntie. Mother’s valuable jewels—gifts from Herb—had been stolen at the Atrium. Then Mary found something that intrigued us both: a tortoise shell comb and mirror in a suede case. On the mirror there is a faded sticker that says, “Saks Fifth Avenue.” Mother must have bought that case in 1940, when she and Dad drove semi-secretly to New York to see the World’s Fair. The fact that she never removed the sticker shows that it was important to her that it came from Saks. It was a frivolous, impractical purchase. A souvenir—of the trip, of course, but . . . Did she ever dream of becoming a commercial artist in Manhattan? There is no evidence of this, but it is the kind of speculation that objects left behind inspire.

 

Mary Ellen’s jacks