top of page

my mom, the archivist

I recently started a new job, and now every day as I head to work, I drive by the house on W. Washington Ave. where many years ago my Mom shared an attic flat with friends. When I was growing up we loved my Mom's Madison stories, including the one about how she worked in the stately Capitol Building (for the Wisconsin Printing Board) when she lived in the attic flat, and how she would walk the four blocks up to the Capitol every morning to get to work. I work now just a few blocks away, but so far my daily trips up a busy W. Washington Avenue, in the car, have not made it into family legend.

My Mom passed away earlier this month, and in my benumbed state, I am sifting through her things, looking for pieces of her to hang onto.

What's obvious to me right away is that my Mom saved lots of data about herself, generated by the various institutions she interacted with over the years. There are the decades of bank statements, paid bills, and tax returns. These are all neatly packaged in manilla envelopes, with the year identified on each in my Mom's handwriting. There are documents and ID cards that indicate her status as the spouse of a military doctor, all examples of the myriad ways in which the Air Force collected and recorded data of military personnel and their dependents.

There are also the less official items that document my Mom's life. I have found numerous stashes of birthday cards; I see that my Dad bought cards for my Mom with prominently effusive, greetings, and, feeling that perhaps he had gushed enough in the handy, printed message, simply signed them "Ed" (although I did find several where he added "all my love," and I found these very sweet). There are the many cards to "Mom" that my sister and I sent through the years, with long swaths of energetic handwriting detailing our busy lives, aimed largely at the one person who took the most delight in the detail. And the cards with a multitude of brightly colored ducks and bunnies to "Grandma" that we picked out for our kids to give her. There are also several large plastic bags of holiday cards, which I know include years of the annual letter from one of the teachers in the American school in France, whom we got to know, and who went on fantastic trips each year after retiring, often to remote areas of the world my Mom knew she herself would likely never see.

I'm finding lots of photos, many of my Mom as a child, young adult, and from the years she lived in the attic flat and all the friends that circulated through her life back then. There are wedding photos and photos of my family when I was growing up. I've seen many of these before, but some are new for me, including the photos of my Mom and her then young nephew sitting atop a large white horse. My very diminutive Mom at one time was quite an avid horsewoman apparently, although by the time my sister and I came along, she had given that up.

I remember my Mom telling me once that she never understood why people identified themselves as simply "me" on the back side of photos, because later generations wouldn't know who "me" was. But I see that my Mom was guilty of this as well. On the back of one of these photos, in pencil, it reads: "Me in my graduation dress taken Sunday before graduation May 24, 1936." She later remedied this by adding, in blue pen, in handwriting I recognize, her name, her age, and where the photo was taken.

Then there's the information about my Mom's life that she generated herself, and this is prodigious. As I find more and more examples of this, I realize how absolutely important it was for Mom to accurately record the details about her daily life and that of her family.

The most obvious way she did this was the daily diary she kept for many years. Starting in 1965, my Mom recorded what we did each day; the last of these dispatches occurred sometime in 2016, the last diary in which I have found entries. A day's report from October 19, 1965, when we were still settling into Evreux, France, reads: "Our furniture is here! It looks mighty good to us. We're crowded. French movers kept saying 'Beaucoup!'" She recorded all of the moves our military family made, starting with our move to France in 1965, where we first lived off-base in a small, French neighborhood, and then our move sometime later to base housing. There she would often find herself alone with my sister and me as my Dad was required to fulfill temporary duty jobs—TDY as it was called—working in eye clinics on other bases elsewhere in France and often in Italy.

I suspect my Mom must have been rather afraid to be left alone with her two young daughters in a country where she didn't speak the language, but she never wrote of her fear in her diary. She would go on to record the move to Germany, the many family trips we took while in Europe, and later the return to the United States and the moves to Indiana, Ohio, Florida, and eventually Wisconsin. Over the years, my Mom's diaries became the ultimate truth in the family, and any time a disagreement emerged about dates and when we did what, we would refer to her diary to solve the dispute. I have found most of these diaries, but a couple of years remain missing.

One year Mom presented my sister and me with her memoirs, which she had typed on her home computer. Her treatise runs for 150 pages. She made exactly two copies, one for each of us. Her writing is mostly a straightforward reporting of facts, but there are delightful bursts of detail and reflection here and there. I have been poring over this in recent weeks as I strive to reconcile her story here with the trails of information I'm finding elsewhere.

Once my Mom got her own computer, and then her own email, she emailed me daily. I looked back through my emails the other day, and the last one that she wrote me herself (a caregiver kindly sent some emails "from" Mom when Mom could no longer handle the typing) was dated December 7, 2018; it was a short weather report: "We had a tiny bit of sun today. Otherwise clouds. We still have the white blanket from last week." Most emails, as I recall, included a weather report. Mom monitored and reported on the weather doggedly, and it was the main reason she tuned into the local TV news each night, to get the weather forecast for the next day. I always told her that she could check the current weather any time of day by going online, but my Mom and the Internet never really became friends. Instead, she would wait faithfully every evening for the local Wausau TV newscast, and then the next morning, the forecast would make it into her email to me. The weather, I'm sure, was another way to record the specifics of the day.

I have decided to take a break, and I go in search of my Mom's address cards to look for people I should contact about her passing. But here I come across an unexpected trove: I find all of the address cards she ever kept for me—from my several Madison addresses when I was first out of college, then graduate school in Illinois, the subsequent addresses in the Boston area when I was first married, upstate New York, California, and then back to Madison again. And on these 3 1/2 x 5 address cards, she packed a wealth of other data as well: the date of my wedding, our birthdays, the date on which she sent a holiday card each year, and finally, to my great delight, she indicated the day on which my husband and I gained custody of our daughter when we were in Guatemala to pick her up. This made my heart sing; it fills me with great joy that this date was as significant for my Mom as it was for my husband and me.

I am curious why my Mom preserved all of this data and and created so much of it herself—what drove her to do this? And I think I have a couple of answers to this question.

When my Mom first moved to Madison, right out of high school, she started taking classes at the university campus in Madison. She wanted to be a journalist—a fitting job for someone who would care a great deal about the who, what, why, where, and when for years to come. Sadly, work took up most of her time and she wasn't able to pursue a degree, but she remained a journalist at heart her whole life. I think her penchant for detail, however, goes deeper than that. I have just started a new book—Optic Nerve—written by Maria Gainza, an Argentine art critic. She surveys different artists and their works, applying some fictionalized tales to account for their lives, and in the telling, she weaves in her own autobiography. She talks of her mother, and how her mother’s childhood home had been sold at one point and became an embassy in Buenos Aires, and that the trauma of losing her beloved home made her mother hang onto things—from couches to magazines and many things in between. She could never bear to let anything go because then it might be lost forever, much like her cherished home.

As I read this book, I realized that it shines a light on my Mom’s need to hang onto things, and her need to capture the detail and the significance of each item. As a child, my Mom's family life was very itinerant—they were often on the move so her father could find work. They didn't have much, but even so, there were perhaps things they could not take with them each time. And then, still a child, my Mom's family circumstances changed dramatically at one point, and she and her siblings did not live at home again. Maybe this proclivity for detail grew out of a fervent wish to hang onto things that might be taken away or lost at any moment, a way to fasten down fleeting moments of attachment to a place and a house and the family who lived in the house.

When I was a child, our family made many moves as well, but these moves were dictated by the United States Air Force, my Dad's employer. My Dad was an optometrist, and his patients were military personnel and their families. His frequent postings took us to many different locales, but one thing that became clear to my sister and me no matter the new, surprising places in which we found ourselves, was that our Mom and Dad always made each new place a home. And it wasn't just the familiar things that arrived with our hold baggage or on the moving vans—it was the absolute sense that no matter where we lived, we knew that we would be together in our new home, safe and well-loved.

And I'm beginning to realize that amid all of the stuff I'm finding in my Mom's house that traces the details of her life, perhaps the most enduring piece of my Mom is in fact something she gifted to my sister and me years ago—the intangible promise of permanence no matter where we landed. And her careful documentation of this permanent home that she created for and with us was perhaps a way to both heal the childhood losses she had endured and to ensure stability for her daughters, despite all of the moves, so that we wouldn't have to experience the losses she had.

Nevertheless, I am greatly enthralled by this archive my Mom created over the many years of her life—her propensity to document the many details. In a fascinating article that came out in 1997 entitled "What is a document?" (written by Michael K. Buckland, then with the School of Information Management & Systems, University of California, Berkeley), the author explores the many different kinds of "documents" and why things that are not text and are not printed are also documents because they convey information. He writes of the early uses of the term “documentation”—initially "...a set of techniques developed to manage significant...documents, meaning, in practice, printed texts. But there was (and is) no theoretical reason why documentation should be limited to texts, let alone printed texts. There are many other signifying objects in addition to printed texts. And if documentation can deal with texts that are not printed, could it not also deal with documents that are not texts at all?"

He goes on to assess the many "things" that can be considered documents, referring at one point to the fascinating argument by Suzanne Briet, who asserted that "A document is evidence in support of a fact." With this definition, she included an antelope that has been captured and taken to a zoo, because once it becomes an object of study, it provides physical evidence and exists as the primary document of itself.

My Mom, while she lived, was just such a document of herself. She had many stories to tell of her life as a child, her early days in Madison, living on military bases around the world with a young family, and later retirement onto an old farmstead in Wisconsin. Now that she is gone, this archive of information about my Mom that she both saved and created is helping me to further identify her and hang onto her. All of these things she retained—photos, diaries, greetings cards, address cards, memoirs, etc.—these are all "documents" that carry information about my Mom and provide a substance to her life. And, thankfully, too, a place for my grief to reside.

Image is of my Mom (on the left) and her friend, Fran, on the steps of the Capitol Building in Madison, WI, 1946.


bottom of page