Memories of a Suitcase


She had been sitting there for days.  Waiting… thinking, dreaming and shaken by the empty unknown future lying ahead of her.  She appeared resigned to her circumstances, waiting stoically for family to deliver her to the senior citizen’s retirement home.  This was her decision.  She was healthy she told us and did not want to be a burden on her family.

Dressed in her favorite paisley dress with a delicately crocheted collar, which she had made, a smile began to blossom as we entered the now dimly lit living room.  Not a bright, happy smile, but a cautious and trusting one.  Both hands were clutching her brown handbag and her handkerchief was neatly tucked in the side pocket.

As she sat there looking at her suitcase packed with all the things she loved and wanted close to her she said, “All that is left of my life is in there you know…that’s all.”

Forgetting to eat now, she was losing all sense of time.  Was there some kind of internal time clock that was weaning her from one world and preparing her for the next?  What enemy was lurking inside her, stealing her  life away…gentle, sweet Lollie.

She was my grandmother.  Lollie Sweet Sterling:  born in 1890, in a small logging town in Washington, five children, nine grandchildren, twenty-three great-grandchildren and ten great-great grandchildren.  And she boasted proudly about all of them.  The living room walls were filled with their pictures.  Now, the family memories were fading away.

Lollie was a small woman with fine delicate features and silver-white hair which was beginning to thin now.  She had white, clear skin with rose cheeks and bright, happy blue eyes that sparkled when she laughed. Small, round wire-frame glasses rested gently on her tiny nose.

A witty, dry sense of humor made her seem very English, and noticeably quiet and reserved.  Nobody in the family really knew if she was English, she had been adopted.  Somehow I felt that she knew who her real mother and father were and what the circumstances were of her adoption.  Family rumors.

My mother told me she was at times cold, unfeeling and very Victorian.  But I knew better.  This was the grandma that loved to spend holidays with us, play hours of canasta and hearts.  She visited with me as if I was her close friend.  And we ate huge bowls of vanilla ice cream smothered in strawberries together.  She was crafty at playing cards – hardly ever lost.  Yes, it was just a game, but it was serious and winning was what it was all about to Lollie.

Her husband Charlie died fifteen years ago of a heart attack leaving her all alone.  Yes, she had her children, but her “Charlie” was her life.  The family had never heard Lollie speak a harsh or cruel word – either to him, or about him.  She always said “That Charlie was a good man.”  We all knew he had a passion for gambling and had made his two boys quit school in their early teens to help support the family.  She had a kind of fierce loyalty to him.  Not that she was covering up traits in him that displeased her.  Rather, she had a kind of sacred idea of who her husband was that she could not betray.  Not for anyone.  Lollie would not have been a “libber.”   A woman’s place was in the home, raising her children, and standing by her man!

I recalled her own poetic words that revealed her feelings. Words written so long ago:

Down through the years dear,

We’ve walked together

Sunshine or rain, all kinds of weather

Sometimes our path was rough and steep

Sometimes it halted our tired feet

But never the less we plodded on

And soon the roughest road was gone.

When I returned later to clean and pack, getting things ready for my aunts to arrive, I could feel the living memories that filled the large home.  Babies were born, small children chattering…all the drama of a growing family.  There were the days of canning, sewing and writing poetry.  What tales could these rooms tell?  I recalled one of the stories from her scrapbook that revealed a proud memory of her youngest son – my dad.

The family was seated at the table, when little Billie brought up the subject of wanting a coaster wagon.  Mother did not wish him to talk of such things while eating, so put him off by saying that if he was a good boy Santa might bring him one for Christmas.  For a few minutes all was silent- then, to the astonishment of all, Billie burst  forth, “Well, if I don’t get a wagon pretty soon, I’m a goin’ to cuss!”

(The notation at the bottom of her story read:  sent to Pagent –Younger Generation, March 26th)

As I enjoyed a cup of tea at the now antique dining room table, I could see the neatly kept living room with starched doilies on every table.  The dining room chest was filled with her best linens, china and silver.  These were Lollie’s treasured collections from a long, happy life.  While quietly sitting, there was only the gentle ticking sound of the grandfather’s clock.  I marveled at the comfort this old grandfather clock seemed to offer.  I glanced into the enclosed sun porch, just off of the large living room, where she rested, dreamed and wrote poetry.  Poetry filled with her dreams and what were once silent and private thoughts.  What lofty ideals and visions of life were trapped in her pages of poetry?  I was suddenly intrigued.  I had to read that poetry!

I picked up her black journal with the worn binding and opened the frayed and torn flap that used to hold a snap.  One side of the last snap was holding on by threads.  As I lifted the cover, a smell reminiscent of an old attic filled the air.  The pages of poetry had been long forgotten over the years, but now the light had given them life once again.

Pages of her journal were now loose with wear and fragments of poetry were written on envelopes, scraps of stationary and backs of checkbook pages from the merchant’s bank in Port Townsend.  Clippings from local newspapers were carefully tucked into a flap that contained her published poems.  There was an agenda with her name on it as a guest speaker, dated September 24, 1925, from the Lincoln P.T. A. in Port Angeles.

Short stories recorded memories of her children, calling them endearing names like:  “Little Billie and “Sweet Fred.”  And there was a short poem she wrote for a friend while spending Thanksgiving at her son Fred’s home.

Here I lay all tattered and torn

Once I was a turkey, but now I’m forlorn

I strutted around for people to see

Little dreaming of what was about to happen to me

So now to the bone yard I hither must go.

And there were thoughtful poems about her mother and father, written with love, admiration and respect.  Her name was written on the flyleaf – a familiar slanted signature; meticulous, yet quick strokes that reminded me of her tidy nature.

There was the Singer sitting in the corner of the sun room where she spent many hours converting scraps and pieces of material into beautiful finished clothing.  She rarely wore a dress that she had not made.

Lollie had been a member of a grandmother’s bands.  Instruments were crafted from all types of simple household items like:  pans, spoons and graters.  Practice sessions were held each week, and they performed for senior citizens at the center where she was a member.  News clippings and pictures of “the band” were prized trophies carefully saved in her scrapbook.  I read an essay about the elderly that Lollie wrote in 1929, when she was a young mother.  A paragraph stuck in my mind:

In the recent issue of the Townsend Weekly, a brief article appeared.  It came from the Los Angeles Times and said:  In a note declaring – “One year of county relief is all I can go through,” wrote a 58 year old woman and took her last farewell of life.  Mrs. Gertrude O’Donovan of 211 S Verdugo Rd, Glendale, left this message to explain why she took her own life by inhaling chloroform.  Quote:  “Life is not worth the monthly struggle to live on almost nothing.  No one is to blame, but circumstances…although more aid could be given.”

 My grandmother passed away three years later, living in a rest home in Sacramento, near her three daughters.  But life had been good to her.  She had enjoyed good health, a happy life, and had peace.

I wish I had gotten to know her better, and shared in her life, her dreams, and her memories.  I wanted to pass this knowledge on to the next generation in the hopes that they would keep her memory alive with stories and charm of who Lollie Sweet was.  There is a kind of pride in knowing.  But the poetry and stories will live on – a legacy to future generations.

And Lollie writes of a youthful life, a romantic life, and memories of her “Charlie.”

I mused as I sat alone one day

And something within me seemed to say

The years have fled and you now are gray

Tell me what price you are willing to pay

To take back your youth of the bye-gone day.

I fairly thrilled and my heart beat fast

To think once again of living the past.

I could see myself a maiden fair

With sparkling eyes and flowing hair

So blithe, so happy, with never a care.

In the distance I see a stalwart lad

And somehow it seems to make me sad.

Yet, I feel the flush that’s on my cheek

I pause and stammer, afraid to speak,

Yes, my girlhood lover

Should I retreat, or just pretend that we chanced to meet?

He lifts his hat in a manly way

And somewhat cautious, I hear him say

I’d like to accompany you if I may.

I couldn’t help but wonder…what suitcase of memories would I have?  Would I celebrate my life by honoring the people closest to me? It seems incredible to me, even cruel to think of life in these terms.

I must give “the gift of family” to my children by repeating the stories I’ve heard through the years.  Lollie would love that!!!

Family is everything!

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