My father was a great one for clipping things out of newspapers. Every time I’d go to visit him there’d be a stack, thoughtfully curated. Something for me about genealogy he’d seen in the San Francisco Chronicle, something for my husband about science education from the Wall Street Journal. And speaking of the WSJ, every Friday he’d cut out the crossword puzzles and save them for me. I’d come home with a sheaf of them, and tuck them in a drawer or in my big book of New York Times Crossword puzzles. I’ve done most of them, but occasionally I’ll find an unsolved one and it’s like a little gift from Dad, eight years since his passing.
One of the most precious newspaper clippings, however, didn’t come from Dad, it came from Mom. When I was about ten, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer. The surgeon who performed the hysterectomy thought he got it all, but what did doctors really know about cancer in 1970? Apparently not enough, and a few years later, the cancer came back with a vengeance, riddling her body. For two years, she fought the good fight, trying to beat her foe with round after round of chemotherapy, the most unfriendly of allies.
At some point Mom knew what was coming. And she knew she would not be there for her husband and children to hold our hands and wipe our tears, to give a hug and tell us we’d be okay, we’d get through it. Mom had experienced this kind of loss before, having buried both her parents and her first husband. I’m sure she remembered how hard those first few days and weeks are, the time you most need the support of your mother or spouse, as you struggle to make sense of the hole in your life. So Mom clipped a poem out of the newspaper and tucked it in her purse for Dad to find, something she thought might give voice to the words she would not be able to say.
Shortly after her death on April 3, 1977, my dad found the clipping, and made a lovely tribute to Mom of it, a framed piece with her picture and the poem. I think all of my siblings still have our copies framed in our homes. I treasure mine.
Recently I ran across a box of Dad’s things, and in it was that original clipping Mom tore out of the paper, jaggedy edges and all. I’ve often wondered - just when did Mom see that poem and know it would be needed? Days before her death? Weeks? Months? As I sit her in 2016, 39 years after she died, and just a few days before what would be her 94th birthday, the detective in me came out. I spent some time with the clipping, with the few words of the editorial on the back side of the scrap of yellowing paper, and with a digital newspaper database, searching for the issue. I found my answer.
Three months. She knew, even if we didn’t. December 30, 1976, Mom tore out the clipping, knowing that the moment so eloquently described by Emily Dickinson would come to pass in her own home before too long. And she left us something to help us get through it.
The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is the solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth –
The sweeping up the heart,
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
[i] “The Bustle in a House” by Emily Dickinson
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Mary Kircher Roddy is a genealogist, writer and lecturer, always looking for the story. Her blog is a combination of the stories she has found and the tools she used to find them.