I’m old. Death could come at any moment. Once I am dead nothing will matter, but in the meantime, I am sometimes struck—when I open a drawer in the kitchen or walk into my bedroom closet—by the image of my daughter doing to my belongings what I did to my mother’s when she died in 2003.
In Mom's three-bedroom two-story house, I went through every drawer and emptied every closet. My younger sisters should have been helping, but one lived in Hawaii and the other in Philadelphia. I lived next door in Harrisburg. We weren't in row houses, not that close, but our big yards bordered each other.
I’m not bothered thinking of my daughter Sherry sorting through my silverware, dishes, clothes, and shoes. And I’ve resolved myself to the fact that she will quickly dispatch to Betty Griffin’s (charity shop for women and children) many items and souvenirs that I can’t bear to give up, even though they unnecessarily clutter my two-bedroom condo.
It was a few years ago, when I was making room for more storage that I first felt a strong sense of my privacy being invaded. In a closet I came across a box filled with my old diaries and journals and imagined my daughter scanning these notebooks. Immediately I gave a key to a friend and asked her to take the box out of the house and throw it into a dumpster as soon as she heard I kicked the bucket.
I couldn’t get the journals out of my mind. Late one night I grabbed one on my way to bed. The first page was inscribed with start and end dates: September 1980, the month I began a graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania, and May 1985, the month I was awarded the PhD degree and accepted a job that paid more money than I had ever hoped to make.
Except for giving birth to my two children, I considered earning my doctorate the biggest accomplishment of my life. Russell Ackoff’s program had attracted an international group of students and professors of all ages. I entered a new world filled with people who, like myself, loved to argue ideas while never taking any of it personally. Yes, those five years were filled with wonderful experiences as well as a few love affairs. I propped the bed pillow behind me and settled in for a good read.
The beginning and end dates of the journal were a reminder that those years existed and that the hall bookshelf held my published dissertation in hardback. Otherwise the journal was boring as hell. There were no descriptions of those wonderful experiences. No mention of the thrill when Ron, who had come over from Decision Sciences to give an informal talk in our Vance Hall meeting room, turned his beautiful blue eyes on me. Instead, I wrote about my problems with getting assignments done on time, on keeping my house neat, and of my embarrassment for inadvertently saying things that shocked people. (I eventually learned others often had similar thoughts, but had grown up knowing not to air them publicly.)
I could not subject myself to the torture of this monotonous drivel every night. It took over a year to look over and dispose of the journals. What did I learn? That most of my bad habits and most of my New Year’s Eve resolutions haven’t changed in fifty years.
I could point to one successfully completed resolution. I had wanted to become a published author, not only of academic books, but of non-fiction literature. On January 1, 2019, I published: My Surprise Family: Find Your Ancestry Story.
This taught me to never give up. If I live long enough, perhaps I will achieve a tidy, minimalist home, and Sherry’s job, when it arrives, will be much easier.
PS: Ron's talk occurred in 1980; soon after, he finished his PhD and left town. More than a dozen years later, I was asked to come to the Dean's office at Erasmus University in Rotterdam to meet a recently arrived American. As I entered the room, it took me about thirty seconds to place Ron in context back in Philadelphia. Two minutes more and I recalled the nature of our relationship. Yes, friendship. Ron and I renewed our platonic relationship, enjoying dinners, movies, and walks until I returned to the U.S. in 1996.