For the past few months, I’ve been spending one day each week at my parents’ house, going through the voluminous papers and books my mom left behind when she died in December 2011. A well-known professor of Jewish Studies and a pioneering Jewish feminist, she was tremendously productive. She was also tremendously messy. The good news is that Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library on the History of Women wants to archive my mom’s papers. The bad news is that unearthing the materials to be archived requires a process best described as an archeological dig, with which I, the remaining historian in the family, have been tasked.
As you might imagine, this task is an emotional one. Sitting on the floor of her office, surrounded by teetering piles of papers, I’m both surrounded by her presence – her handwriting, her books, her mail – and acutely aware of her absence. I’m both overwhelmed by her productivity and impact – obvious in the materials documenting her many projects, the letters she received from students, her awards – and struggling with the existential slap-in-the-face reminder that no matter what you accomplish, the tangible things left are dusty papers, books, and photos. And then there’s the frustration that she left such a mess for someone else (me) to clean up.
It’s hard for me to assimilate it all, so often I focus on the mess. “How did she let it get this way?” I complained to my aunt. She replied simply, “You know how driven she was. I think as soon as she finished one thing she wanted to just move right on to the next.” This explanation comforted me, somehow. My mother had incredible determination and energy, pressing on with her ambitious schedule and projects despite many bouts of cancer. Pausing to pick up the papers that had amassed around her would have slowed her down, and she didn’t want anything to break her stride.
People who knew my mom often comment that it must be such an interesting project going through her papers. Truthfully, at this point I find more trash than treasures. But the treasures are in there (usually on the floor, or buried in an old tote bag), and when I’m in the quotidian groove of the project – familiar to me from many months spent in archives researching my dissertation – it’s a sudden sliver of delight to come across something personal: a photo of my mom at age 24; a letter she wrote to Hannah Arendt asking her to contribute an article to a book on Jewish feminism; a New York Times article from 1977 on new Jewish baby naming ceremonies for girls in which she’s quoted (and I’m mentioned).
Inevitably, and bittersweetly, I’m learning new things about my mom from the relics I find. From the freshman English papers I found (in a drawer with her bathing suits, obviously), I learned that even in 1965 she was thinking about feminism and women’s education. From an old ID and some letters from 1971, I discovered that she did not initially keep her maiden name but briefly used my dad’s last name when they were first married. From the boxes of old senior essays, I learned she kept copies of every thesis she directed, and she directed a wide-ranging many.
In the months after she died, I frequently picked up the phone to call her, momentarily forgetting she was gone. That impulse faded as we passed the one year mark, but it flared again yesterday when I was looking through some old letters. Not having answers to the little questions (You were friends with Carole Vance in graduate school? Who was Naomi’s old boyfriend whom she described as a “pedantic, dried up man”? Where did you stay in Jerusalem in 1968 – the address doesn’t make sense to me) is frustrating, and I realize that I miss the texture of the kibbitz-y conversations we used to have. But not having answers to — or, more realistically, the opportunity to be in conversation about — the big questions (How did you accomplish all this? What can you tell me about how to negotiate the ongoing work/family dilemmas?) – that is the tragic loss.