Sunday, August 07, 2005


Family Milestones

Marks & Spencer in the U.K., home of St. Michael Soap

Tonight I opened a small cardboard box of St. Michael Magnolia-scented Soap, manufactured for and distributed by the distinguished English retailer Marks & Spencer, and an era in my family history ended.

In December of 2000, my step-mother (also my aunt--after my mother's death, my father married her younger sister) died after a long period of physical and emotional decline. She had never married prior to my father's asking her, and she staked everything on the marriage. Several years later, he died suddenly and unexpectedly three weeks after she retired from her career so that they could spend the maximum amount of time together, and she never recovered from the shock.

As an only child, the responsibility for settling things and cleaning out their big apartment on 14th Street and 5th Avenue in New York City fell to me. Fritz, bless him, came to the city with me for a week to get it all done. I had always known that she, a child of the Depression, hoarded things out of fear of not having enough, but I never knew just how much until we began digging into the closets and cabinets.

We filled one large size lawn and leaf bag with unopened Kleenex tissue boxes, another with paper towel rolls
and a third with toilet paper and toiletries of all kinds, especially hand soaps. There was everything from several four bar packages of basic Ivory bath soap to the kind of little heart-shaped soaps with roses molded on them that you (well, that some people) put out in the bathroom when company is expected. There were Dove soaps, glycerine soaps and oatmeal soaps, deoderant and lavender and abrasive soaps--and one that I saved to be the very last one of all, the one in the old-fashioned little cardboard box, with the starburst design molded into a dome on its top--the Marks & Spencer Magnolia Soap that I opened tonight.

After four and a half years, it's all over. I had gradually exhausted the toilet paper, Fritz had inherited the Kleenex because he uses them while I prefer cloth handkerchiefs that I can wash and reuse, and the last of the paper towels went some time in late June. But the soaps! Stacked so neatly into my bathroom cabinet in layer after layer (the sheer number of them impressive) it seemed as if they'd last forever. Why did I save the Magnolia for last? Perhaps because it was the one that surely cost the most; because the box promises "a rich, creamy lather to leave [my] skin soft, smooth and delicately perfumed"--like magnolias, of course; and because of its extravagance and the fact that I will think of her as I use it up.

My Father's WWII Medals

In the same big clean-up, I took possession of my father's medals and other equipment from his service as a bombardier in the Second World War. As Fritz and I walked through the handsome German Renaissance town of Regensburg last month, I remembered that my father had also visited--at about five thousand feet and aiming for anything of an industrial or military nature.

He was a natural archivist. He saved everything, including all his training manuals; flight log; phrase books for British English, French and German (the latter two in case he was shot down or became a prisoner in either country); uniform insignia; and an extensive scrapbook of newspaper clippings, letters and telegrams. But the best is an unintentionally hilarious little book on how to deal with French house-wives if shot down--it describes them as some sort of cross between the Tasmanian Devil and Joan of Arc, armored and ready for battle.

The completness and superb condition of all the calculator wheels, calipers, and airspeed charts (he saved everything including the piece of schrapnel that earned him his Purple Heart) suggested an exhibit in a museum. By sheer coincidence a good friend, a woman who is Special Collections Librarian for Connecticut College in New London, mentioned that the library had received the entire collection of memorabilia of a World War II Air Corps officer from New London who had been a Nazi prisoner of war, telling his own unique story. My father had grown up summers in New London where his parents had a summer house. When I asked if the library would like a second collection, she jumped at the chance. I began to inventory everything, making copies of some things for myself and photographing his medals, which I am not giving but saving for my daughters who adored their grandfather.

A month ago I received word that the library has curated everything, and that the two collections will be unveiled at a special dinner on Veterans Day this November, becoming available for scholars to access for research. Rather than deteriorating forgotten in old cardboard boxes, what he saved so carefully will be available to the public as part of the historical record.

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