Clearing Clutter and Finding Gold

Kate Flora: It’s Monday morning and I’m due in a distant courthouse for Jury Duty in about an hour, so today’s post will necessarily be brief. It’s about my office–a subject we all dwell on from time to time. It’s really about the fact that I’ve been writing for almost 33 years. I’ve lost track, but I think I’ve now written about 24 books, and all the research, drafts 1-6, plus contracts, publicity, reviews, author photos, galleys, and the estate paperwork from my father, mother, and sister, are crowded into very small space. Yesterday, all that paper felt overwhelming, and I decided: Something must be done!

I spent many hours sorting through stacks of papers–hours that as of this writing are barely beginning to show despite two overflowing wastebaskets. The trouble with cleaning an office where so much creative work has taken place is that so many things are sentimental. Kind fan letters from readers who have discovered my work. Little notes in my mother’s handwriting, including a gargoyle saying “Happy Birthday.” A gargoyle? Seriously? But I am sentimental not about the gargoyle but the handwriting.

Under one of the desks, I find the briefcase my father bought me when I finished law school. It is now threadbare and ratty and I haven’t touched it in a dozen years. Keep, because of what it represents, or pitch because it no longer serves a purpose? I decide it can go. But a little farther on, there is my mother’s rolodex. She’s been gone ten years, but the names of the people, where they live, and her little annotations? It’s more like a storybook. I call my brother and ask what he things. “Throw it out.” It is still sitting in the undecided pile.

Then I grab what looks like an empty file, and inside are my earliest notes for my first published book, Chosen for Death. Amazing that I still have them all these years later, and in the stack, actually laminated to save it for posterity, the yellowing clipping from an Ann Landers column that gave me the idea for the book:

Dear Ann Landers:

A few days ago, a woman phoned and announced she was the daughter I had put up for adoption many years ago. She tried ro be nonthreatening and sounded like a nice person, but I was absolutely stunned. Old heartaches and fear overwhelmed me. She asked if I wanted to se her. When I said, “No,” she politely rang off. I sat by the phone shaking for 30 minutes.

I made a mistake when I was young, and I suffered for it. I never told a soul about the child I had. It was my intention to take the secret to my grave.

Can you imagine the pain of telling a thing like that to your husband, children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews and friends? I don’t think I could have lived through it.

Please advise people who assist in such searches to find another hobby. Inform those wrongheaded do-gooders who reveal confidential information that it is highly unethical and probably illegal, and it can do incalculable damage.

I can appreciate people’s curiosity about their biological parents, but I beg them to consider our right to keep this part of our lives secret. Although the woman who phoned seemed perfectly content to leave me alone, I have no assurance that she will. I now live in fear that she might appear at my door.

That telephone call has forever changed my life and robbed me of my peace of mind. No one has the right to visit this kind of hell on another person. Please so no, Ann.

Petrified in Iowa

From the column, I was able to create the collision of this woman, who had secrets to keep, and the daughter who longed to know why she was given up.

It made the whole day of cleaning worth it.

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8 Responses to Clearing Clutter and Finding Gold

  1. Karla Whitney says:

    Brief post, but packed. Wow.

  2. Gayle Lynds says:

    I’m in awe that you’re cleaning your office, Kate. And how wonderful to find literary gold!

  3. Nancy says:

    Enjoyed this post SO much. I too have trouble clearing out old things but my brother’s advice when I was going through our parents’ house has helped some. “Take a picture of it,” he said. So last month when I gave a stack of antique (I suppose) luncheon plates to a favorite niece, I took a picture first. But, I still have tiny slips of paper in various drawers that note the last time Mom had read a particular shopping bag of Harlequins. It’s her writing. You understand. (When she died I took 17…yes 17…paper grocery bags of her books to the public library. Fortunately they said that if they couldn’t use or sell them, they’d go to the local senior center. And this wasn’t counting her collection of Janet Dailey books!) I also found the post interesting because of the letter on adoption predicaments. As adoptive parents we’ve encouraged our children to search for their biological parents so this brings up the other side of the coin. Anyway…I enjoyed reading thanks again.

  4. JT Nichols says:

    Intriguing! Do you have Ann’s answer?

  5. MCWriTers says:

    JT Nichols: Here is what Ann said: I have said so in my column repeatedly, but thanks for the opportunity to say it again.
    Adopted children should have access to the health histories of their biological parents, especially if there are abnormalities that may be genetic. But it should end there. No one has the right to disrupt lives and cause the kind of anguish you described.

    Note that this was written many years ago. I believe the thinking has changed, but it gave me a perfect mystery plot…adoptee determined to learn her history; a mother with a secret she didn’t want revealed; a family that didn’t know the secret and the mother’s position in the community threatened. Thanks, Ann…

  6. I so enjoyed this post, and for so many reasons! I’ve been sorting, tossing, and mostly keeping family ephemera of all kinds since my mom died, 12 years ago. And I’ve been writing about her, and writing in the first person in her voice, and using her molasses cookie recipe, and doing a million other things to keep her here. I think a lot about what the first 39 years of her life, before I came along, were like–and because I have four much-older siblings and we talk about it a lot, I know quite a bit. Reading this letter to Ann Landers makes me realize what a hole there would be in my own origin story if I didn’t know who my birth mother was. And it really makes me want to read Chosen for Death. (And clean my office.)

    • MCWriTers says:

      Amy…love your comment, and the one from Nancy, above. Every year, as Mother’s Day approaches, our public radio station does endless ads for Mother’s Day flowers. When my mom was recently gone, it was SO painful. I think that remembering our mothers through the many little things that surround us is such a good thing. My mom was so wise that few days pass when I don’t want to call her and ask a question.


      • Karla Whitney says:

        My mom moved in with us in October and is here to stay. There are challenges, but you’re so right. When I need a boost, I’m going to reread your comment. (and Chosen for Death)
        Thank you – Karla

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