Thursday, April 20, 2006

"Say, Lois-- how big do you think my mouth is?"

One day when I was living in San Francisco, I bought a shoebox for $1 from a woman selling junk in a garage sale. This shoebox appeared to be filled with flotsam from the early 1900s, and leafing through yellowed scraps seemed like a good way to kill a few hours on a lazy summer Saturday. I asked the woman about its provenance, and she shrugged; perhaps she'd bought it in an estate sale. She hadn't a clue about its contents other than that they weren't worth anything.

I have an old silver sugar tin in which I throw sundry memorabilia: ticket stubs, notes, anything small that might trigger a memory somewhere down the line when I'm rotting in my nursing home, watching 50-year-old reruns of "The Office" over and over. I also keep most of my letters together in one place; the volume of written correspondence wanes temporally in inverse relation to the popularity of email.

This shoebox was Lois Howorth's version of my sugar tin & letter boxes, sort of a "Selected Precious Stones" of a life. The contents skewed heavily toward her childhood, though there were postcards and hotel business cards from her adult trips to Africa and Japan in the 1940s and 1950s. Photos. Letters. Postcards. Programs, tourist booklets, drawings. Notes she'd passed in class in 1914. Secret code keys she'd devised with her classmates. Doggerel.

There are cruel puns about teachers at the Anna Head School for Girls in Berkeley, CA. There is a training regimen for the girl's basketball team ("No frosted cake; no hot breads"). There is a distraught letter from a classmate over some unnamed tragedy. There are references to World War One, none prescient enough to assign it a numeral. There are brief notes regarding minor triumphs that were saved for their emotional resonance ("had a dreamy time with Roger last night!"). There are herbs (part of a tourist packet) from 1950s Jerusalem, stickers from the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge in Tanzania, a list of Japanese phrases from a cruise program. There are photographs of honest-to-god flappers, of unnamed relatives and friends and classmates. She'd gone to school with Herbert Hoover's niece and was thrilled as he rose up the political ladder ("Secretary of Commerce!") And dozens of frivolous notes that had been passed back and forth: ("Is Betty S. wearing your Chinese tie? It looks like yours." "HELL NO!")

It is endlessly fascinating, sometimes cheering, but not a little sad. I am constantly aware of my status as interloper, as exploitative custodian. Friends and I tried to piece together her life, even making a pilgrimage to the former site of the Anna Head School, which is long-defunct, the buildings now owned by some UC Berkeley administrative unit. I tried to track down surviving relatives, and failed. Now I own the highlights of Lois Howorth's life. Me, just some wiseass, just some dude who likes looking at old stuff.