Adventures in the Archives: These Losses Which Are Not My Own
Lately I find that my mind is muddled. I have accepted a position at a new institution, so both professionally and personally there are big changes ahead. In the meantime, I am caught in that strange space in-between. I am finishing up projects and responsibilities here, even as I am already making plans and thinking about my courses there. I look around my home and my campus office and all I see are things that need to be put into boxes. It is a strange time in which beginnings and endings are all tangled into one busy mess. No wonder it’s hard to get anything “done”.
This includes the stack of sympathy cards sitting on my desk at home. In recent months, as my own life has taken an exciting and positive turn, near and dear ones have faced heartbreaking losses. Husbands, fathers, a child, a nephew, miscarriages… the casualty list for the last months of 2012 and the first of 2013 has been wrenching. And these are just the folks in my immediate circle. Add in the tragedies of the larger world – Boston, Syria, Bangladesh – and it is simply staggering. None of these losses have been my own, and yet they have infiltrated my world, bringing to the surface painful memories and the ever-present fears that, as a mother, a wife, a sister, a daughter, a friend, I have no choice but to live with. These losses that are not my own also have increased the sweetness of my life, as I take the time to appreciate who and what I have, and the preciousness of each relationship and each day that we have together. While my heart aches for my loved ones who are suffering, it also rejoices at the love that I have witnessed in their lives and that I treasure in my own. My loss, then, becomes a loss of words. I stare at the stack of sympathy cards, not knowing where to begin.
Strangely enough – or maybe not so strange for an historian – this loss of words keeps bringing me back to a document I found in my foraging in the archives. I am working on a history of Doctor Joseph Bolivar DeLee and his maternity work in Chicago in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. His personal and professional papers are located in the Northwestern Memorial Hospital Archives. They were almost lost to history. At some point in the past, these materials had been shoved into a dark and dusty storage closet, forgotten for decades, and discovered only accidentally by a cleaning crew that decided to double check before they threw them in the trash. The materials are the usual stuff that historians like to see – patient records, business minutes, transcripts of speeches, first drafts of published work, and letters. Among these letters is the one that has been on my mind of late.
In November 1936, Dr. DeLee received a letter from Helen Keller, thanking him for his support for the American Foundation for the Blind. Keller’s response to DeLee’s “generosity” and “loyalty” is not a typical form letter that organizations send to their sponsors. Even so, it appears that this was the standard letter that Keller used in the year following the death of Anne Sullivan Macy. I don’t anticipate using this letter in my project, and it is hardly unique – there are examples of it sent to other donors available in online auctions. But when I came across the letter in the archive, it moved me to tears. As I stare at the stack of sympathy cards on my desk, I am reminded of it again. In the letter, Keller offers a lovely tribute to her dear friend and teacher:
The birds are gone. The life that throbbed through tree, bush and grass is stilled. The ground is frozen so that it hurts our feet to tread on it. Yet we thank God for the seed-time and the harvest that have vanished, for the rough, steep ways that again lead to beauty and fertility.
Even so it is winter in my life since the guardian angel of fifty years no longer walks by my side on earth. Yet I thank God for the wondrous gift He has withdrawn a little while, and for the difficulties to be overcome that shall be my tribute to Anne Sullivan Macy.
These days, as I struggle to find the words to convey my sympathies to friends and family who have lost loved ones, I find comfort in Keller’s articulation of her loss as a time of both desolation and hope. Winter only seems like it will never end; the spring always follows.
I wonder, what have others found in their archival adventures that they connected with on a personal level?
Carolyn Herbst Lewis is a co-founder of Nursing Clio. She is the author of Prescription for Heterosexuality: Sexual Citizenship in the Cold War Era (UNC Press, 2010). Her current project is a history of the Chicago Maternity Center.