Imagine you had a job in which you had to sift through forgotten or lost belongings. Describe a day in which you come upon something peculiar, or tell a story about something interesting you find in a pile.
So, today’s twist: If you’d like to continue our serial challenge, also reflect on the theme of “lost and found” more generally in this post.
By the end of Writing 101, you’ll have multiple posts around a theme — material you could thread together in a longform piece.
Questions to think about as you write your post:
- What have you learned about loss over the years?
- What does it feel like to find an object that was once important to you?
- When can reconnecting go horribly wrong?
- When are things better left buried and forgotten?
In your “lost and found” tale, tell us something larger — a life lesson, perhaps —
This post is based on this website. State mental patients in Upstate New York left their few belongings which ended up in storage. The “Suitcase Project” became famous and a catalyst for patient rights in the current era.
The following is fiction: I never held a job like this…dcms
It had happened again: I was caught broke and hard up with no one to help. I needed money fast. I went to the Recollections temp agency because they seemed to offer jobs a little different than the ones I got at standard temp agencies….could I possibly get any experience on these assignments instead of the usual gig that lands you in an office somewhere doing work my cat could do and look better doing it.
I knew it would be different when I heard my first assignment would be at a CLOSED mental hospital. There would be no administrative tasks to be done: no filing, no answering phones, no data entry, no food service in the now closed cafeteria. I could not imagine why they would want people to work in an abandoned mental hospital.
I was sent to the sub basement to a huge area filled with boxes of patients belongings. These were the few personal belongings of patients who had died at the hospital and had no one to pick up their few scraps of possessions. There were lots and lots of boxes. Once we were done collecting, categorizing and repackaging belongings, they were to go to the Metropolitan museum to become an exhibit. Lives Lost: the possessions of the dispossessed. There was even a show on Discovery Channel planned. I felt exited and honored to be part of the project even though the temps were offered nothing but their wages. We would not be listed as contributors to the project.
There is little ceremony on a temp job. We were set to work with latex gloves and dusting wipes to snoop into the lives of the forgotten ones.
The first person my work buddy and I came onto was an old lady that had died in the institution. She had photos of relatives dating from the 1940s all the way until 1986 when she had died. She also had a few pieces of costume jewelry, a brush comb and mirror, and some very old expired cosmetics. There was a book of poems by an obscure author and some white gloves. There was also a pair of heels and cheap-fancy underwear. She must have been a “trusty” who was allowed out on passes to various events or just to shop or go out to eat. There were a few stilted letters from her husband, the guilty one, who had put her there. If he had been alive when she died he never bothered to get her things or to bury her because her burial plot number was put in Magic Marker on the outside of the box. The graveyard for patients was about a mile away and there were thousands of simple crosses and small headstones that marked the lives of the disposable people. Over 100 years of unloved ones buried beneath the earth. It was going to be a Historical Area so at least the remains would not be disturbed.
The second suitcase was a set. In the first one there were clothes, underwear, cosmetics, and even expensive perfume. There was a small packet at the bottom of the suitcase. I lost myself to time and place when I found myself reading love letters from this woman’s boyfriend written a year or so before her admission to the hospital. The letters ended abruptly. They had broken up and he had married the woman his parents wanted him to marry and left her heartbroken. The second box contained tons of sheet music for the violin and piano loaded up with instructor’s notes. The fading spidery notes were guides for some musician to improve playing the piece at hand. I felt a chill. The box also contained some novels and philosophical books and even a Bible. On the bottom was a box of hats and gloves and a cigarette holder. This was one elegant lady.
In yet another big box there was a case in which there was a dusty violin with broken strings. Lumps of rosin accompanied the instrument and there were spare strings along with a photo of the Boyfriend. Turned out she was a concert violinist on the verge of big fame when she went into a downward spiral over the loss of her engagement. She took to drink and was found drunk on the street. Instead of putting her in jail where she could have called someone they took her to one hospital after another where she did not appear to get better. The one picture of her before the hospital showed a slim stylish woman with all her faculties. Where was her family, her friends?, her lawyer? She was transferred to State and spent the next fifty years of her “life” here helping wash dishes in the hospital kitchen. She spent a few years in a group home towards the end but poor health brought her into a nursing home. Apparently there is one recording of this woman’s playing but a Net search failed to produce it.
The next person’s suitcase looked like an elderly grandmother’s. It was full of Bibles and Bible Commentaries and knitted and crocheted and tatted items of good quality. A letter by James Vernon McGee had been framed in a cheap frame. She had been on the “Bible Bus”. A small transistor radio was found. There was a looking glass, brush and comb, and a nail clipper with file. No cosmetics. A paper bag revealed Mother’s Day and Christmas and Birthday cards to the inmate from her family. The cartoonish or gaudily floral greetings seemed so out of place for State. There were also a few drawings and Report Cards full of A’s for the inmate to look at. There was a romance novel full of pressed flowers and a dried bouquet in the box. Her husband had kept in touch.
The next box of hers revealed lots of flowery house coats and a few dowdy dresses. There were 2 pair of sensible shoes, size 11. The one picture of the woman was taken slightly before her incarceration at State. She was a Middle-Aged slightly fat woman with fading beauty and a sad face. Her hair, done in a dowdy bun, drooped. I could have cried. What was this woman’s crime?
The woman was once a very active Church member of a village nearby and had a family of 7. She was quite happy and busy as a small town housewife and leader of various charities in her Church. Then the change happened. The old pastor left and a new one came in. Also, strange people started joining the Church and some of the wives challenged her right to run her groups. Some of this group got together to ruin the woman by starting a psychological campaign to destroy her by undermining her Spirituality and making her believe she had never been Saved. In the end she fell apart, had to quit her groups and even the Church. She had been brought to a village hospital after a suicide attempt and never seemed much better after that. She was brought to State to live out the rest of her 30 years.
The only reason anyone knew of all this was that her husband had petitioned for her release into his custody to accompany him to a country retreat and he gave this testimony of his wife. Turns out the Church totally fell apart and disbanded months after this woman left. The damage had been done though.
In her early years at the hospital according to Dr.’s Notes she had been sullen and uncommunicative. She made more suicide attempts. Later, when they put her on psychiatric drugs she calmed down enough to go to an unlocked ward and attend Occupational Therapy and to work in the Kitchen. She even had a small cottage to herself on the grounds before she became too ill physically to live there. Her husband even took her on passes to town to shop and to eat out. When asked if she would like to leave the hospital she would grow pale and shake and retreat within herself for several days. The loving husband died rather young and the family slowly lost touch as they grew up and moved away.
The third box had me in tears. I almost could not go on. But life goes on and I had rent, a car payment and cable to pay for. There were 500 boxes that had been left there and they were still looking for more around the huge campus when I finally left to get a job in my field. It was getting stressful with the tourists and TV cameras anyway.
It was ironic how these lost people had been found by strangers and made well known though modern electronic media. I will never know if the lost ones we found really wanted to be found at all but I can only hope that life after death had been kinder to them than on this side of mortality.
Some things when lost, remain lost forever. The joys of this life pass quickly and sometimes there is nothing to replace the loss here on Earth. I have rarely reclaimed something or somebody I had on Earth. I used to find
“surprises” at my parent’s home if I searched the top of my old closet. Items from the past, worth nothing but remembrance. A window into another time. I used to peruse an old brown suitcase full of old family pictures my father had including some of me. I would sadly note that the times had passed, people had died and I had not “turned out”.
Several years ago, I backslid and tried to somehow return to my old “life” as a groupie. It not only failed, it hurt me more than I could say. I asked God this time to show me my idols as they really were and He did even though I backslid. I was very disappointed. They were just men and flawed ones at that. Then the perps took what I was doing and turned it into a nightmare. When I finally turned away I heartily regretted what I had done. The past belongs in the past.
I believe I should have simply forgotten my idolatry from the past but my rebellious nature got the best of me when my life went downhill. I got angry at God and opened up that old can of worms. I had found nothing had changed nor gotten better. One evening, when I was living in one of my fantasies, I came to myself and found I was acting like I did when I was a girl and new to the fantasies. I was sickened I had slid all the way to the bottom of the hill. I have tried to reclaim my faith since then but it has never been the same. The beginning of sin is as the letting forth of water……