What To Do About Thelma


I like to collect antique books when I can afford them. Some I buy for their beautiful covers and some for the interesting or quirky content. I’ve bought things like strangers’ autograph books or photo albums because these, too, are transport to the past even if I don’t know the people. I honestly can’t recollect where I picked up this particular little journal. It’s not antique, the last entry is 1995; from a couple dates mentioned in the text I would imagine its author to be just a little beyond my mother’s age. Except for 8 pages, the rest is blank. The author had written her name on the first page, Thelma Yarbrough.

“What should I do with it?” my husband wants to know as we are unpacking boxes of our books to put upon newly-built bookshelves. I think about it. Since I can’t remember why I brought it into my possession, I don’t know what to do with it. I have to guess I picked it up at a used book or second-hand store somewhere. But why this? Thelma’s life as sketched out, frankly, isn’t that interesting. My husband is a little impatient about what to do with it. But I feel I can’t answer the question until I can ascertain why I got it; obviously at some point I thought it worthy of owning. “Well, if that was your life in there,” he finally said, “what would you want somebody who found it to do with it?”

Good question. My several notebooks worth of journals I kept as a teenager and into my 20s are now in my attic in a box labeled, “This box must be burned withOUT opening it. It has been voodoo cursed and hexed; anyone who opens it will suffer grave consequences.” This is all true. I don’t want anyone ever reading them. I could burn them myself but every once in awhile I look up a past experience to see if my memory rings true. But my life has not gone undocumented. I have my travel blogs which will lie archived on the internet until my server ceases to exist. And I have a number of essays circulating the world in print which have detailed some events in my life. I even have a book of fiction which, while not about my life, must surely reveal the twisted nature of this little brain that has spent time on this earth.

So I can’t put myself in Thelma’s shoes. I feel quite confident this is her only attempt at posterity to the world at large. My case isn’t similar. But if it were, if I had written only eight small pages about my life, what would I want to happen to them? I somewhat presume Thelma is no longer with us, why else would her brief diary have ended up somewhere a perfect stranger such as myself could become its possessor? (In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if she died shortly after August 14, 1995 – I’ll tell you why in a minute.)

So what should I do with it? I don’t know Thelma, and she hasn’t written a thriller. When I die and somebody goes through my stuff they will surely not give a flying flag about it and throw it out. Is it any worse of me to throw the pages out now – as they’ve already been witnessed by me – and recover the usefulness of a blank notebook?

I feel a rather terrible, perhaps irrational, obligation to Thelma. I feel somehow responsible for her now. She probably had a memorial service in her honor at her death, but these would have been someone else’s words about her, not her own. Her mother was by far the most important person in her life, someone she adored and was wholly dedicated to. Her husband overshadowed her and had little regard for her while others flocked to his magnetism. “So you see,” she writes, “I am a loner.” At the time of her writing, she was unhappy where she was – which I ascertain as a rest home or assisted living – and she longed to find someone who would truly love her. She spent her love on someone who loved himself more than her. She wanted to move to where her nieces and their families were. She never mentions any children of her own. I suspect that if she had written of a happy and fulfilling life, a contentment and satisfaction in her old age, maybe I would not feel burdened by her. Instead, I’m haunted by her sadness. By her aloneness. She said one lady in the cafeteria at their residence, after finding out Thelma was diabetic, poured a bowl of sugar on her cereal. Catty ladies even at that age! And a vacancy where her husband should have been standing up for her, he remained seated at the table, mute.

She begins her spare memoir by saying she always carries a cross in her pocket. “This little cross is not magic nor is it a good luck charm. It isn’t meant to protect me from every physical harm. It’s not for identification for all the world to see. It’s simply an understanding between my savior and me.”

She seems to have written the first seven pages of memories and reflections in one sitting. She ends the first portion thus:  “I just as well start at the beginning of my own life and you can better understand me and my love for Mother. I was born in Ansley, Nebraska, 65 years ago when I came into this beautiful world.” It appears as though she had decided then to write a more extensive memoir. The paragraph ends, “I learned years ago not to worry because I couldn’t change things even though I have tried.”

The next page, which is the last page, is written in different ink and has two dated entries. The last, August 14, 1995, “We went to the memorial for mother out at Eaton Terraces in memory of a very sweet and understanding person, my mother.” No more. That’s why I have a notion that maybe after the most important person in her now lonely life died, she too dwindled away. No longer motivated to have anyone better understand her and the love for her mother.

Until I figure out what to do with you, Thelma, I have laid you aside on my desk – your lime-green cover accumulating cat fur shed from my feline children who must test the comfort of every item that crosses the threshold of my office – your memoir’s only title printed on the front cover, “7530-00-333-3521 Federal Supply Service,” reminding me of the generally anonymous and inconsequential nature of our earthly existence.

*****

(3 days later)

I decided what to do. I walked from my house on this late spring day to the Nederland cemetery, a small allotment tumbling down a pine-forest mountainside, largely overgrown and neglected. The mats of pine needles were damp and dark in color from the recently melted snow. I poked around until I found what I decided was a suitable place, underneath the low branches of a juniper bush. With my hand shovel I'd brought along, I dug a hole, and as Thelma's last witness, buried 7530-00-333-3521 Federal Supply Service.

To some degree, this decision came about by mere process of elimination. Everything else I thought of to do with the pages of her recollection -- from putting it on my bookshelf to throwing in the trash, to relinquishing to another used bookstore, and other random ideas -- didn't seem right. Nothing I thought of clicked with me, I continued to feel unsettled. I googled her name and birth place but found no information, nobody to whom I could bequeath the remnants of her life. And so, I decided I would lay Thelma to rest.

In a way I feel a little bad because there she is, a loner again, lying in a forest of strangers. But her opening words, inside the sentence introducing her life, tell us where she was born when she "came into this beautiful world." She is again, or at least her words are in the most beautiful of worlds -- among the earth that gives rise to all forms of beauty, beneath the reach of green boughs, tiny blue-colored berries hanging above like blue balloons or blue stars. I think it's OK.

I tried to fashion a tiny crude cross, as she was a Christian, out of two sticks of wood tied together with a selection of tall weeds. It’s about the most pathetic cross you could imagine, but it is what it is. I stuck it in the ground in the bush behind the memoir’s grave. This is the body of Thelma Yarbrough as I know it. Thelma was a humble lady. Her life, that is to say the slim paper vessel that held her experiences, has been interred back into the earth. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Rest in peace, Thelma Yarbrough. I hope you find your mother again.

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