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I remember my great-grandmother, Ethel, when she was in her 90s. Her small frame, short, curly hair and silver-horned glasses are etched into my memory. She spent most of her time sitting in a worn, green armchair in a corner of my grandparents’ living room. When she needed to leave the chair, she steadied herself with a cane and walked carefully, her green pantsuit leading the way. Over the years, as bits of her life and personality were shared by other relatives, I began to piece together a more complete picture of Ethel Viola Proudfit. But, it wasn’t until, decades later, as I cleaned out her closet, that I really got to know Ethel.
My great-grandmother’s closet has always been a mystery – filled to the brim, its contents unknown yet provocative. The closet was in the modest bungalow she built with her husband Charles in the early 1900s, in a small farming town deep in the Central Valley of California. When Charles died, Ethel’s daughter and her young family moved in. My mother and her brother grew up in this three-generation household.
By the time I knew her, Ethel occupied one room of the house which served as her bedroom, office and crafting room. The closet became her storage space and catch-all.
In the years after her death, I would sometimes get a quick peak inside when the door was opened, but I was never invited to explore its treasures and the elusive space conjured up thoughts of Narnia and secret portals into other worlds.
Not too long ago, I inherited the house – and Ethel’s closet, after generations of the family had avoided cleaning it out. Forty-one years after her death, the time came to begin the archeological dig and to unearth its contents. While I grumbled at the enormity of the task, secretly I was pleased to finally learn the secrets behind the panelled door.
As I turned the glass handle and opened the door, years of dust mingled with cedar and moth balls made my nose twitch.
I was overwhelmed by the moment and the extent of the collection. The closet, barely the size of a small elevator, contained all of my great-grandmother’s possessions. Boxes were piled up to the nine-foot ceiling and the floor was covered. I couldn’t take a step inside – every hanger on the three rods held pantsuits or coats, polyester shirts and skirts. I had to lean into the stacks and reach over the pile to begin the excavation.
As I started examining the layers, a more complete picture of my great-grandmother started to emerge. I wondered how many of the pantsuits – some homemade, others purchased from local department stores – had been worn while she worked. In the early 20th century, the obvious occupation was to become a teacher. She tried it but found she didn’t like it – the students were too close to her own age, and she didn’t have the patience teaching required. Instead, she worked at a telephone switchboard and balanced the books for several businesses. My guess is she didn’t need to work to support her family but chose to do so for herself.
One of my favourite finds was her extensive hat collection – 50, or so, in all shapes and styles from the 1920s to the 1960s. The sheer volume told me that Ethel wasn’t afraid to spend some of her earnings on herself.
Digging deeper into the closet, I found glimpses into her love of the outdoors – photo albums were filled with snapshots of Ethel and Charles enjoying roadside picnics, camping trips and beach outings throughout the West Coast. She and Charles also drove down to the Sierras on the weekends or made longer roadtrips during the summer – Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Alberta. In all the pictures they are surrounded by friends and relatives – joyfully posing with large caches of trout or standing next to one of the grand sequoias.
When Charles died unexpectedly, Ethel kept moving forward, learning new skills and trying new activities. I knew Ethel loved making pottery – we’ve eaten off of her plates and used her serving pieces for years – but it wasn’t until I dug around her closet that I realized she dabbled in more artistic endeavours. The volume of pottery, enamel plates and jewellery is immense. My favourite pieces are midcentury enamel bowls and plates reminiscent of Miro shapes and colours.
In the back of the closet, I didn’t find Narnia, but I did find a portal into faraway lands. Several paper bags tied with string were filled with souvenirs from trips. She travelled with friends to Alaska, Hawaii and (much to my surprise) Calgary, my current home, where, in 1951, she flipped pancakes at the Stampede and toured the Columbia Ice Fields.
From the highest shelves, I pulled down box after box. I hoped I would find even more treasures, but laughed when I realized the boxes were full of more empty boxes, recycled Christmas wrapping and bags of ribbon – a reminder Ethel lived through the Depression and did not waste things.
As I sat on the floor surrounded by all of Ethel’s clothes, souvenirs, hats and polyester pantsuits, I realized that this closet had given me a gift. I found Ethel. By touching her clothes, trying on her hats, enjoying her art and travelling through her pictures, I was able to imagine her life that was so much bigger and broader and fuller than what I had seen of her in that overstuffed armchair so many years ago.
Sheena Trotter-Dennis lives in Calgary.