We Are Only Human

On the path to self discovery

Evidence of a life I did not know

Nancy Rappaport receives her mother's novel and journals.

One morning during breakfast Phyllis, my father's wife, phoned me. She told me that she was taking on a difficult initiative of her own making, which was to do the right thing, and she wanted to distribute some of my mother's things to me and my siblings. She suggested that I might be too busy to come over on such short notice. But I had never even seen my mother's handwriting before.

When I arrived, Phyllis had a blue trunk with brass hinges open and was meticulously organizing its contents into different boxes for each of my siblings-photographs, drawings, letters, all kinds of materials that my mother had saved. Seeing these objects stunned me.

"Where did the trunk come from?" I asked. Phyllis could see how momentous this was for me, but she focused on the task at hand. She explained that my mother's friend Peggy Melgard had dropped it off at my father's office several years ago when she moved from Boston to Florida. I learned later from Peggy that for almost forty years Peggy herself had guarded the trunk. Alex, my mother's new husband at the time of her death, had asked Peggy to keep some of their possessions. But Peggy never heard from Alex again, and she began to have the nagging feeling that my mother's children would want the trunk. Peggy had known my parents before they were married and they saw each other socially as a couple for many years. After my father and mother divorced, she became an even closer friend of my mother.

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Here was evidence of a life I did not know-small calendars with handscrawled appointments, a high-school yearbook, report cards, school awards, newspaper clippings, and chatty letters from her friends. A photo of my mother cradling me as a baby in her arms. A photo of my mother and father, their eyes filled with laughter. Her handwriting-big and full. I sat down on the floor and picked up a letter that Phyllis had placed to the side of the trunk. It was from Peggy.

To the Rappaport Children:

Your mother cherished these photos, cards, notes, and drawings. I thought you would like to have them. Also, in the trunk, is a novel Nancy was in the process of writing at the time of her death.

The notes from those of you old enough to write at the time of her death show how much you loved her. I hope you still hold happy memories of her in your hearts as I certainly do.

Fondly,
Peggy

I looked up at Phyllis. "Where is the novel?" I asked, worried. She burst into tears and confided that she was reading the novel. She wasn't exactly sure what to do with it, but she thought she would give it to my sister Judy, whom she considered the family historian. Finally, she sighed heavily and trudged up the staircase. A few minutes later, Phyllis came down not only with the novel, which she explained was over 400 typewritten pages on legal paper with my mother's handwritten corrections in the margins, but also with a few of my mother's thin journals.

As she handed me four bulky black folders stuffed with legal-sized paper, I sensed that she was relieved. She told me that she had a deep and abiding relationship with my father, and she wanted me never to use the material in any way that would hurt Dad. Not knowing what I was promising, quietly resenting that I was being asked to be honorable, and worried that the novel might be destroyed, I quickly agreed. It was an irresistible chance to know my mother's mind. At that moment, I would have agreed to almost anything.

Nancy Rappaport is associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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