As an investor, founder, CEO and business book author, I write about startups, design, how to build a good business, and I like to muse about culture in any form.

A little walk down memory lane with my mom

These are “this is your life” masks we used to do a silly rendition of “My Girl” for my mom.

I’ve posted before about how Zappos once did something really nice for my mom.  It’s a story that went a bit crazy online and was subsequently mentioned at their annual shareholder’s meeting and many press events. It gave my mom a big kick to think she had inspired such a reaction from a large company.

I also recently posted about my mother’s invaluable role in seeing me leave Detroit public schools at age fourteen to navigate life as a scholarship student at an elite boarding school.

I’m sad to report my mom, Sue Knittel, who was part of everything important in my life, passed away on July 3, after a long battle with colon cancer.

There is probably very little original I could write about this loss.  This passing follows closely on the death of my brother at age 47, a year ago.  These are deeply sad events for me, and anyone who has lost a cherished parent or sibling can imagine much of what I have experienced.

But one unique thing that struck me in processing both deaths is how few material items both my brother and mom possessed.  At an extreme, all of my brother’s valuables easily fit into a single copy paper box.

But now that my mother has died, with not a whole lot in her own modest apartment, the things she did possess have become all the more interesting to me. We honored my mother with a beautiful outdoor memorial service.  This post is my extension on that lovely celebration of her life, as experienced through the precious objects she saved and cherished.  Here’s a little personal photographic sampling.

My mother’s mom was notorious for getting rid of stuff. So it is somewhat miraculous that my mom’s birth announcement survived.

I was stunned that my mom had saved so much of my childhood and teenage artwork.  I know that is classic “Mom” business, but so much of what I made for her was just… BAD.  Anyway here are a few examples (albeit the “nicer” stuff).

My high school had a world class ceramics studio. My work, alas, was fairly clunky but I like the glazes.

I wove this blanket to match a comforter I made for my parents. Now it kind of strikes me that they were very tolerant to let me determine their bedroom decor, with my teenage tastes.

I wanted to trash all this stuff but my sister was attached to it. These drawings seemed to be very memorable to her.

My mom had this pig collecting phase.  I never had a pig collecting phase so I was not really interested in absorbing many swine into my life.  But this little odd pair of vaguely porcine dishes were given to her by my deceased brother Todd.  They are so damn ugly (and so HIM) I had to take them home.

My sister wisely suggested I preserve something special for each of my sons.  These classic Pyrex bowls were our choice for my youngest son who cooks constantly.

I loved reading this little elementary school autograph book.  Four things stuck out:

  • Almost everyone wrote some kind of little rhyming sentiment.
  • People did not spell any better than they do now, but they had nicer cursive handwriting.
  • The autograph book was geared at girls, and every other page had some cartoon that focused on boy-crazy girls aiming for an M.R.S.
  • A good number of the boys and girls made up little poems about my mom’s future husband or kids.  Like the first one, above.   Not one of the kids wished her success in school, or career!

Here is the braid she cut off–sometime around the same time that the autograph book was created.  It’s admittedly kind of macabre.   But I remember seeing this braid so many times when I was a girl and it is just familiar and nice to me.

I used to play with these old dolls of my mom’s at my grandparents’ house. I thought they were impossibly elegant.

I loved seeing how many cards and letters I sent to my parents over the years.  My mom saved most, if not all of them.  It gave me comfort because I have lived away from home since I was a teenager.  I did not call much, but I sure did write!  It did crack me up to see my extreme economy in using Air Mail letters.  My kids could not believe the extent I would go (in terms of microscopic handwriting)  to save a few cents on postage.

She had many of my report cards.  And I found out I was not nearly the Straight-A student I thought I was in elementary school!  But it is no surprise that my Music, Handwriting and Science grades were poor.  I still can’t carry a note to save my life. My handwriting still looks like I have a physical disability.  As for Science, I really hated my elementary school teacher from the day he made me stand out in the hallway during class, just for wearing noisy bracelet bangles to school.

But of all the school reports, I most enjoyed the comment written above, by my English teacher just after I arrived at boarding school.  Yes, Mrs. Alfs, you predicted the state of the rest of my life.

The last Mother’s Day gift I gave my mom. It was made by a man in New Orleans, out of the wood from a house wrecked by Hurricane Katrina. She had it up on her wall.

In the documentary “Objectified” the journalist Rob Walker expands on the film’s theme that we “are what we own.”  He asked people what they would save from their house if a hurricane were coming in 20 minutes.  Their answers were rarely descriptions of truly valuable items.  They are the stuff of memories and connections and tend toward the humble and commercially worthless.

My mom’s pin cushion.

I shipped three boxes of such mementos from Detroit to Boston.  When they arrived I spread everything out on my dining room table.  More notably, I left this jumble of objects out for a few weeks, in the middle of my house. I have to admit I am hyper sensitive to any form of clutter.  Given that, and given the nature of these objects, it was really hard for me to keep them covering up my whole table.  But what I wanted was to give my sons and myself the time to pause over our loss.  My boys never lived near their grandmother and I hoped they would slow down and study a few of the items and ask me some questions.  (They did.)

In doing this, I also found myself thinking hard about what I would want my boys to know I saved up for that (hopefully distant!) day when they are in my position.  I felt especially loved (and a little melancholy) in finding my mom kept so many ordinary objects from my childhood.  Like the report cards and art projects.  Fortunately, I have the same weakness for saving anything printed or written.  So, for better or worse, I have that pack-rat aspect already covered for my own sons.

So it is time to pack up my mom’s stuff.  I took these photos, and wrote this post, to make myself ready to do that.  Some of these items will live out on display in my house.  Others will be in boxes; waiting for the day I give them to my boys, when they have their own homes.  Wherever they are, these little odd things will help us remember and cherish the memory of my mom, Sue Knittel.

10 Responses to “A little walk down memory lane with my mom”

  1. Linda Goad Larisch

    Take care Julie time mends the loss but nothing replaces a mom. Display or use our ceramic pieces! One of mine is now a dog dish! A very stylish one! Big hug Linda

  2. Lynn Knittel-Bruk

    Jules, what a beautiful writing! Thank you for sharing this with us, it was so touching and just wonderful to read! Your Mom was such a good, loving woman!!

  3. Sally Chaney

    I was just reading your post and took my own trip down memory lane concerning your mom, my sister. You captured it beautifully. I still have not been able to pack her things away and my house looks like it. I miss her dearly.

  4. Judy Chaney

    I too have been down memory lane. Your Mom, and my best friend, left me with a very sad heart. I loved her so much! Remember, Julie…..
    Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, but Love leaves a memory no one can steal ! All my love, Aunt Judy


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