A Purge is Good for the Soul

My younger daughter went on a tear recently and purged every room in her house of unneeded items, a.k.a. junk. It inspired my wife and me to do do the same. The results were impressive, and surprising.
Out went the seldom-worn clothes, the little-used blankets and old pillows, the unwanted knick-knacks and curiosities that had been wasting space and gathering dust. Bags upon bags of things discarded, breathing room in closets, shelves with extra space for the first time in years.
And an almost giddy feeling of accomplishment.
There was a time when we followed these semi-annual purges with yard sales. Now we just put everything in bags and boxes, take it to the Good Will and write it off on our taxes. When you consider that yard-sale shoppers expect to get things for pennies on the dollar, and usually do, it comes out about the same.
Some things, obviously, you can’t sell or give away. Cherished books, family photographs …
And the surprise – a forgotten package of memorabilia from my Statesman years.
I was absolutely certain when preparing to retire from full-time journalism that I’d cleaned everything out of my desk and assorted boxes, nooks and crannies around the newsroom. So I couldn’t have been more surprised while in purge mode to find an unopened package of newsroom flotsam lurking on a shelf in a bedroom closet.
A former co-worker had mailed it to me (in 2013, according to the postmark) with a note explaining that the contents had been found in the newsroom. I must have put the package on the shelf intending to open it later and forgotten all about it.
The contents included letters, cards, photos … memories.
One of the cards was from Fern Graham, the longtime postmaster of Bruneau. It was a thinking-of-you card, written when our oldest daughter was recovering from cancer. Her card took me back to the day we met, in the tiny Bruneau Post Office.
I had a letter with me that day that needed to be mailed, and after debating whether to wait and mail it after returning to Boise I took a chance and pushed it through a slot in the post office wall. Immediately, someone on the other side tugged it out of my fingers, a door opened and I watched as my letter was tossed into a rolling cart and whisked away by a waiting truck.
“That was quick!” I said to the woman overseeing the process. “I almost waited to mail it from Boise.”
“It’ll get where it’s going faster from here,” she said with conviction.
That was my introduction to Bruneau’s beloved postmaster, and the beginning of an enduring friendship. I’d stop to visit when passing through Bruneau; she introduced me to half the town. I drove 150 miles to attend her wedding in Mountain City, Nev.
One of the letters in the package was from a woman named Mary. Postmarked a decade ago, it was a pitch for a story, accompanied by a photo of Mary. She asked that her picture be returned if I didn’t do the story.
I know what you’re thinking, Mary. You’re thinking that that jerk Woodward lost your picture. So you’ll be glad to know that it isn’t lost, looks every bit as good as it did ten years ago and that I’d be happy to return it. It would make me feel better about some of the family treasures readers used to send me in the misguided hope that I wouldn’t lose them.
A Thousand Springs Scenic Byway postcard had me laughing once again at the humor of the late Tom Trusky, BSU professor extraordinaire and director of the Idaho Center for the Book. Trusky, who died in 2009, was forever sending me postcards supposedly ”signed” by late Idaho author Vardis Fisher. This was one of them.
“Damned fools!” it said. “First they plug ’em up, then they sell ’em on a postcard shaped like Oregon! — Vardis.”
Most of the springs were indeed “plugged up,” to develop hydropower, and the card was in fact shaped like Oregon. But at least it wasn’t the usual mistake; the card wasn’t shaped like Iowa.
It was always a pleasure to receive one of Trusky’s “Vardis” cards, which he mailed from as far away as Albania. They never failed to make me laugh. This one, however, was bittersweet. With him gone, it was as sad as it was funny.
Some of the package’s contents were routine – a card thanking me for speaking to a class, a letter from my late sister, a note from a former publisher. Others gave pause:
Oliver Gregerson’s memorial card, for example. Ollie owned and lived at Gregerson’s Wildlife Park, near Barber. He was publicly known for his legal battles to protect his privacy, which he guarded with singular intensity. The antithesis of a public park, his property was blocked by a locked gate and dotted with no-trespassing signs. There were rumors of rude welcomes for uninvited visitors, so I was skittish about going there to do a news story when his home burned.
My fears were unfounded. Gregerson turned out to be one of the sweetest people you could meet. He was in tears over his loss, and it would have been difficult to have imagined a more gentle soul. All he’d ever wanted was be left alone to care for his animals. The picture on the funeral card was of him cradling a baby badger in his powerful hands.
An eight-year-old card from an Elvis Gallagher was equally touching. It was in response to an interview I’d done with a survivor of a Nazi POW camp. Gallagher, who helped liberate the camp, had read my story and contacted him.
He was “bowled over,” Gallagher wrote. The two went on to meet and embrace 51 years after making history.
Re-reading his card, and the other cards and letters found in the forgotten package on the shelf, made the time spent worth it. An occasional purge is good for the soul.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Statesman and is posted on http://www.woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.

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