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Published June 06, 2013, 11:40 PM

'Kin keepers': Clothing connects people to loved ones, history

FARGO - It took Kathy Johnson 30 years to pack away a tiny, tattered winter coat. The little yellow coat with a bunny applique belonged to her daughter, Jessica Welle, and like the pages in her baby book, Jessica’s life stopped at 3½ months. She died of SIDs on Feb. 15, 1982.

By: Anna G. Larson, INFORUM

FARGO - It took Kathy Johnson 30 years to pack away a tiny, tattered winter coat.

The little yellow coat with a bunny applique belonged to her daughter, Jessica Welle, and like the pages in her baby book, Jessica’s life stopped at 3½ months. She died of SIDs on Feb. 15, 1982.

The coat might look insignificant, but to Kathy, it symbolizes the life her daughter had for 3½ months.

“It makes me think that yes, she was here, she was alive, and yes, I did have her at one time,” Kathy, of Twin Valley, Minn., says. “It’s something tangible to hold on to. There were times when I’d take it out of the closet and hold it and cry. Everyone probably has something they hold on to.”

The desire to stay connected to someone who dies is often a reason people keep clothing, says Barbara Chromy, a counselor at The Village Family Service Center here.

“There is a sense of how do you keep that person’s memory alive or keep them connected when they’re no longer there,” she says. “I think it can be very therapeutic if it evokes positive memories.”

A decades-old sea foam green party dress holds memories for Deanna Dailey of Bismarck. Deanna’s mother, Alvadine Geisinger, made the dress for Deanna to wear to her first “grown-up” party in 1981. Alvadine had liver cancer and was in pain, Deanna says, but she cut out each piece of the pattern and sewed the dress.

“I remember seeing her down cutting out the pieces for it and struggling to get through it. I didn’t recognize it much at the time though,” Deanna says.

The tag her mother sewed into the dress – “Made with Love by Mother” – makes it special, Deanna says.

The dress was also the last piece of clothing Deanna’s seamstress mother made for her. Alvadine died five months after completing the dress.

“The dress is faded, the sea foam green color somewhat uneven now, I suppose from hanging in the closet all these years, but that dress is going with me to the grave,” Deanna says.

Brittany Meadows, 27, of Fargo, also kept clothing to remember her mother, who died of lung cancer in 2010. The jean jacket from Denise Benson’s closet is special to Brittany because she remembers being with her family in Disneyland, where her mom wore a jean jacket.

“I associate the jacket with Disneyland and her as a younger mom, taking care of us while my dad was out farming,” Brittany says. “This is the closest person that I’ve lost. The closer people are to you and the more time you spend with them … it makes a difference in what you keep. Certain things might seem more important.”

Women are especially likely to keep items from loved ones since they are historically seen as “kin keepers,” The Village’s Chromy says.

She has a quilt from her grandmother whom she never met. Chromy says it helps her feel connected to her grandmother and her father, who’ve both died.

“There’s something about that that gives me a sense of who I am,” she says.

Although women are considered the kin keepers, men connect to their pasts through clothing too, Chromy says.

John Trautman, 36, of Fargo, has a handful of army uniforms in his home that are pressed and ready for inspection. Trautman’s kept the uniforms and some army equipment for 12 years. He planned to be a career soldier, but his life changed when he severed his spinal cord in an accident at a lake in Texas.

Despite an early end to his army career, he keeps his uniforms because they’re a positive reminder of his time in the army and the friends he made.

“It’s kind of like an unfilled goal or dream, a wish,” Trautman says. “There are a lot of good memories and stories that I remember from the military.”

He plans to downsize eventually, saying that he’ll keep one or two uniforms, and he’d like to donate some of the equipment to the VA Hospital.

Donating items to historical societies, museums or other organizations is an option for people who have historically significant items but don’t need them, Chromy says

The ability to donate items and filter out what’s most important is known as “healthy keeping.” When a person can’t filter and everything is kept, it can lead to hoarding issues, Chromy says.

She adds that keeping items associated with painful events can be detrimental to a person’s well- being, and seeking therapy can help people work through their filtering process.

Although Kathy packed away daughter Jessica’s yellow coat a few years ago, she occasionally brings it out of the box to hold. She also keeps Jessica’s memory alive by writing her letters each year on her Oct. 26 birthday.

“I could never throw that coat away,” Kathy says. “I have happy memories attached to that coat – her first smile, her first cooing. I think you almost have to hold on to something.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525

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