While cleaning out my crazily cluttered attic, filled with thirty-eight years of things my wife, Amy, and I don’t need, but couldn’t part with, broken chairs, boxes full of clothes, ancient computers, ‘80s vintage suitcases, and the like, I stumbled across something quite special.
Let me back up. If you’re a procrastinator like me, there are only two reasons for cleaning the attic–because you’re putting your house up for sale or you’ve come to grips with the fact that all those cardboard boxes sweltering at over one hundred degrees during the broiling hot summer are a fire hazard (our neighbor’s house burned to the ground following the spontaneous combustion of Christmas tree decorations stored in their attic), But I wasn’t selling the house. And although I had the nagging feeling that the boxes were a fire hazard, it wasn’t enough to motivate us to take action.
So what other reason could there be? Two words. Flying squirrels. Yes, there are such critters and a family of twenty really liked our attic. The old mattress–downright cozy. The insulation and blankets–absolutely divine. And the floor and every one of our possessions on it–the perfect comode. On Internet advice (not always reliable), I threw mothballs up there to drive the critters away. Well, that didn’t work and had the added side effect of stinking up the second floor of my house. After more than a dozen visits from a rodent specialist, we learned that our involuntary pets were sliding through louver vents to go in and out. He put mesh over the vent and invited our friends to leave.
If you’ve never seen a flying squirrel, they don’t actually fly. However, they do have extra skin flaps under their arms that let them glide from nearby trees to welcoming attics. They’re kind of cute. Still, not in my attic, please. Once they departed and the attic was secure from invaders, for health and sanitary reasons, it had to be decontaminated. Notice I used a third-person pronoun there. I’m handy and do a lot around the house, but the thought of dealing with poop-laden artifacts from our past was a no-go.
To my relief, I discovered that there is a whole industry for attic specialists devoted to cleaning and sanitizing attics. Hooray–not cheap, but worth every penny. After some further research and negotiations, five brave men in hazmat suits and breathing devices spent eight hours removing everything from the attic, removing all the insulation, power-vacuuming, disinfecting, and replacing the insulation. It is now pristine, clean, and empty.
So, what happened to all the accumulated stuff up there? Other than a couple of dining room chairs we forgot we had and a bag of old letters, our attic superheroes carted it all away, never to be seen again. A great feeling. Now for the best part. Amy started going through that old bag of letters we rescued from destruction when she found…
What started as cleanup and remediation turned into a personal archeological or anthropological project, There were letters from long-lost friends, passionate love letters we wrote each other when we were in high school, and one particularly meaningful note for me, a permission slip.
The permission slip you see pictured above is from my mother written on my behalf.:
“To whom it may concern,
My son Charles Levin has my permission to play ‘Pocket Billiards’
Very truly yours
Mrs. Yvonne B. Levin
377 So. Harrison St.,
East Orange, N.J
The pool hall I wanted to frequent required customers to be at least sixteen to play, and I was just fourteen. The note, the permission slip, seems straightforward enough but examined more closely, it contains clues to my mother’s life story, a snapshot of the 1960s, and a hint of my relationship with my mother.
The Permission Slip
First, there’s the actual content of the note. For her to write this note, I had to have asked her to let her youngest son hang around, unsupervised, at a seedy, smoke-filled pool hall. Why would she agree to that? I’d like to think it was because she trusted me, but that could only be part of the reason. I think the other part was that she was tired, worn out after losing two husbands who died young, the first at twenty-nine and the second, my father, at forty-nine, and working full time to raise three kids. My sister is thirteen years older and my brother is nine years older than I am. So, by the time she got to me, it was pretty much anything goes. A current expression may capture it best. With this note, I think she was saying “Whatever…(sigh).”
Now look more closely and notice the penmanship. My mother explained to me that she was taught Palmer Penmanship in school. She, like every one of her generation, learned to move their entire forearm when they wrote to create a flowing, smooth style. Her handwriting was always perfect, whereas my scrawl looks like hieroglyphs gone bad. Now, everyone types with their thumbs. Nobody writes that beautifully anymore.
How about that phone number, “OR6-5432?” Yes, back then, everyone shared their phone numbers with the first two letters of the town they lived in. “OR” was for ‘Orange.” When I called Amy to ask for a date (there was no such thing as texting then), I would dial on a rotary dial, SO2-3791. She lived in South Orange. My mother also took pride in the fact that she talked ATT into giving her such an easy, sequential number to remember. When she couldn’t stand that I spent hours on the phone (remember this is high school), she got a second line. Liberation, I had my own princess phone in my bedroom with the number OR6-5431.
Finally, at the bottom of the note: “Warner, Jennings, Mandel & Longstreth,” a stock brokerage firm. She worked there as the first female stockbroker ever in New Jersey. After my father died, his loss forced my mother to go to work to support the family. At first, she didn’t know what she would do. She hadn’t worked in years, not since she was a floor manager at Bamberger’s in Newark. In the ‘50s, men worked and women stayed home with the kids and she had three young ones. Suddenly, at age forty with the death of my father, her world turned upside down. As unlikely as it seems, when she was a teenager she used to hang out at the local stock brokerage office, watching the ticker tape or the stock prices being posted and erased, posted, and erased in chalk on a big blackboard. Being a numbers person, she just loved it. That’s what she always wanted to be when she grew up, but there were no women stockbrokers. With a little encouragement from a friend, she studied, took her exams, passed, and got a job with a room full of men in Newark, New Jersey. Soon she was the top producer in the office. She could sell, really sell. She was rightfully proud of her new career.
Force of Nature
Warner, Jennings, and its successors were bought out several times by larger and larger firms until my mother landed at the fifth successor Thompson, McKinnon, where they promoted her to Vice President. In 1984 at age seventy-two, she had her best career year. She was a force of nature. Unfortunately, the following year Prudential bought out Thompson and on account of her age, they made mom retire. It was the end for her. Husbands gone, kids gone, and the job that filled her days with challenging joy, gone.
Then one awful day in 1989, I get a call from my sister. “I can’t reach, Mom.” We both rush to her apartment in East Orange. The super has to break the door open. Mom had taken an overdose of pills. The sight of her barely breathing, prone on the floor with the empty bottle of pills beside her, haunts me to this day. She lasted two days in the hospital and then she left us.
Before mom died, I carried this note, the permission slip, around in my wallet for many years. Partly for its sentimental value and at age thirty or so (I had a baby-face back then), maybe I’d need my mother’s permission for something. She passed away thirty-two years ago in June. At the time, she was only a few years older than I am now. Still, I think I’ll put the note back in my wallet–the date is blank, so it should be good anytime. ‘Cause, you never know when you might need a permission slip.
Find anything interesting in your attic? In the COMMENTS below, please share anything from the meaningful to the unusual you have found up there in the attic.
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