Thursday, January 24, 2019

Flashback 1998: Aunt leaves cache of trinkets—and mystery

   Occasionally, I'll reprint an old column and someone will ask me how I can remember something written so long ago. And the honest answer is, often I don't, but just blunder upon them, looking for something else.
     But this one I did remember, after 20 years, and went looking for. I'm posting it because I'm out of town, on assignment, and the 23rd anniversary of my column is Saturday, so I figured I would fill the gap with some of my favorites. This is one of my favorites, for reasons that I think will be obvious if you read it. If I had to write it again, I'd start with the the third paragraph, beginning "Alice-Lu Unthank lived alone..." and delete the first two as unnecessary.

     "Unthank"—what an odd name. Only now does its symbolism strike me. 

     Most people lead quiet lives, privately. Modest lives unseen, except by their families, if even then. Lives of love and loss and remembrance.
     But every once and a while, a life breaks open for all to see.
     Alice-Lu Unthank lived alone, in a single bed in a tiny room with file boxes of yarn, bolts of felt, knitting needles and embroidery supplies piled around her, up to the crumbling, cigarette-stained ceiling.
     The retired secretary lived in a two-bedroom flat on Addison Street. The second bedroom was as sparse as hers was cluttered, the beautiful mahogany furniture polished, the double bed made, a brush and comb set neatly on the dresser, as if she were expecting at any moment the room's former occupant, Unthank's father, John J. Joppeck, dead for 20 years.
     "She kept a room for him, as if he was here," said her niece, Penny Young, of Williamsburg, Va. "Like a shrine. I've seen photographs of his dresser when he was alive. It's the same now."
     Unthank, who died March 16 at age 83, left behind no children. Her husband died in 1949. She adored her niece, whom she last saw in 1985. Young was surprised to learn she had inherited her household possessions. She inherited, along with the engagement rings and the gold watches, the melancholy task of shutting down the apartment. She was here, doing that, all last week, and is stunned by the strangeness of what she found, the flotsam saved by her Aunt Alice, a woman she barely knew.
     Not just the huge amounts of handicraft supplies, the hundreds of pattern books, shelf after shelf. Not just the dozens of hand-knit afghans, all labeled and sealed in plastic bags. Not just the shock of seeing her own high school portrait, framed, or an urn containing ashes of a dog named Penny.
     Rather, what prompted Penny Young to call a newspaper were the ornaments—hundreds of them, all made by hand by Joppeck. Ducks and bunnies, hearts and butterflies, napkin racks and spoon racks, toast holders and note holders. Some on display, the bulk—and there may be 1,000—wrapped in brittle newspapers, decades old, stored in careful layers, in box after box after box.
     "I'm in shock," she said. "It's more than I can take."
     Each piece is signed on the back, "JJJ," dated and dedicated to "ALU"—Alice-Lu Unthank. Some have little notes of appreciation, or praise. Behind them all, as best Penny Young can figure out, is a sad tale of a broken family.
     Joppeck and his wife, Nell Kugelman, divorced on Feb. 5, 1927, after 16 years of marriage. Alice-Lu was 13. Young found the papers in her aunt's careful collection of documents. They list the grounds for divorce as "extreme and repeated cruelty," but that doesn't necessarily mean anything. You needed to list some sort of reason then.
     Joppeck disappeared and his oldest daughter did not see him again until March 22, 1966, when they met again at Nell's funeral at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside.
     Father and daughter got to talking. They had several lunches. Soon they were living together. And he started making the ornaments and tokens, almost every day, until his death about a decade later.
     "He made them for her to show love, because he left her," said Young.
     The tokens are not art. "You either like them or you don't," said Young. Many are imitations of cartoons—squirrels, deer, clowns, all vaguely Disneyesque. They are made from old apple crates and bits of wood that Joppeck, a painter and paper hanger, would scavenge. The hangers on the back are made from beer can pull-tabs.
     Young found a heart-shaped locket containing a picture of Alice and a man. At first Young thought it was the deceased husband, Wilson Unthank. "I went, 'Oh my God, this isn't Wilson,' " she said. It was John Joppeck.
     In light of his 40-year absence, the hundreds of tokens have a desperate, guilty quality. And there are indications that Unthank carried anger. Certain accusations in a letter in a strongbox, the details of which aren't to be mentioned.
     Young plans on keeping a curio cabinet Joppeck made, and some of the better wooden trinkets. The others—hundreds of them—she couldn't bring herself to throw away. As luck would have it, she doesn't have to. Her aunt, who left typed inventories of everything in the house, left the phone number of a yarn store. Young called, hoping they would take the yarn—hundreds of skeins and balls of it, ready for somebody to knit.
     Lynette Opolka, the owner of Midwest Discount Yarns, at 5723 W. Irving Park Road, agreed to take the yarn; she plans to donate it to the Veterans Hospital and other charities to use for patient projects.
     Opolka is also taking most of John Joppeck's trinkets. She'll give them away to anyone who stops by her store and asks for one. So you can share a bit of the mystery, if you like. I took a duck and a rabbit.
     I walked out of Alice-Lu Unthank's apartment, thinking about love and knitting and the temporary tyranny of things. No matter how well-ordered your world, no matter how neat the labels, your prized possessions are only a few decades away from the auction block or the resale shop or the dumpster.
     Many of us won't even get the benefit of a Penny Young—a decent, caring person who tries to dispose of our treasures with a little dignity.
     "It's killing me to look at this," she said.
     Balls of yarn. Bits of wood carved like ducks. Old legal documents and prayer cards from funerals. We leave behind so little, and so much.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 24, 1998


  1. Memento mori. I don't know whether to be gratified or further saddened that Alice-Lu finally got her day in the sun.


  2. Yes, know the feeling. Take for safe keeping a homeless persons suitcase or box of possessions, sometimes never reclaimed. Years later hear second hand the owner has died. Decent clothes can be donated. What to do with old pictures from grade school days, assorted knickknacks, playbills, and expired pawn shop tickets? Once found a chest x-ray dotted with a few nodules.

  3. Imagine how many more similar stories are out there; I would think everyone has a secret of some kind, or things that are kept in the home as treasures, which are only discovered after a death. I hadn't seen this column before, and am grateful it was re-posted.

  4. Three years ago, my wife and I went through our widowed neighbor's house after she died. Forty years of being a pack rat had left the place a disaster area. Her nieces and nephews looted the place of a few valuables and pieces of furniture and then trashed the rest.

    While picking through the wreckage and spending three weeks cleaning the house (with neither heat nor water), we discovered carefully wrapped artifacts in the basement. Some dated as far back as the First World War. She had been a collector of mementos connected to the Royal Family during her years in the UK.

    Edward VII, George V, George VI, and even from the short, unhappy reign of the abdicated Edward VIII. Who knew?


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