Remembrance of things lost

John Kelly
Columnist September 10, 2012

Martha Singleton misses her father’s skull.

Well, not his skull, but the actual human skull that the radiologist kept in his home office in Bethesda. He had one in his work office, too.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

When her father died, Martha took one of the skulls, wrapped it in a lot of bubble wrap and instructed the movers to take it to a storage facility.

“When we got our possessions from the storage company, a few things were missing, including the skull,” explained Martha, who splits her time between Bethesda and Colorado. “I often wonder who found my skull, and what they must have thought when they unwrapped it.”

Last week, I described the sinking feeling I got when I saw that a leaking pipe had ruined drawings and paintings by some of My Lovely Wife’s ancestors. I invited readers to share their stories of loss or inadvertent destruction.

Bob Salin’s mother was an accomplished pianist whose prized possessions included a grand piano her father had given her around 1900. When the family moved from Washington to Rehoboth Beach, Del., in 1923 the piano was put into storage. The family was barely settled when they learned that the piano had been destroyed in a warehouse fire.

The end of the story? No. A settlement was reached and a replacement piano was sent. It turned out to be “an upright Stieff of uncertain vintage,” Bob wrote, “badly marred, veneer cracked and ivories missing.”

And yet the instrument had a wonderful sound. His mother used it for decades. When she passed away, the piano became a bit of a white elephant, as pianos sometimes do. Bob could find no one to take it.

One day around 1970, while sitting with some friends, Bob decided it had to go.

“We attacked it with suitable tools,” wrote Bob, of Springfield. “The wood went in the fireplace and small parts in the trash. The heavy cast iron frame — or harp — remained and there were some numbers and symbols painted on it.”

His curiosity aroused, Bob approached an antiques dealer to determine what the symbols meant. Wrote Bob: “It is safe to assume the piano I destroyed had been built before the Civil War, and should have been in a museum.”

Ouch.

Trudy Lefrak’s family seems especially unlucky. When she and her husband and baby daughter lived in Houston in the 1970s, burglars cleaned out the house, even taking wrapped Christmas gifts from under the tree. A year later, a hurricane hit just as the family was getting ready to move. Three feet of water flooded the house.

Ten years ago, after the Lefraks had moved to Virginia, lightning struck their house, shorting out and ruining most of the electronics. Three years later, some improperly disposed of fireplace ashes started a fire in their McLean house. Wrote Trudy: “At one point, there were eight fire trucks here spraying the house with water, but unfortunately, nothing was saved.”

Gone was everything from their family photo albums to Trudy’s grandmother’s cameo. They rebuilt on the same site.

Just last week a lodger living in their garage apartment reported that his car had been burglarized. Wrote Trudy: “We thought we had experienced every type of disaster known to man: a robbery, a hurricane, a lightning strike and a house fire. But, it seems we are starting over!”

Centreville’s Joan Eklund has always found it amazing how sometimes you can just sit down and draw or paint something perfectly. “If you try to reproduce them at another time, the muse eludes you,” she wrote.

Joan kept all the watercolors and prints she did in her high school and college art classes. “They all rested comfortably in the black portfolio in my parents’ attic until my father had had enough,” she wrote.

When she moved to Milwaukee for a job, her personal belongings traveled with another family’s across country in one moving van. But when the van arrived in Wisconsin, the prints and paintings weren’t there.

“I hope they hang in someone’s else’s home,” Joan wrote.

Kathy Megyeri’s husband, Les, loved his airplane, a 1986 Super 21 Mooney. They flew it to the dealer in Punta Gorda, Fla., each year for regular service. That’s where it was in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina struck. The storm lifted it up and slammed it down. The tail section was never found. Kathy crawled in the busted cockpit and retrieved the soaked log books.

“All I have now are photos and the soggy faded logbooks, but I hate to even look at them,” Kathy wrote. “But as one faces more losses in life, the old destroyed Mooney loses its importance compared to the big losses of parents, siblings and friends.”

Kathy said she’s learned to treasure what’s really important in life, not possessions, but relationships.

“But honestly,” she confessed, “I still think about that plane periodically.”

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/
johnkelly.

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