May-June 2020

Hidden memories

How a discovery in a Bethesda house opened a door to a family’s past

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Cindy Souza (right) with Wendi Swidler, whose parents once owned the Bethesda home where Souza lives. Photo by Lisa Helfert

While decluttering her Bethesda home this past winter, Cindy Souza found something unusual in the closet of her grown son’s former bedroom: a small hidden panel on the back wall that led to a storage space in the eaves under the roof.

“I had never gone in there—ever—in 20 years,” she says. Curious to see what was behind the panel, she opened it and found numerous dust-covered items, including a suitcase, mismatched shoes and a large box of greeting cards, letters, receipts and school papers.

“A lot of the notes centered on so and so’s son is going off to war. Or, it was hard to have a party with no boys in town,” Souza says. “There were cards between husband and wife and mother and child. Very sweet things. …It was a snapshot into life as it was.”

Souza, a real estate agent, says many of the old correspondences included the names of William and Mary Potter, the original owners of the house, which was built around 1940. Souza posted her find on Facebook in hopes of reuniting the hidden treasures with any remaining relatives.

The post was shared on a Bethesda-Chevy Chase Facebook page, and within two weeks Souza received a phone call from Wendi Swidler of Silver Spring. “I was thrilled, of course,” Swidler, the Potters’ youngest daughter, says of the discovery. “I was surprised to find out something was still there.”

Souza invited Swidler, 71, to pick up the items and tour the house where she lived from 1949 until the early 1960s. Swidler grew up there with her parents; her oldest sister, Mary Gay Haldeman, 74, now of Gainesville, Florida; and her other sister, Carol Hartman, who died in a car accident in 1971.

Swidler welcomed the opportunity to return to the house that her mother sold more than 40 years ago, and brought along Carol’s daughter, Joanne McNamara, 48, of Berlin, Maryland. On a Sunday afternoon in early February, Swidler was flooded with memories as she walked in the front door and into the living room.