May-June 2020

Hidden memories

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

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Souza recently discovered several dust-covered items, including a box of greeting cards, letters and school papers, that belonged to Swidler’s family. Photo by Lisa Helfert

“This is where my husband proposed to me. Right here,” Swidler said in the living room entryway near the fireplace. She and her husband, Mark, had been married for 42 years when he died in 2014. “I used to do handstands against that wall and knock everything off the mantel.”

Souza had set up the items she’d found on her dining room table. In addition to the shoes and suitcase were a crumpled straw hat, a pencil drawing of the house, and a painting of three young girls. Swidler recognized the artist’s rendition of her and her sisters, and remembered how her mother didn’t like the first version because their teeth were showing and later had it retouched so the girls’ lips were closed.

Opening the large box, Swidler removed several papers from an accounting class that her dad took in the 1940s, and a document showing that he was treasurer of the Bethesda Junior Chamber of Commerce in 1943. There also were a few photos, receipts and—most valued—personal letters.
Souza says she enjoyed watching Swidler and McNamara as they examined the pieces of their family history, and she marveled at the role social media had played in the reunion. “It’s really amazing to me how small a community we still really are,” she says.

A few weeks later, Swidler brought along some of the items on a trip to Key West for a vacation with Haldeman. The sisters read the letters aloud in their hotel room and pieced together who was who. Swidler says the newsy letters gave her a better sense of her grandmother, who had 10 children and died when Swidler was 11. The sisters were struck by the similarities in the handwriting of their mother and grandmother, and the neatness of their father’s worksheets from his accounting courses.

“It was a little trip to the past,” Swidler says of receiving the hidden treasures. “I’m going to keep them forever.”