I’m staring at an empty closet. My son moved out on his own after college graduation following his sisters who have also moved away. For years I thought about them leaving home and now I sit on stripped beds and just stare at their closets. Now there are the hangers hanging sideways lonely, purposelessly taunting me.
And so I take a deep breath and I start the process– the culling, the sorting, the tossing, the donating, the saving, then the backtrack, no I can’t let this baseball jersey go just yet, not the prom dress—for sure! What a memory that represents. I know this drill very well since I just cleaned out my parents’ home after my father’s recent death and so I am seeing my life from both sides of this process. As F.Scott Fitzgerald said, “I am within and without.”
I have a system and it works. This process of discarding. Things tell stories–dried corsages, band programs, ribbons and Valentine messages. The printed tee-shirt from a school play, the hat from a Halloween costume, the Junior Varsity letter.
These objects give me a glimpse into the forgotten worlds of my kids’ lives as they journey on leaving me behind. How cavalier they are! They can so easily let go. “These are memories,” I want to scream! But I know my children have so much ahead of them and these memories might not have the significance they hold for me. These fragments they leave behind are main chapters of my life but for them just beginning ones—ones they probably will forget.
The joy I felt as my daughter got off the bus with this crayoned picture she drew as she held it tightly in her hand—not in her backpack– but ready to present to me as I waited at the bus stop. The bottom of it is still crinkled. The college acceptance letter, the worn baseball from a hard hit double, the signed volleyball from a big win. Remember those days?
But what do I save? Whose memories are they? There is a poem by Emily Dickinson which describes a fallen conquered soldier hearing the victory horn from the triumphant troop. His recognition of victory is doubly wounding since it is not his experience but his interpretation of what the victory would have been, could have felt like. Victory is so much more vivid in his loss.
My participation in the events of these kids is likewise so searing since I am once removed –I reveled in their joy but it was not my experience. It was not my eighth grade dance—I never went to mine, I never was a team hero, I can only guess at the feeling of proficiency in music.
But what do I save? Is one trophy enough? Are the flute practice books a toss? How about this dress my youngest daughter wore on our favorite family vacation? I remember her wet head from newly showering and I feel I can still smell the shampoo on her head on that warm summer evening.
And so my bin system begins. I put away things I just can’t part with just now and in six months I’ll revisit with more strength. The bins’ contents will shrink, the donation bags will grow. There is a Greek myth about Tithonus who was granted eternal life. He forgot to ask for eternal youth, however, and so as years pass he becomes smaller and smaller until he turns into a cicada. I think of this myth as the contents of my bins become smaller and smaller, the memories becoming dimmer and dimmer and the vestiges of them just things, just things.
When I cleaned out my parents’ house things were memories of their lives, lives I participated in, and yet I am still a stranger. I don’t recognize my childhood room. It’s been repainted and remnants of me are gone perhaps in the same slow process which I am now following. I find a poem I wrote on a pink note pad, perhaps my mom couldn’t let that go, but the drawers are empty and they echo when I open them.
I started with surgical precision with my dad’s clothing. In with an efficient sweep of clothing on hangers I lay it all on the bed but then carefully I folded each suit. This was the one he wore to my son’s graduation. Would he remember that or is it my memory?
The tie I remember under his yellow sweater. I grab a large black garbage bag and dump with abandon the top of his desk—the old pencil sharpener we used when I did my homework on the ping-pong table, the stapler which I used on book reports and there—the wooden plaque I made for him at camp that says “hi Dad”. He saved that?
But I took home the dishes we used for holidays, the big turkey platter and the flowered coffee cups my mom used to set out. And the imported tablecloths folded and starched which were still waiting for a time special enough to use them.
I packed up the rest of their house in bins and as I will look to slowly discard my children’s possessions I will hold onto the items in my parents’ bins. But these bins stay in my garage, untouched, packed. They are Pandora’s boxes and I have such fear of them. Perhaps I fear of the letting go of my life as well.
It’s the constant emptying that is getting to me. The freezer stock full ready for the big party but then it gradually empties and I just see my everyday life reflected in the ice cream containers and leftover bowls. The crescendos flatten and the days fly by and the flowers are thrown out, the bags collected and the tables cleaned.
And now I see it. My parents’ process was my process and so it will continue to be. We rush through our lives with carelessness and we mark the occasions and milestones with baby books and cake toppers and the things of our lives are the times of our lives; subtlety inward and a combination of past and present. And so when the cicadas return I’ll figure out what to save and what to not keep. Maybe I’ll save the ticket stubs to the first play I took my daughter to, maybe the poster from a movie opening night, or my Mom’s perfume bottle empty but still smelling of times before.
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