Thursday, July 18, 2013

Finding the Past in a Box

I have a closet full of boxes to dig through, waiting for me at my childhood home.  They have sat there, innocuous, for over 20 years, but now they are like a big, menacing mountain, or a shadow, or something black and ugly to be dreaded.  No, Jimmy Hoffa's remains aren't in there - just hundreds of letters from friends, mix-tapes from old boyfriends, and mementos. 

Oh, boy, are there mementos.  You know those things you get from proms and homecomings, photo frames or wine glasses etched with the date and sappy theme of that particular dance? (Because truly, my date was the Wind Beneath My Wings, and I was Never Gonna Give Him Up.)  You know what I'm talking about if you are from the Midwest.  Or maybe New Jersey.  Well, I went to 16 of those dances over my high school career (and yes, keeping up that kind of social life was its own type of career) and I have not only the frame/wine glasses/souvenir photos from all of those, but all manner of cheesy items, including, but not limited to:  horrible sequin-y costumes from 80's and 90's talent shows, cheer-leading paraphernalia, and t-shirts from every play and association and club I belonged to.  (Did I mention my high school social life was a full-time job?)  It's not something I'm proud of.  I really wish I had focused more on my studies, practiced piano more, and dated less.  Really.  Because then I wouldn't have all this crap to sift through and decide whether to put it in the 'to keep' pile, the 'to donate' pile, or the 'burn-it-and-don't-ever-let-anyone-know-I-was-associated-with-it' pile.

Why did all this stuff end up there?  And why did I think I needed to remember my teenage life with cheap plastic champagne flutes, given to me 5 years before I was even legally allowed to drink?  What was so amazing about each and every experience we had during those 4 years of high school that we felt the need to memorialize it with a t-shirt signed by everyone present?  (T-shirts 5 sizes too big to even wear anymore because of that trend back in the early 90's to sport everything oversized and tucked into your pants with a belt, then pulled out a little.  Or a lot.  I guess it offset the big bangs.)  Sure, it's fun to pull it out of a box and say "Oh, I remember this!", but after doing that for awhile, the memories start to consume me.  Why do I need to go back there, that place that most people try to forget because it's the place where we were our most insecure, selfish selves?

The letters are going to be the hardest.  Real, physical letters, written after typewriters were invented, but long before any of us had even conceived of email.  Written in pen and ink, where the only shorthand was SWAK or LYLAS or TLA.  Loooooong before LMAO and ROFL.  Letters from friends I met at church camp each summer and corresponded with once or twice.  Letters from friends that continued from year to year, until we drifted apart in college or after marriage.  (And yes, I was married before I had my first email account.)  Letters from boyfriends who were good friends.  Letters from boys who I thought were just plain old good friends until I got married and they disappeared.  

I'm not certain why I've kept every word ever written to me.  I often thought I'd keep them until I was 80 and in a rocking chair with nothing else to do but re-read hundreds of old letters and reflect on my life, but the older I get, the less I reflecting I feel like doing.  I reflect too much as it is.  Besides, I think there will be more fun things to do when I'm an octogenarian.  My Grandma-in-Law got married and went dancing every day when she turned 80!  Maybe I wanted to leave a trace of who I am (or was) for my descendents.  However, I'm not sure my life and thoughts as an adolescent were all that unusual or interesting, and frankly, I think some things are better left forgotten.  Which brings me to the next box.  The box full of journals.

Or diaries, if you don't want to refer to my scribbling as serious 'journaling.'  They go back as far as when I could only print in capital letters, and came equipped with a lock and key.  I haven't gotten in there yet to re-read them, but I don't think I'm ready for that.  And I'm not sure there is anyone else I want to share them with, either.  I always imagined I'd have a little girl that would become an adult one day, and I'd share them with her to say, "See, your mom wasn't always a grown up!  I had a life before I was a mother!"  Now I have three little girls, and want so desperately for them not to do the kind of stupid things I did, or feel the selfish feelings I felt.  I want them to spend time thinking about saving the world, not about what Ryan So-and-So said to them at the lunch table on a particular day.  I want them to experience a little pain, and a little rejection, but not enough to cry for months, or years, at a time.  And maybe now, I just don't want them to know I was anything BUT their mother, because maybe they would roll their eyes and laugh at who I was.  It's one thing for them to do that about me in my role as 'mom', because every child will do that at some point, and I'm expecting it.  That part wouldn't hurt.  I just don't want them to be disappointed in who I was (or wasn't).  I didn't do anything spectacular.  I wasn't all that interesting as a kid.  I was pretty selfish and self-centered and mixed-up, and that's just not a pretty read.  So what to do with those journals?

Unfortunately, we don't have a working fireplace where I can tear the pages out and send them romantically up the chimney.  And maybe, even more unfortunately, I don't have a consistent written record of all the good days and times, especially now, with my busy, wonderful family.  I guess because we are so wonderfully busy, and the only time I have tended to write in my journals is when things seem to be hitting rock bottom and I'm trying to figure my way out.  There's no need to go to the counselor when things are going swimmingly, I guess.  (Not that it's always perfect, or ever perfect.  That's impossible.  But somehow, my current life with little kids forces me to be present.  And the present situation is always better than what goes on in the recesses of my mind.)

All this dredging up of the past is because my mom is selling our childhood home.  It has been on the market for a few years now, but she is finally serious enough about getting it off her shoulders as to clean out 36 years worth of accumulation.  It has been very hard for me to imagine her not being there, to imagine someone else in our space, and to know those chapters of life are closed forever.  I still call it home, even though I moved out at 18.  I love the house, the smells, the land - everything about it (except maybe the sulfur water!)  I just haven't wanted to let go yet, but after last weekend, when we started going through all the closets in earnest, I realized I don't need the contents of those boxes to remember what was good and redeeming about my growing-up years.  Not the tchotchkes, not the letters, not even the beautiful, old house itself.  Appropriately enough, I found the following in the book I was reading to the girls the other night.


Laura called out softly, "What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?"

"They are the days of a long time ago, Laura, " Pa said.  "Go to sleep, now."

But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa's fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods.  She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the fire-light gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle.  She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting.

She though to herself, "This is now."

She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now.  They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now.  It can never be a long time ago.


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