FEBRUARY 28, 2020
This piece appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal: Catharsis, No.25
For several years after my mom died, I carried a green Post-it in my wallet, the last note she wrote to me. It doesn’t say I love you or I’m proud of you or anything like that. It’s a note about a box, when she couldn’t remember the word “box,” and for complicated reasons I don’t quite understand, it is very dear to me.
I was home from college for Thanksgiving break, and I had packed my watch and earrings in a little cardboard jewelry box on my dresser. She saw it when I was out, and she wanted to let me know she had more boxes like that if I needed them. She wrote on the note: “I’m sure shoure I have more of these,” and then drew two rectangles, the lid and the base, and an arrow pointing. After the picture she continues, “but I can’t reach. Remind me to show you where to get them.” She was 53 years old, recovering from a stroke. Her intestines were dying, her organs failing, and none of us knew she would die in a few days. Her handwriting is wobbly but recognizably hers. Her second-guessing of her spelling was an improvement from when she would write words on paper and stare at them blankly, unable to read what she’d written.
I threw away the note when I first found it and pulled it out of the trash after she died.
I tucked it behind my ID and credit cards and examined it in idle moments, thinking of her thoughtfulness for others, of this strange period between the old Mom and the post-stroke Mom and then gone Mom, one kind of pain collapsing into another. It’s not a happy memory, the one evoked by the note, or even a memory at all. But I am protective of it.
A few years ago, I bought a new wallet and moved the note to a box I keep in my wardrobe filled with pictures from childhood, postcards my mom sent me from trips to England with my dad, paper ephemera. I didn’t think of it much until last year, when I decided “to Kondo” my apartment. My home had grown cluttered, my partner defensive of his limited space, so I read two books by Japanese home and decluttering guru Marie Kondo and decided to make a change. Maybe it was a mistake to seek solace in stuff.
I did well in the clothes section, clutching items to my questioning heart, judging what “sparked joy,” ditching what made my muscles contract — anything ill-fitting, itchy, blah. I shredded paperwork and donated books and shoes and pans. I did everything in the order Kondo describes, saving sentimental items for last. After weeks of work, I finally pulled the box from my wardrobe and opened it, saw the wrinkled green Post-it on top. I didn’t have to touch it to know what I felt, and it wasn’t joy. There was fullness in my chest, heaviness behind my eyes. Images from my childhood bedroom, a flicker of fondness, of faded fear, a sense of regret, of being 20, as though I were viewing a little sister who was me. I see a memory I can’t have — my mom writing the note, though I wasn’t there. I remember myself throughout my 20s opening my wallet and remembering. I arrive in the past, and there is pain, but the depth of it, its texture and associative layers bring a sense of security — I’ve managed to preserve something real. To give that up in favor of curated happiness, the gentle release of forgetting, feels fraudulent, even sinister. I put the note in the box, the box in the wardrobe, and returned Kondo’s books to the library.
In the short period after my mom’s funeral when we — my dad, my two older sisters, and I — shared our feelings constantly, outright, I remember saying how afraid I was that I would forget her. This was before my dad emptied her bedroom of her possessions without telling me, though it must have been on his mind. “I only knew her for 20 years,” I said, resisting all the space that I would live without her.
He told me, “You won’t forget her. She’s your mother.” He said it like it was impossible, or like he knew what my memory was capable of. I remember being briefly reassured and horrified. I couldn’t do it on my own; I knew it would never work. I needed to stop time, and if I couldn’t do that, I needed her things to remember.
It’s not a fashionable view these days, to be concerned for objects, to desire to preserve and dwell among things. And it bothers me, too, the way I keep contradicting myself. I believe, on the one hand, that my mother was not her belongings, but on the other hand, I don’t know if that’s true.
The day I found my mom’s room empty, light invaded the bare surfaces when I opened the door, glancing starkly off the walls and stripped mattress. The dressers and cabinets were empty, and in the closet, I found wire hangers and two pairs of shoes on the floor, inexplicably left behind. I couldn’t find her books with the pages turned down or the constellation of sticky notes on the back of the door, or everything else I had touched and held in her absence to give my senses a mixed-up kind of relief. I could not find everything I would never know had been there. Death, I learned, comes not once but many times: a long series of vanishings, some violent, some unnoticed. A person doesn’t disappear from the world as much as dissolve into it, like a chalky tablet dropped into water.
I may have touched the furniture. I remember sitting on the closet floor. It was about four months after she died.
After shock came fury and a sickly sense of violation. I found my father downstairs and demanded to know where everything was, anxious to get it back. “Goodwill,” he told me. The rest went in the garbage. Anything “important” was packed away elsewhere. If he said it gently, it didn’t feel like it. You didn’t ask, I yelled. Was he trying to erase her? I’m here all alone, going crazy, he said. I remember the incredulous look on his face, my heart slamming in my chest. “Which one?” I said.
I meant which Goodwill.
“Sasha,” my dad said, as though my name might wake me from some kind of fugue. “They probably send most stuff overseas.”
My dad has always hated stuff, regarded it with dread. It was a recurring argument between him and my mom, who loved stuff, buying presents and cards, collecting teacups, making crafts, keeping special coins and stones in her jewelry box. My dad wore the same clothes for decades, rarely gave or wanted presents, and believed a cluttered house indicated wasteful spending and the indulgence of inferior, unexamined desires. He once taped a sign next to our decorated Christmas tree that read, “National Monument to Wretched Excess,” and often quoted Thoreau’s Walden, lines about a man alone in the woods, the purity of nature over industrialized civilization, et cetera. I knew all this, but I still couldn’t believe it, that he wouldn’t recognize what her stuff meant to me.
I drove to Goodwill after Goodwill, alone, looking in vain for a familiar sleeve, a vest. There was something shameful about it, as though to pursue an emotional attachment to things was unseemly, crazy. This was in 2007, pre-smartphone apps, so I bought a voice recorder at Best Buy and talked to it on the four-hour drive back to college in Kansas from Nebraska, describing every detail of the room I could remember.
The recording I made that day in the car is not something I’ve listened to obsessively; in fact, I haven’t listened to it at all. About five years ago, I did switch on the first 10 to 15 seconds, but it made me uncomfortable — to hear that younger person with the throb in her voice. “Okay,” she says. She takes a shaky breath. I turned it off. She’s a different person, one closer to Mom, one with a mission to not become me: my murky memory, sorrows dried up to puddles. I hear her desperate to remember, to keep away from me, and from this distance, I know that she failed. I feel sad for her, sorry for her, in a way I cannot feel sad for myself, as one can’t fully miss what they can’t remember.
I search through my desk drawers and find the recorder — a slender gray device that has no reason to exist these days, aside from the information captured on it. There’s only one audio file, the one I made 13 years ago alone in the car. I don’t know what I’m expecting or wanting to hear when I pull it out. Something for the essay. Something to help me understand why things mean what they do. I turn it on — or, I try. Inside the battery compartment, there’s a strange odor, a crusty substance where the batteries leaked. It doesn’t help to switch out the batteries. I impotently poke at the coiled battery spring with a cotton swab dipped in vinegar, as the internet suggests, but before it even dries, I know it won’t work. Sometimes feelings surprise you when you watch them closely, let their contradictions unwind. For instance, the sag of remorse and guilt under a bright wash of relief, as though two separate women inside me want their feelings known at once.
My dad’s actions and their fallout created a rift between us that settled into periodic tension for years. A strain that hasn’t vanished even now, though our communication is kinder, our stances well known. Don’t throw anything else away without asking, my sisters and I implore my father. You girls have got to come get the rest of the stuff out of the basement, is his response. We take what we can, when we can, crowding our small apartments in big cities with stuff. He sends emails with attachments of the “inventory” in a spreadsheet — a categorized list of boxes containing our childhood stuff and anything from the old house. He makes these requests for removal with the bedside manner of a weary middle manager at a shipping company who’s got to send this crap out so he can go home and rest. He warns, Once I retire, I’m out of here. Meaning, all the stuff must be, too.
My dad met someone shortly before the room incident and married her the following year. He sold the old house and moved into hers across town, shedding more stuff and keeping what fit in the new basement. Because I could not comprehend my dad’s actions, I made assumptions, many of them angry and unkind. I wanted to remember my mom, and he didn’t. I loved my mom more than he did, or I loved her better. I read betrayal and weakness into his rapid life reshuffling, saw a cowardly man who could coldly amputate the past and replace one person for another, as though my mom and their 30 years of marriage didn’t matter at all.
It’s just stuff, my dad kept saying. She’s not in there — nothing is.
To preserve her stuff was to preserve her, her very being, I argued.
Sometimes we insist to others what we wish we could believe.
My dad and his wife visit New York to take care of my sister’s two young sons for a week. I go over to help, and I tell Dad I read about a museum in Denmark called House Of Memories that’s designed specifically for Alzheimer’s patients. It’s an exact replica of an apartment from the 1950s, back when the patients were young, their brains and memories ripe. “Huh,” my dad says. He doesn’t have Alzheimer’s and he’s not exactly enthralled, but I keep going. Everything is authentic, all the furniture, the appliances, food, artwork, tablecloth, dishes. People can touch and sit, tell stories, remember. And they do remember, much more than before they entered the home, as though handling objects brought another time to them, or them to it. All this old stuff was consoling their fears, surpassing other treatments. “Isn’t that fascinating?” I say.
“Yeah,” he says. “By the way, speaking of stuff.” He brings up the boxes in storage, the holiday stoneware dinner set my sister is supposed to take off his hands, photos that need to be scanned. “Do we have to talk about it now?” I say. I know he can’t help himself, his anxiety over stuff intruding like a hot potato he can’t hold — he has to pass it on. But my chest still flares with irritation. I tell him I’m writing about stuff; could I interview him?
He agrees, a little surprised, but obliging. We make a plan for later that week. My dad loves talking about stuff, in the way that we love to talk about what we hate.
It has been strange to see this conflict over stuff surface in public conversation in recent years. You can’t throw a rock across the internet without hitting someone talking about it. There are forums, lists, helpful hacks, Pinterest inspiration boards. Kondo has her own show, boosted by the rising numbers of tiny-housers and minimalists, the thousands of bloggers and influencers eager to practice the virtues of simple living, of doing more with less. Shopping sites are often geared toward the one perfect thing that will replace all of your terribly imperfect things — the one T-shirt you need, the one face cream. This isn’t the first time this trend has surfaced, considering the counterculture rejection of materialism in the ’60s, the ascetic underpinnings of many world religions, and periods of austerity during war and economic depression, but the arguments to shrink our collections of stuff have become increasingly persuasive to the mainstream American public.
In the face of climate catastrophe, environmental degradation, and growing awareness of the externalized, human costs of material convenience, I agree we should be suspicious of certain kinds of acquisition, the belief that amassing products will make us special and safe and whole, but the decluttering movement seems to have taken aim at stuff en masse, as though personal possessions are all the same, one lumpy substance out to bog you down, or bum you out. In this paradigm, stuff is both empty and dangerous, superfluous to the self and inhibitory. It’s become a tacit precept of human-object relations that there’s one logical reaction to a troubling or complex emotional experience when it comes to things. Rid yourself. If you’re not careful, you might drown.
Perhaps you consider yourself above these concerns. You think of yourself as reasonable when it comes to inanimate objects. You’ve never torn into a new package with an adrenaline high or sobbed over a cracked mug. You know how to keep a level head. In that case, I present to you a sweatshirt owned by a vicious serial killer. In fact, he wore it as he tortured and murdered his victims. Don’t worry, I washed it. You could wear it to bed or to pick your daughter up at school. No? I see.
People don’t want objects from anyone who scares or disgusts them, just as many people appreciate an autograph or souvenir from an admired celebrity, treasured precisely for its residual essence. The perception of object contamination, positive and negative, is one of the behaviors consumer researcher Russell W. Belk describes in his 1988 landmark article “Possessions and the Extended Self.” He argues that possessions are a powerful means by which humans negotiate and develop their identities, using belongings to “extend” ourselves into the world beyond our brains and bodies. Belk’s article incorporates a synthesis of disciplines, including psychology, anthropology, and philosophy, in service of this idea of self-extension through possessions. “Apparently, in claiming that something is ‘mine,’ we also come to believe that the object is ‘me,’” he writes, whether it’s sensations, ideas, and experiences, or places, people, and things to which we feel attached. This has been confirmed in more recent research, as Francine Russo reports in her 2018 Scientific American article “Our Stuff, Ourselves.” Psychologists at Yale University in 2013 found that during “functional magnetic resonance imaging,” the objects that a participant had been previously prompted to imagine as “mine” activated the same brain regions that refer to a person’s self.
This way of connecting ourselves to objects also applies to how we think of the relationships between other people and things. Belk explains that the “psychic energy” of an object increases with the “efforts, time, and attention” a person devotes it. It follows then, that a spoon used by your grandfather for many years, or one he laboriously carved from wood himself, for example, or that he carried through periods of severe adversity, would hold more meaning (both to him, presumably, and to you) than a very expensive or otherwise remarkable spoon he rarely used. The feelings we have for a possession that’s been “charged” with personhood may be determined by our current feelings about that person or our relationship with them. In other words, the feelings we’d experience in proximity to their body could also be evoked by those personal objects. I imagine seeing this object-human “charge” like one of those UV light scans in a crime show; the glow of past touch scattered across things, widely dispersed here, centralized and dense there. Some things are more “me” than others, some things more “them” or “her.” Each object contains various emotional valences depending on who’s looking at it.
This reminds me of the attachment I had to my mom’s clothes, which was much stronger than my feelings for the heirlooms she’d stashed away, which my father did preserve. I associated her clothes not only with her personality and preferences, but also her vulnerability, her efforts to conceal an insecurity. My mom had scoliosis, and despite the rods surgically implanted in her spine when she was a teenager, her hips were crooked, her back misaligned, an asymmetry she concealed with fastidious tailoring. The thought of her pants, one leg hemmed shorter, or her shirts, a thicker shoulder pad sewn into one side, strewn across the racks of a Goodwill, pulled onto the bodies of strangers and tossed to the floor, was disturbing to me. It wasn’t about wanting them because I wanted more shirts to wear, or even for the memories they elicited. They glowed with her. I know they were shirts, not sentient creatures with nerves, but their disappearance signaled my failure, my helplessness; I couldn’t protect her from harm, even after she was gone.
My dad sends me items now and then, unannounced, as though he’d woken up in the night with his mind racing, mentally scanning the contents of his basement, and decided to whip a box across the country first thing in the morning. Sometimes he asks first if I want it, and sometimes he just sends an email with a tracking number. He ships a painting by my mother’s aunt that hung over the fireplace in the old house, retro jadeite measuring cups my mom collected, and a box of tiny salt and pepper shakers I have never seen before. My home is layered with the past, like the fossilized strata of archaeological time, but in reverse. The old keeps appearing on my doorstep, and I nestle it in with the new.
I admit it’s not just the material effects of our family my dad wants to whittle down — it’s everything. He often tosses random books into these boxes, as though to have a finished book lying around causes him aggravation. Once a thing is completed, it’s done, and there’s no looking back. (A more charitable view might be that he wants to share something with me, give us something to talk about, but with him it’s hard to tell, that boundary between the thrill of discarding and the act of giving.) It’s easy for me to get defensive on this point, to fall into assumptions and feel vicariously dismissed by his predisposition, an old pattern resurfacing.
When I think back to the conflict over stuff between my parents throughout my childhood, I realize I hardly ever heard them fight about anything else. Their arguments were silly at times, a playful attempt from my dad to irk my mom, who largely ignored him or swatted him away, and at other times, they turned into heated fights where he lost his temper and screamed, and she locked herself in the bedroom. It was as though they weren’t arguing about objects at all but a fraught moral imperative, a battle for the house and family’s soul. What stuff should mean to us.
Because I was a child, I sought love and attention in whatever form it was convincing and available, and I had no conception of consequences, financial, environmental, or otherwise, so it was easy to side with my mom and her love of things, to view my dad’s challenges as inconsiderate bullying. Not only did I, like most kids, desire and enjoy toys, dolls, books, et cetera, I was also sensitive to the undercurrent of my dad’s provocations, his groans at the sight of a shopping bag, his wistful fantasies of heading off into nature with a canoe and a dog — the implication being it was us he wanted to flee. My mom and her things were steady, permanent, easy to understand, while my dad, with his rants and idealized emptiness, might as well have been plotting his escape.
When I interviewed him, he repeated a line I’ve heard many times before, a theory about my mom and her antique collecting hobby, her $4 teacups and saucers crowding the secretary in the dining room that drove him crazy: he says she loved the thrill of the hunt. I think this is only partially true, but it’s an interesting antipode to his own attitude, which is also a sort of thrill-seeking: the pleasure of the purge. I see both sides: stuff as emotional support versus emotional clearing. Empty space. Full space. Alone. Together. Saved. Lost. So many dualities, binaries. And I feel allied to all of them at once.
Through these random shipments from my dad, my oldest sister, who has children, wound up with the Christmas ornaments and toys; my other sister has family dishware because she entertains; and I received all of Mom’s saved letters, because I am the writer. As far as I can tell, my dad didn’t look inside the box to keep the ones he himself wrote.
When they arrived in 2015, I was overwhelmed by the immensity of the information suddenly available to me, letters going back to the ’60s from my mom’s parents when she was away at camp, from her brother on his proselytizing mission for his church, from her parents and friends when she went to college, little check-ins about life decisions, a lot of pragmatic back and forth about a bill, a lead on a part-time job, and then, in 1975, the letters become consolatory — the year her own mom died, when she was 22. An event that would become an eerie, distinct connection across our lives, a formative split in before and after that we never knew we would share. I spend hours pulling paper from envelopes, smoothing the creases, squinting at cursive, filing letters by date in folders and boxes I slide with care on my bookshelf. But still, the letters are to her, not from her, so I’m still guessing what she said or asked, what happened, filling in gaps.
I discover a few sheets of paper covered with a smattering of her handwriting that I find confusing initially: phrases and sentences dipping across the page, circling and trailing off — she’s working something out. It’s written on the back of a customer order form at Fast Signs, the sign shop where she worked. I realize from the date what the writing is about: she was trying to describe a memory, for me.
This was the year before she died, not long after I’d given her a floral embroidered journal for Christmas. My mom told charming stories about her childhood — the dog that went down the slide at the playground, the times she appeared as an extra in Western films shot in southern Utah — but she never wrote them down, and I wanted more, others that she might not tell us in person. I asked her to start writing her memories, though after her death I found the journal empty. But here on the back of this order form, it seemed like she was trying to get something down, taking notes on what she would write.
She’s writing about a place in her childhood home that she loved, the attic bedroom. She’s describing the sensory experience of it, the sound of the steps creaking, the warmth of the sunshine falling through the windows, the fragrance of apple blossoms during the spring. She loved the smell of the wood, which would hit her the moment she stepped through the doorway. She writes multiple versions of these descriptions, finding her wording, sometimes jotting down one word, “window,” then adding it to a fuller statement that tips sideways across the page. I read, “to this day if I happen to be in a room where a sun ray is shining in.”
But there’s nothing else. A thought spun from the page into the air, right where I can’t reach.
My dad is 63, recently and joyfully retired from a long career as a research geneticist, with a beard and a full head of graying hair, a slight stoop, and a noticeable Long Island accent, despite having lived in the Midwest for over 30 years. When I was young, his penchant for functional but ragged clothing and disinclination for haircuts placed him visually somewhere between quirky professor and homeless, but he’s cleaned up in recent years, lost weight, purchased newer clothing, though he does still break out his ancient tie-dye T-shirt to putz around the house. He is generally calmer now, less volatile, though one might still describe him as “high- strung.” He likes to know exactly what will happen in a day before it will happen, and his version of love and care is to make sure everyone is fed and insured and employed and aware that retirement is expensive, and we need to start saving now.
We get together to discuss our relationship to stuff, as I had asked. The conversation is structured like an interview and I start slow: “How would you define your relationship to the things that you own?” and “When did you start having strong feelings about stuff?” and then the harder questions, the ones more directly about mom, and me, “What motivated you to clean out mom’s room without telling us?” He’s careful with me, too, and his word choice is vague and euphemistic. Just as I’m wondering why he’s talking this way, he brings up my mom directly and his voice cracks; I realize his evasion wasn’t for my protection, but his.
During this conversation, I remember what I often forget about my dad — how close his feelings live to the surface, how similar to each other we really are. My dad’s avoidance of mementoes is not a matter of absence or rejection of feeling, but an excess of it, a desire to tone down what’s inside by clearing what’s outside. As he’s talking, I remember a line I read in one of the letters he wrote to my mother, one that surprised me with its tenderness. I think of you always. His partnership with my mother gave him access to decades of intimate experience that I never had, a whole world of memory. In my case, I use the outside to bring in what’s missing inside. If only we could share what we each have.
I bring up my mother’s room, which we have not talked about for many years. I listen to his explanation of his mind-state at the time — devastated and panicked — but I still have to ask: “Did you know it would hurt us when you cleared out her room?” “No,” he says softly. “I didn’t — I didn’t think of that.” He looks right at me. “I’m sorry, Sasha.” I tell him I understand. For a moment it’s like the windows have come parallel and opened and we see each other inside. At least, that’s what it feels like to me.
After the talk, we’re standing at a stoplight and my dad puts his arm around me — a rare occurrence — and we thank each other. As we wait for the light to change, he mentions his idea to scan photos from the family albums, pull out the best ones to keep. I feel a twinge of resistance, and since we’re feeling connected and open, I make efforts to explain why I appreciate the original albums.
My mother was a devoted photographer, a meticulous chronicler. The collection of albums is massive and contains as many family moments as boring pictures of countryside and birds. But it’s not just the content of the images that is important to me, it’s the physical record of her countless hours spent shooting, developing, organizing film. To keep the albums is to preserve something acted on, an actual remnant of her personhood, and with it, the opportunity to maintain a relationship that is curious about her, has questions. I find myself in her labors, her choices — a desire to observe and document experience, render it in tangible form. I don’t want to keep this stuff merely as a gesture of sentiment. I want to keep it because it still speaks to me. Surprises me. If I’m trying to continue a conversation with her, where else would I go?
My dad nods. He’s listening. “We could scan them in the same order,” he says. “We could keep some of the albums.” The cars stop, and we cross.
A few weeks later, I receive a package from my father; there’s an envelope and a small plastic box filled with photos. “I think you might be interested in these,” he writes. “Your mom evidently selected these herself — as favorites perhaps.” Inside the box are studio photographs of my sisters and I, from birth through high school. Curled hair, bows. I fan them out on my bed, careful to retain the order, and scan the babies morphing into girls into women. I see my mother in all of them, in all of us. Splinters of features replicated here, diverging there. I am touched that my dad preserved them, that he’d listened to what I’d said.
I’m at work when a burst of text messages lights up my screen. They’re from my sisters. My dad and his wife are having a moving sale, and she’s posted photos on Facebook of the things that will be available. There are the kid’s costumes my mother made. There is the furniture my uncle built. Dishes. Artwork. Teacups. Jewelry. Tagged for two dollars here, 50 cents there. Things my father agreed to store until further notice. Apparently, the final reckoning had come, we just hadn’t been invited.
I call Dad that night, hoping to rekindle the understanding we’d had in the coffee shop. “I’m old, I’ve had it,” he snaps. “No more stuff.” They’re selling the house, moving into an apartment. The stuff has to go. This is it. I tell him I’m baffled. I’m indignant, and as my frustration spikes, I start to snap back.
“What do you think you are? An archaeologist or something?” he says. “If you can’t remember your mother without a bunch of junk, there must be something wrong with you.”
“Maybe there is,” I say, stunned. I don’t point out the different ways a person might want to remember, and that I can’t have his mind, as much as he wants me to. There’s only my own. We fight, the conversation burns out, and we’re back where we were, only more lost in difference, it seems. He threatens to get rid of everything. I talk him down — give us 24 hours.
The ensuing day is a ridiculous tug-of-war that involves Excel and a strategizing conference call, and ultimately enlisting one of my sister’s old high school friends to buy two pieces of my mother’s furniture from my dad at his garage sale. My sister makes a spreadsheet so we can claim and discuss ownership of items, and she labels it “Mom’s Stuff.” I think of how many iterations of this we’ve experienced, objects divorced from my mother’s presence, put through filters, columns, tagged with words, like we’re selling and shopping for Mom. It all feels further from her, less her. I choose a flower press, a painting. Much of it my dad agrees to ship. I scurry to make room in my closet. The episode culminates in a sludge of gratitude and resentment.
Weeks later, I listen back to the conversation I recorded with my dad, my perspective darker. After his apology, he spends a long time talking about his pain, and I listen to him talk about his pain, the depth of it, the isolation and trauma of his grief, his anger at the doctors, himself, and I see that instead of the windows staying open between us, the shades were slowly being drawn.
“Would it surprise you to know that once when I was walking home from work, I thought I should blow my brains out?” he said. He described how his body collapsed internally, how waking up each day was “horrible, horrible, horrible” and the only way to handle it was to act, to do something, to move forward. He explained the symptoms of grief to me as though I had not experienced them myself, as though I had not been as lost.
It was obviously important to him that I recognize his motives, the way he didn’t see beyond his pain. But that is exactly what I recognize, one of the aspects of his grief that feels familiar to me. He did not see beyond his own pain. He didn’t see me.
Listening to him, I realize that while sorrow can open you to empathy and connect you to others, it can blind you to anything beyond the spotlight of your own turmoil. It is easy to revel in anger and blame, use it as justification for self-interest. But I don’t want to live that way. I don’t want to lose sight of others in the walled-up darkness of my own hurt. For me, this means coming to accept that I can’t keep my mother, or anything, whole, that I will never know everything there is to know.
And if I’m being entirely honest with myself, I know that the absolute essence of my mother doesn’t reside in the flower press or the painting, in the lost clothes and kitchen gadgets, in the photos or scraps of handwriting, or even in my memories, because I don’t believe it’s possible to gain total possession of someone you hold dear, just as you can’t lose them completely, either, even if you try. My mom is in the note she wrote about the box, but that’s not all of her. She’s in my father’s mind, but that’s not all of her either. These are pieces, real pieces, just as any encounter with another person, living or dead, is an incomplete glimpse, one drop of a moving process colliding with one drop from another. We’re currents of human drift passing through, meeting and parting like clouds.
This doesn’t mean I’ll let everything go or stop turning to stuff to find and make meaning. I’ve grown to acknowledge that each of us operates under our own scheme of material representation, that the personal project of stuff is aligned with the pursuit of self. Some seek refuge and liberation in refining their things, while others accumulate or divest to prioritize status or conformity or individuality,
and preservation can range from nurturance of relational bonds to unhealthy immersion in longing. Whatever the case, our stuff reveals how we wish the world to be. There’s no right way to relate to things, only the decisions we make and their internal, interpersonal, and environmental consequences, which are thorny and significant, and in all matters that stoke the human heart, we’ll find variety, peculiarity, self-destruction, and redemption — any and every story that can be told.
For my birthday, my dad sends a package and tells me to be on the lookout, which means it’s something old or important. When the box arrives, I’m confused to find two books with generic, freshly bound covers, Great Expectations and an Introduction to Literature anthology. I call him to find out where they came from and learn they belonged to my mother. The Dickens novel was her favorite book, and the other she’d had since college. He took them to a local bookbinder who put new covers on, gold embossed print on green and blue pebbled leather. “What did they look like before?” I ask. I’m wanting to picture them somewhere in her room, on her shelf. See if I can draw up a sensory memory of them from when she was alive.
“Oh, they were a mess,” my dad said. “One — the cover was falling off. You wouldn’t want it.”
I thank him for the books and thumb through them when we hang up, somewhat touched, but mostly irritated. They bring me nowhere, except for a signature I find in a youthful loop in the back, Eva, which I touch with my finger. I am sad that my dad still doesn’t know that I’d prefer the ragged copies with their personal resonance. I am sad that the books have been changed, put through another filter, another layer of separation from my mother. I put them on my shelf with all the rest, and in looking up at them, my attitude softens. The connection to my mother is not there, but I can imagine a time in my life when they will adopt new meaning, when I will turn to them when I want to remember my father. When I want to remember his generosity and his flaws, his unique character, the ways that, despite everything, he tried. I can see myself holding them between my hands to get a feel for him and the way we were together, all the ways we didn’t understand each other, and all the ways that we did.