I comb, in lieu of packing, through a box of letters that’s been perched on the bedroom bookshelf since we leased this apartment two years ago. And although now is not the time, I discover I’m incapable of throwing away mail from my mother or sisters. “Get on it,” I mutter to myself.
“You ‘kay, Kay?” Dana asks as she strides by the doorway. She manhandles our broken armchair down the stairs to the dumpster – beside the dumpster, I insist, in case someone else needs a cartoonishly old chartreuse chair. In the sun, the its shapely upholstery displays a sweat-shadow of my own back in the velvet. I’ve spent the last few years pecking away at my memoir in the evenings after work in the embrace of that chair.
It’s junk, I think, not garbage. Junk is something someone else can use.
The contents of my canvas-covered keepsakes box, on the other hand, are not junk. No one can use them. No one would care if I piled all these letters, photos, cards into the trash. Maybe I should, box and all. After all, I’ve kept them across several moves and never looked through them once – until now, at the least convenient time, when I ought to be getting the bedroom packed. But I’m magnetized to the spot.
A keepsake is kept for the sake of keeping it. My writer’s brain picks the word open like a clamshell: neither garbage nor junk, but a mortal artifact I hold onto until I die. After I’m dead someone else has to throw it out, which is pretty convenient for me.
The box-lined back wall of my mother’s basement rises like a tidal wave in my mind. This move is just the warm up. We’ll be moving Mom into my sister’s place later this spring. Eventually, someone will have to deal with all that junk.
I get sidetracked reading Mom’s letters, noticing now how she wrote on leftover school notebook paper torn from wide-rule tablets. It’s obvious when I stack the envelopes chronologically how her handwriting declined long before I noticed her tremors. Her schoolteacher cursive wobbles to print.
Mom has an enviably no-nonsense writing style. After a few salutations she writes in list form, providing updates about the seasons and life-stages of everyone else. Early spring, almost exactly a decade ago: “Dogwood budding up. Started flats of beefsteaks and cherry tomatoes. Finished baby blanket for Melanie.” By the time Melanie had her last baby, Mom was too shaky to hand-stitch anymore baby blankets. She sewed a quilt on the machine, but couldn’t thread a needle to finish the binding by hand. At the baby shower, the blanket’s satin binding trembled like a blue tail as she pulled it out of her tote. I wonder if Melanie finished it for her as she had promised.
Ten years have passed; maybe the blanket is long gone. As soon as the thought appears, I wince. Of course my sister wouldn’t toss a blanket our mother made. She’d stash it in the back of a closet for decades until her kid was grown, like any normal person. She’s got a big house and her husband is three years into building the “mother-in-law addition” for Mom. I will never have that kind of space.
I glance at the closet, which Dana evidently left open to keep me on task, and decide to test the electric blanket before I pack it. It falls off the shelf heavy as a boa constrictor.
It’s been with me since college, but it’s still crimped in the middle from a wooden thrift store hanger. Who knows the story of an electric blanket? This one kept Michiganders warm for generations only to spend its sunset years languishing in Virginia rental property closets. It bares its two-pronged plug like fangs at me. “I’m watching you,” I say, and jam it into the outlet.
“You ‘kay?” Dana calls from the living room.
The raw canvas of my keepsakes box is sun-faded and flecked with lint; I bought it at a craft store when I was still in college to keep articles I wrote for the student paper. “Absurd,” I whisper, recalling how I discarded the clippings before moving in with my boyfriend Alan. He wrote the strident, timely pieces on economics, culture, politics; I wrote about the renovation of the campus bell-tower and campus library reorganization. I wonder if Alan works for a bigger newspaper than I do, if he lays out the obituary pages in between his reporting assignments like me, or if he sticks to the big think pieces. Alan wrote like he walked, with impatiently long strides. He wouldn’t have time to sweat the shape of his back into a velvet chair.
It makes sense I ultimately fell for a historic preservationist instead. It was Dana’s tenderness for the past that activated my memoirist sensitivities. Her long walks on the beach with a metal detector, a fanny pack full of “can slaw,” was the perfect combination of sentimental and who-gives-a-shit eccentricity. She was just what I needed.
The acid from the newspaper stained the bottom of the box into the shapes of my columns, and I think Dana would probably be upset if she knew this box I insist on keeping doesn’t even provide archival protection of its contents. She would have appreciated my banal interview with a bronze bell restorationist.
The apartment door claps. Dana wraps her arms around an overloaded box of kitchen supplies and lumbers out again. She makes steady progress reducing our stuff to fit the new place, with its compact kitchen and single bedroom. It’s in a Nineteenth Century building in walking distance from the beach, and that’s enough to get her pumped. We’re picking up a U-Haul in the morning and making the whole move tomorrow.
This is happy exercise for Dana. She’s in her running-panting rhythm. From the window I see her heave-ho the box into the lap of our chair. She swings her arms into a clap like a child playing ball.
On impact, the chipped wooden salad bowl pops out to look around. It resembles a helmeted soldier peeking from the top of a chartreuse tank. I hope it’s ready for the spring offensive.
Over the years, Mom’s letters peter out, but the cards keep coming, with a twenty dollar bill that I always spent on wine. Inside, she writes “Dear Kay” on top and “Love, Mom” underneath, maudlin verses about daughters graced with her imprimatur. The last card from her is postmarked four years ago.
She preferred cards with flowers drawn in a certain kind of mid-century style she herself had been good at. She taught us how to draw those same roses in series of trapezoids and triangles, petals of dusty rose set against brown backgrounds. All those arts and crafts we made with her, little pastel and watercolor projects I never gave a second thought about, are stowed away in her basement.
I curl into my electric blanket and read the cheesy rhymes. I imagine Mom bowing like a tortoise over these cards in the drug store, picking them out because she really does think of her daughters as the most beautiful roses in her garden, God’s most precious blessings – all this truth for only ninety-nine cents! She surely bought these cards in bulk; maybe my sisters received the same ones for their birthdays. I wonder if they have boxes of Mom’s letters cluttering up their shelves, too.
My eyes rove over the bedroom closet. Does Dana have a box of old letters and photos from before we met? Maybe she keeps them in a folder, like tax forms, in her metal filing cabinet.
Some of the pictures in my box – high gloss prints from one-hour-photo places – are stuck together from exposure to humidity. On top of one stack is a group picture from Easter one year. Mom sits on her buckling sofa under a pile of grandchildren spilling their Easter baskets. She clasps Lisa’s wriggling baby, who is a split-second from biting Mom’s thumb. It’s an awful photo, with the flash flattening and washing everyone out, their eyes drooping ahead of the shutter, their bright spring clothes clashing with Mom’s dusty rose-print furniture.
The picture underneath is sealed to the back; it’s a drab outdoor shot of Melanie’s kids feeding gulls at the beach. I try to peel the photos apart but abandon the attempt when a rip opens up along the shoreline.
My sisters’ special family-time photos are so unnecessary, so exhausting. Melanie’s amateur family portraits at the pumpkin patch look like color-coordinated hostage situations. And my sisters always smile so hard they look like they’re bursting into tears. Perhaps they are; someone had to wrangle all those people and hit the timer on the camera, then hurry up and look like they’re having a good time. Or raising children just pulls parents’ smiles downward over time. I smile at myself in the closet door mirror to compare.
So many of these pictures seem like little more than documentation of children’s teeth: teething infants, toddlers with smiles that never seem authentic, scrappy elementary schooler grins with their improbably large adult teeth emerging. School pictures of the nieces and nephews look so similar across the years I have trouble telling them apart. Their faces open like time-lapse flowers, except they bloom into variations on my sisters and brothers-in-law. Suddenly, Lisa’s oldest girl flashes braces to mark the moment I become a spinster aunt.
I’m the only one of my siblings still renting apartments, the only one who hasn’t sprawled herself into another branch of our family tree with children. I don’t even have a pet.
I don’t have that much stuff. I’m investing undue significance to my mortal artifacts. “You’re smothering me,” I whisper and throw off the electric blanket. Dana is down below tossing bags into the dumpster, her sleeves rolled up on her shoulders like a softball goddess. It’s seventy-five degrees outside.
I feel like a bad sibling, a bad daughter. The same pictures probably framed in everyone else’s houses, arranged in cute displays on mantels and end tables, never even left the envelopes in which they arrived to me. I never shared them with Dana – because they’re not all that significant to me.
Yet I can’t throw these things away. After sorting dozens of envelopes out of the box, only a few Christmas cards from my sisters drop into the bag at my feet. “Love, Lisa, John & family.”
Lisa’s handwriting looks just like Mom’s. I pluck the cards back out of the bag, slap them angrily into the box. I stare at her curly Ls. “Love, Lisa.”
Is it really love, Lisa, to send cards out like clockwork? Is that what family-centered women are supposed to do? Maybe my sisters will just keep sending out cards and photos of their children’s teeth, and I’ll just keep collecting them in my box until they overflow and spill all over the floor of my tiny apartment and bury me.
Maybe I’ll carry my box down to the beach on a day with a good strong riptide and throw it all into the waves. Let the ocean carry it up the coast to be somebody else’s problem. Love, Kay. It seems breathtakingly irresponsible, but I suppose leaving the box on a shelf until I die is just littering the ocean of time instead of an ocean of space. Maybe keepsakes are temporal debris, and memoirists are just eccentric beachcombers.
“Are you overthinking?” Dana calls from the bathroom, where she’s piling cleaners into a plastic bin.
“I’m struggling,” I say.
“We’ll have room,” she assures me, and I think what she should say is get on it. Or get over it, which is close to the same thing – but she would never say that.
Instead, she declares we’ll have enough room and hopes it will become fact, something as discoverable as a ring pinging in the sand. A historic apartment building close to the beach, all the treasure waiting to be collected, and all the room and time in the world to hold it. I’m not sure if it’s Dana’s fantasy anymore, or mine.
“Love you,” I say.
“Love you, too,” she replies, just as carefree as the thousands of times she’s done before. Another cleaner bottle clatters into her bin.
If I throw away the electric blanket, I think, I’ll have room in the new closet for my keepsakes box.
Down in the parking lot, a pickup truck pulls up next to the dumpster. Two college girls hop out to circle our offerings. The wooden bowl is swiftly tucked under one girl’s arm. As they paw through the kitchen supplies, the chartreuse chair holds its breath.
Edie Meade is a writer, visual artist, and mother of four boys in Huntington, West Virginia. She is passionate about literacy, and collects books like they’re going out of style. She has published two collections of poetry, Every Day Is A Love Letter, and Birth & Other Stages of Death. Say hi on Twitter @ediemeade.