Yeah, I’ve been AWOL for at least a month. No writing. Only boxes. And boxes. And boxes. After fifteen months our forever house is finally done and we’re in. But the stuff of our life, the years of memories and sorrows and good times, was wrapped in paper and bubble wrap, hiding in well taped boxes with permanent marker labels, hibernating quietly in cardboard.
Our life was in a storage container for a year, safely tucked away, waiting, waiting. Naively, I thought this collection of ephemera and practicality that reflected our life would be in the airless pods for only a few months, maybe three or five. But it was 12 months. There in the pod our stuff first hid from the smoke of devastating fires across Oregon. Then it froze in a cold, rainy winter. And then it baked over repeated days under a heat-dome, the hottest the state had ever seen since mastodons roamed the earth. The boxes and some of the contents suffered, warping and changing composition as the pod temperature exceeded the valley’s 115 degrees during a frightening heat wave that killed dozens of people across the state. Also in storage were boxes of my parents lives, both of whom succumbed to age and sadness, cancer and dementia during the first year of COVID. Well-lived happy lives had ended in pain and confusion, leaving their things behind to haunt my siblings and I with the memory of their horrible pain. None of us knew it would end that way, a Leave It To Beaver life becoming Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte.
At first we all diligently packed our parents lives up, with boxes for each of us, for Goodwill, or for Mom to take with her, in her new little life, right after Papa died. Now without her husband who cancer had ravaged, she moved into her little room with her big crazy mind. My poor brother moved Mama’s things so many times as she changed her mind or it changed itself over several months, he became a robot of filial duty. When Mama’s mind shut down in full finality and she joined Papa in his little box at the Vet’s cemetery, my brother and his wife further sorted Mama Bear’s life into boxes labeled with each of our sibling names, he now the history executor, doling out memories or just junk.
As I empty them now, I touch Mama’s clothes, an apron, a stuffed animal, burying my face in the cloth to breathe in some part of her. I find an old shirt of Papa’s and do the same. I feel something. Maybe their presence? Or just a wishful memory, wanting one last place, one last time, to connect to those faces and the love they always reflected onto their “kids.” Now orphans. Old orphans.
Items that Mama chose to keep for decades prompt questions. Why all the envelopes of her children’s hair, each labeled with our age? Then an “art” work I did in kindergarten, 55 years before, a six-year-old’s abstracts on black construction paper, colorful stamped circles creating a cover for the crayon drawings stapled inside of boats in the water, always boats, nothing else, with waves and orange suns and happy captains. Now I hate boats. Hate going on them, I should say. They turn me into a puking machine, my equilibrium and epilepsy fighting against the sea and losing. I don’t do boats any more. I just watch them from the shore, marveling at the brave sea-goers with stable brains.
The boxed up photo albums open to fabulous trips: their visit to see us when we lived in Botswana, when we toured Europe with them, when they walked the streets of Boston and marveled at the 200 year old homes in New England where we lived at the time. Mama was my age then. So I study what her 62 looks like and what mine does, and whether she held the thoughts that I do about what’s ahead and what’s been left behind, only stuck under acetate pages now in yellowing photo albums that never guessed at a digital age when photos live in cyberspace.
Then I find the nautical quilt I bought them at an auction. Women in a nearby prison had made it. It is intricately crafted, a treasure my Mama called it. They used it on their bed. Dad spent his last night before hospice under it. Mom spent her last lucid mind-time under it. I had to put it in the Goodwill box. It was haunting me, like death was now in its threads and patches and cloth ships. It had to go. Someone else will enjoy it now, will start fresh with it, no dark memories attached to its colorful handiwork. Someone will love it. Like I did, before the Big Bye-Bye took two good people.
Now the piles of boxes are getting lower and I’ve taken numerous trips to the transfer station with their flattened selves. I can write again, the cardboard distractions almost gone. It’s a good thing and none too soon. The characters in my work-in-progress novel were somewhat annoyed with me, even poking me awake at 3:00 am in punishment for ignoring them. Work on us, work on us, they say, never mind that it’s the middle of the night and my eyes will droop all day in grogginess.
But as we’ve done before, we’ll kiss and make up. I’ll read them closely and edit my words from weeks ago. I’ll make them beautiful and alive again. They’ll forgive me. I’ll have coffee with them every morning and sometimes an evening cocktail. And we’ll make new memories together, not in boxes. But in our forever home.