Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The Past Boxes

I've procrastinated in writing this post because the task of the Past Boxes was a very difficult job to undertake and an equally difficult job to write about - but here goes.

I had a fantastic childhood. Warm, loving family, exciting vacation trips, caring teachers, wacky friends - and I saved all the memorabilia those entailed. My parents saved some things for me, and when I got old enough I started saving things for myself. I put all these things lovingly in what I called Past Boxes. Sometimes a cardboard box, sometimes a plastic Rubbermaid type box, but they each contained treasured memories and were identified by a label marked "PAST."

As you can imagine, by age 50, my present age, I have quite an accumulation in my Past Boxes.
Ed gently broached the subject last week, suggesting I might want to consolidate some Past Boxes, which to me very clearly meant "throw some of that stuff away." I didn't really think it could be done, but one day last week I sat down with a few Past Boxes and took out every single item to decide its future.

Oddly enough, the Family Circle magazine had arrived in the mail, and the article I had started to read was an article on dealing with things like this. (I am editing the sidebar in the article to the statements pertaining to my Past Boxes.) Here is the excerpt:

Is It Junk? Use these guidelines to help you determine what you're hoarding:
You've got junk if:
- It wouldn't really affect you if you saw it again.

It's not junk if:
- It generates good feelings.
- It will enrich or delight the coming generation.

I'm sure most people keep some treasured memories. What's a treasured memory depends on the person.

The problem I encountered with dissecting my Past Boxes is the problem I expected to encounter - it was an emotionally wrenching experience. Bluntly put, so many of my fond memories involve people who are dead. That not only makes it more difficult to let go of something; it also makes me acutely aware that people who share my wonderful memories have died, are dying, will die, and part of the memory itself dies with them.

For instance, I came across a satire my best friend Bernie and I had written in high school. Together we wrote a newsletter in French, complete with advertisements, joking about our beloved teacher, Mrs. McTyier - the works. I laughed aloud re-reading it. So what do I do with it? The only other person in the world who would care about this newsletter is Bernie herself. And she died 2 years ago at the age of 49. Only two people created this newsletter, only two people share that memory. Now I'm the only one alive who holds it in my heart.
My kids wouldn't care about it. My husband doesn't even know French. It just makes me sad. I don't like to be the sole memory holder of something special. A memory is meant to be shared.

I think I can better understand now about the depression some elderly people are stricken with as they watch their contemporaries die. It's the memories. One death means one less person who shares your specific memory. It can be as focused as writing a French newsletter with your best friend, or as vast as a generation sharing memories of living through the Great Depression or World War II or even what it was like to grow up in the turmoil of the '60s. The expression comes to my mind, "You wouldn't understand." "You had to be there." You had to be there - to really appreciate this memory. You had to be there - with the accompanying laughter, smells, sights - the whole experience. It just can't be described effectively. You just had to be there.

So when I read the Family Circle's guideline "It will enrich or delight the coming generation," I really had to be truthful with myself. Most of the stuff in my Past Boxes are only important to me. Oh, I'm sure my grandchildren would be intrigued to see my elementary and high school report cards (as my kids were), and maybe they would giggle at a picture I drew when I was 5 years old. But most of the stuff? Just near and dear to me.

There's a message on notebook paper from our son Matt (date unknown), that says, "Dear Dad, Happy Father's Day! I love you! Sorry for what I've said about you this year. I was just kidding..."

There's a handwritten letter from a former teacher whom I idolized (and still do) that says, "You remain the highlight of my teaching career, and if you could know all of the wonderful people - students - that I've encountered through the years, then you would understand what high praise that indeed is! You had a matchless combination of intellectual ability and gentleness of personality that makes me treasure you so..."

There are birthday cards I received as far back as, well, my original birthday in 1954! There are get-well cards from relatives and friends. There are lots of cards I made myself for my parents. There are homemade "bulletins" that sister Joy and I made for our family Thanksgiving service every year, when the 4 of us would gather in the tiny den, where the piano was, and have a family Thanksgiving service. (We practically lived at church as kids, since Dad was a choir director and church leader, so these homemade services had all the accoutrements of a real worship service - invocation, hymns, responsive readings, and sermons!) There are the little cards that came with floral arrangements from my husband, some of them bearing messages no one else would understand but us (thank goodness!).

There is a note from a church member: "I keep asking the Lord what we have done to deserve a preacher and his family like you..." Ha ha, that could be easily misinterpreted! But the rest of the note is highly complimentary. A note from a highly respected musician to me after she heard me play the organ one Sunday: "I just wanted you to know how much I enjoyed the music. You used the organ so effectively..."

As you can see, I keep just about every compliment I receive - they're incredibly uplifting to read when I'm down in the dumps.

There are articles I wrote and was fortunate enough to have published from The Upper Room and a Memphis newspaper and magazine. There are programs from performances I have been in - Aida, Faust. Dinner theaters. Amahl and the Night Visitors. Piano recitals. Church bulletins from services where I sang or played the organ. The handbook from the Tiffin Spy Agency, a club Joy and I used to have with only 2 members - us! Numerous poems I have written (silly ones, not anything impressive). A newletter from the hospital where Bernie and I were Candy-Stripers (our pictures are in it).

Of course, there are things from our wedding in 1974 and our renewal of vows wedding on our 20th anniversary in 1994. There are obituaries of people who were important to us. I have some autographs (Agatha Christie, Duke Ellington, Ed Muskie, Neil Armstrong, to name a few).
The most unusual things in the boxes are 4 T-shirts. Matt used to love tomatoes, and the restaurant where we ate every Sunday knew us and called him "The Tomato Kid." We had T-shirts made up saying, Mother of the Tomato Kid, Father of the Tomato Kid, Sister of the Tomato Kid, and, of course, one for Matt saying simply The Tomato Kid. (His sister, a teenager at the time, was mortified but we made her wear it all of 10 minutes.)

I have a folder full of letters my parents (mostly Dad) sent to me while I was away at college. Many of these letters are written in, on, and around the church bulletin. What original stationery! He figured I would get his letter and enjoy perusing the bulletin at the same time!

Anything from my Dad is a treasure, since he died in 1980 at the age of 64. I found one letter, undated except for "Tuesday afternoon - at the bank." Apparently he had hurt my feelings that morning (how I can't imagine because it would have been so unlike him), but here is what he wrote:
Dear Carol, My heart has been heavy all day since I stupidly blurted that out this morning to you - I know it hurt you, though it wasn't my intention at all. How often each one of us hurts the one or ones we love by not thinking before speaking. I am sorry, honey - and God helping me, I will try to use my brain a little more before using my tongue. My heart, though, is in the right place. Please know that I love you dearly, and your best welfare and potential is a very great concern to me. Please forgive, and have a happy week, so I can too! ....With much love, from your imperfect Daddy."

So, you can see my Past Boxes dilemma. Actually, I thought I handled it all right. I shed a few tears and had some laughs, but I managed to throw away some Weekly Readers from 1963 and many birthday cards I've received through the years. For the rest - well, I kind of squooshed it down to make it look like I'd thrown out a lot more, and I was still able to get the top on the box. After all, how can a parent throw out her daughter's one-page "diary" from a family trip? I mean, she rated (with colorful comments) the service station restrooms from Memphis to Mt. Sterling, Kentucky! One never knows when one might need something like that in the future!

No comments: