Losing My Life

Long ago, I determined that if my house ever caught fire, the one thing I would grab would be my photo albums. Everything else, I reasoned, was replaceable. But life’s memories? Impossible. Tragic.

Re-organizing the basement this summer, I opened a Tupperware container of mementos and immediately smelled danger. Not smoke or fire, thank goodness, but water. A hard rain had slid down the rock face in the basement and seeped into a crack in the plastic. Humidity and mold had done the rest. Naturally, it was the one box that really mattered.

My heart sank as I pried off the lid containing our random collection of childhood photos, letters, year books, cards, ancestral history (typed by my mother), my girlhood-sticker-plastered diary (PRIVATE!) and brittle, blue airmail letters, written from overseas in the cramped handwriting of spies. And then there were the poems and letters from Bob’s and my courtship, handwritten declarations of love, the ink now smeared like watercolors.

The smell was over-powering; a toxic, swampy mushroom stew meets a thousand musty attics. But that was my life in there. I needed to rescue it. Those were the memories for “some day,” the fragments of our lives that I’d planned to assemble like a puzzle for my children and grandkids.

Dragging the contents out on the porch, Bob and I unwrapped letters and unstuck articles with the care of museum archivists; marriage announcements and photos, birthday cards from my father with his enthusiastic punctuation “My Oldest Girl!!!! “Lee-Lee It’s Your Birthdaaaay!!!!!

There were photos, still in their original envelopes with negatives, the putrid Kodak chemicals staining our finger pads as we peeled them apart. Outtakes from our honeymoon? Gone. The secret roll of black and white shots, vamping for my new husband in a sheer nightgown? Gone (thankfully). Extra photos of our son, naked and newborn, fists balled, kicking his chicken legs on a blanket? Destroyed. We laid out the questionable and damaged like soldiers on battlefield cots, hoping the fresh air and sunlight could revive them.

The gift was what happened next. It was the salvage operation itself, the awful discovery coming at a time when we were snappish and bickering over trivial things. This job demanded our immediate attention. Cussing and grumbling, we screeched our day to a halt.

We hadn’t anticipated what saving the past would do for us, how much we’d needed a kick in the pants, a reminder of our more youthful, pre-kid, silly selves. “Look at us!” I said, unearthing a shot of our rehearsal dinner, a drunken groomsman wearing a pair of underwear on his head. Yeehaw! Look at what a wild, fun-party couple we were! There was an article I’d written about a desert camping trip with friends, star gazing at night with our kids. Hadn’t life been good to us in the balance, the loving and wondrous moments far outpacing the sad? The evidence was spread out around us to dry.

Bob sat on the porch rocker and read aloud a short story he’d composed to me during law school. I unearthed a bundle of letters from our first year of marriage in China. Our families had dutifully saved and returned them in the past decade and I had tucked them away, unread, too pressed for time.

The insurmountable task began to feel enjoyable with each new discovery. Reading a snippet of something, we’d relay the backstory of summer camp, an insignificant crush. We organized and sorted. We rested and read some more. We tossed, we saved.

There were childhood letters from my sisters, proof that we’d been bundled as a book of matches. Declarations of teen love and angst, frustration at my parent’s “total cluelessness,” their penuriousness. “Can you believe Mom is making me wear YOUR hand me down prom dress?” my sister huffed. “I can’t wait to go to college and get out of here,” wrote the other one.

Reading them to my sisters that weekend we howled, warmed by collective memories that were further enriched by our birth order perspectives. Our children laughed too, drawn in to the exercise, imagining us as three blonde tomboys with knobby knees and freckles. Had their mothers ever really lusted after other boys? Had boys loved them? They wrinkled their noses, trying not to imagine.

The physical act of re-discovering our origins cinched us together. It shook us up, it took us back. It oiled our joints and melted the arteriosclerosis that settles around stretches of even the best marriages. Over the next week, without realizing it, we ceased our morning grumbling about bad backs on the soft mattress, our inability to locate reading glasses, the weakness of my coffee, as we tumbled back in time to meet our younger selves.

Where do memories reside, I thought, as I re-folded the letters and organized them in fresh plastic tubs? Are they in our heads and hearts, or reliant largely on the objects that prompt us to recall? The power of the thing, I realized, is not in the thing itself, but in the memories it evokes, the stories it allows us to tell. Because in the wash, rinse, spin, repeat, cycle of our ordinary days, those stories connect and reconnect us to one another.

Yet in the end, maybe the lesson here is also about the present, because there is no going back. The real gift is to be exactly where you are in time, in the life you are living, the very moment you are in.


Originally published at leewoodruff.com on August 5, 2016.

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