When the stuff is cleared out, what happens to the stories?
ASPINWALL, PA 8/8/20 2:03 PM
Sometimes you do violence to things, and even people and memories, by simply moving stuff or getting rid of it.
I stand here inside Fox Chapel Guardian Storage unit № 12104. This truck-sized storage space just east of Pittsburgh where we brought many of the contents of my parents’ house — now our house — in August of 2007 is now empty of them for the first time since then. After I spent months clearing items of extreme miscellany bit by bit and box by box, a truck driven by two young men who work for “College Hunks Hauling Junk” today took away the final pieces of furniture and detritus. They included pieces of what was once the green living room couch when I was little. They included the mattress for the bed I transitioned to — the single bed I moved to from my crib — in about 1970, I suppose.
Perhaps most important, those final pieces included my father’s decaying wooden desk — at least, his desk since the 1980s, the one that sat in his study.
Along with his thoughts and perhaps even some of his essence, this desk contained what he called the “unsorted but significant” miscellany of his life. Its contents included so many of the things that I have gone through in recent weeks and months, getting rid of much, saving more than I should. Here were all kinds of bits and bobs that were unsorted and probably, ultimately insignificant. But here, now, they summon back him and his brain and the way he organized things and how he kept things. His desk itself, the container for those intangibles for so long, is broken down and falling apart and — though my instinct has been to keep as much of what they left behind as I can — I realize that it must go.
The boxes that I and my sisters I have excavated over the past year have unearthed so many things — items that are a bit less unsorted now, but still quite significant. These are the totems and talismans of my parents’ lives: things that were important to them, but perhaps should not have been, particularly in my mother’s case (she was something of a packrat), though my father was no slouch with tiny items like his carefully packaged-so-as-not-to-get-lost “VERY SMALL BOLT.”
Most important, these are the things that were unimportant to them but prove of great importance, at least to me, in trying to remember them in details and closeup shots, rather than pulling away to establishing shots and to wide pans of the sort that tend to happen after someone dies and fresh details are no longer available or regularly forthcoming.
That is where my mind settles, pacing around this cool, dark storage space with the blistering afternoon sun just outside. It settles around those things that have allowed my parents to keep talking to me after they are gone and silent and beneath the earth. It is new input, new content, new things that allow me to continue to cultivate — if only in tiny, tiny slivers — my relationship with them now that they are gone.
I learned long ago when I was barely an adult, from a friend’s decision to die, that — too quickly — we come to remember not an actual person and who they were, but the ways that we see and saw them. I wrote once, of that loss: My memory of my friend has become as much me as him.
I think that’s a particular peril when it comes to one’s parents. We all come into consciousness looking at the world both through their eyes and with their help. Our focus develops (or doesn’t develop) at their hands. And so it becomes very difficult, as we grow, to see them as full, three-dimensional human beings. One of my proudest accomplishments, I think, has been to have become an adult and pursued and cultivated a relationship with my parents that, while not one of equals — I don’t think a parent-child relationship can ever be that, not really — was at least one of fellow human being to fellow human being, where I looked at them not only as givers and providers and protectors, but as mortals with bumps and bruises and knobbiness and quirks.
Somehow, though, seeing them that way makes them seem even more successful as parents. The more I learn about who they were, even the negative things (though there are surprisingly few I have found, at least for me), the more I am able to encounter them as the people they actually were. Thus am I able to remember in a way that is more realistic, seeing the world I grew up in closer to what it actually was than what I — then and now — wished it to be.
And so even though this storage space is strangely empty and echoes with my voice today, I will continue to pursue those things from both of them that remain — that I have not yet discovered, that are unsorted AND significant. And I suppose I will sort them, and in that journey, discover more about them and more about myself.
They are dead five years and almost two years. I remember the last moments with each of them. They speak no more. And yet somehow, through these little pieces, they are still talking to me.
Further reading by Ted Anthony:
The Last 90 Seconds
A fading father, a ticking clock, and one last snack for the road.
Unsorted but significant
A dusty garage, a poem typed on a 3x5 card, and a message from a dead man.
Dementia from a Distance
From Bangkok, a son says goodbye to a father who is 10,000 miles away and fading fast.
Gazing into a long-ago Polaroid taken by my father, and finding multitudes.
Ted Anthony, a writer based in Pittsburgh and New York, is a Baby Boomer by generation and a Gen-Xer by age. He has been dissecting and musing about American culture since Guns N’ Roses was on the charts and “Rain Man” was in the theaters. He is the author of Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song. He tweets here, Instagrams here and collects his writing here.
©2020 | Ted Anthony