The Place Things Go to Be Forgotten

I just went over to take a quick picture of something to send to someone, but Mom had the garage door open and I went in to see what was going on. She had pulled everything out of the utility room. Stuff was everywhere and it looked like a lot of work for a nearly 88 year old to be doing. “What’s going on here?” I said, wondering whether those would be famous last words.

There’s a phenomenon that occurs after traumatic times involving death and loss. It’s kind of a restructuring of priorities, a re-evaluation of one’s life, a need to do something drastic to counter the trauma. My brother had talked about it in our early morning “touch base” session at Mom’s house. He was going through it, having just lost his wife to cancer. He was cleaning house, looking at everything and making decisions to keep or not. And evidently, it was contagious. Mom had caught it.

Her first excuse is always that she’s looking for spiders. Spiders are not allowed to live in Mom’s garage. It was only a few months ago, in the spring, when all the corners got “broomed”, and everything, including a freezer full of food, was moved and cleaned under. But we might not have done the utility room thoroughly, and today was the day.

“Since you’re here, would you mind going up in the attic and getting the blankets you said you saw. Tell me what’s up there, and bring it down if it’s something I should look through.” Mom doesn’t go up in the attic any more. It has one of those pull down ladders which is only wide enough to fit between the ceiling joists. The ladder is a little scary at any age, but certainly in one’s eighties. I had been going up and down, storing things, ever since we moved up from Florida two years ago – kind of the curator of the attic museum. Things only go up in the attic if they are willing to be forgotten for a while.

For the next half hour I tossed items down the hole, rearranged boxes, poked around reacquainting myself with the contents of containers, calling down to Mom as we made decisions. What to do with that set of dishes that used to belong to a friend’s mother, now deceased? What to do with the bag of fabric strips for braided rugs? What about all those fake flowers, and knick knacks that got replaced? Why are there two boxes of old jeans up here? How many good cardboard boxes do we need to save? Almost all of it came down the ladder. It looked like an attic explosion, with Mom in the middle of it.

This looks neater than it really was. But notice, no spiders anywhere.

“Don’t worry. I won’t do it all today.” She reassured me that she was only going to put things back in the utility room. I packed up a few things to take over to my attic for a few years. I stood, trying to think why I had come over in the first place. Although it felt good to organize and de-clutter, I was feeling a little guilty about the mess we’d made.

I guess it’s all a part of the grieving process, and everyone does it differently. Some of the things we do are helpful, some aren’t, and some don’t leave us feeling the way we thought they would. But we need to do something, a cleansing of sorts, and then maybe we can go on, one day at a time… just sayin’.

Who Will I Be Next?

There’s nothing like moving to help you think about who you are, who you really are.

For years as a young mother, living in a rural area, I was responsible for growing a lot of our food and preserving it for use during our snowy, winter climate. I learned a lot about gardening, had my own rototiller, and a root cellar. I was baking bread with flour which I ground with my wheat grinder. I was making sauerkraut in stoneware crocks and canning tomatoes, green beans, beets, applesauce – lots of fruits and vegetables. I had a raspberry patch and made jam. I enjoyed that lifestyle so much. I loved being that person, even though it entailed a good bit of work. It was about 8 years of my life, thirty years ago.

Since then I have occasionally tried to garden but it felt more like raising produce for insects (or whoever it was who ate it before I got there to harvest). One year I canned tomatoes because the farms here in Florida were practically giving them away – they didn’t have workers to pick them. My Wisconsin persona brought jars, equipment, a pressure canner and expectations to my new home and they have been largely unused since then. I have kept them on a shelf in the garage. I have avoided making decisions that needed to be made.

Who am I now? Even more important, who am I likely to be in the future? It’s not that I don’t still like the thought of gardening, or of having good food put up for the winter. It’s that moving has made me decide not to be a person defined by “my stuff”. It felt empowering to put the jars in the recycling bin, knowing that they could be replaced pretty easily up north, if needed. The person I am is one who adapts to the reasonable default, whatever that is going to be.

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All those perfectly good, jars and lids – somehow doesn’t seem right…

Another similar moment (I know, two in one day!!) came in the course of taking the husband to work. He has been dreading closing up his office, making decisions about his boxes of books and papers. He has spoken of it several times so I offered to help him. We took a small table and I arranged all his books where his coworkers could look them over and help themselves. I went through his periodicals and we decided to pitch all but the last year’s magazines.

It’s probably harder for someone who has had a long career doing what they were educated to do. They really become defined by their job. I think the husband’s books, his physics notes from college (yellowed, with bugs, and copious dust), his work memos from eons ago, and bits and pieces of ventilation equipment were defining him to a great extent. He left the room and I took care of some of it for him (dumpster) but I’m not saying exactly what because he reads this too.  If he can actually remember something he needs from it all I will go dumpster diving and look for it. I’m betting there will not be a need.

Now we are freer than we were, but not as free as we will finally be in a couple weeks. We will be free to adapt and be who we really are in our new circumstances. For me, the job will be easier without the canning jars along for the ride, just sayin’…

I Took Pictures

It started as a quiet, overcast day that was perfect for nostalgia, contemplation and being content at home. I needed to rest my hands from yesterday’s outside work and was committed to doing less active tasks, like my “paring down” of photos.

My photos tell the progress of technology in “Kodak moments” starting with the ones I took with my box Brownie when I was a child. There aren’t very many of those because there were only 8 frames on a film and I was always lucky to get half that number of decent pictures. They were black and white.

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A black and white, old enough that it’s starting to look like a color photo.

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Kodachrome moment on Santa Catalina Island.

Kodachrome came next. They are square and all have a golden cast but they are in color. My wedding photos are in this category and they are a sorry collection of candid snapshots taken by one of my brothers. There are half a dozen 4×6’s and a couple 6×8’s. Today’s wedding photographers would have a good laugh, I’m sure, but they tell the story and my memory fills in the holes. I didn’t pay $1,000 for them and honestly, I’m not sorry about that.

We bought a good camera early in our marriage. It took good pictures and we about wore it out on our first child. Film was still the standard but now there were 36 frames on some of them. We mailed the rolls to far away companies to be developed and double prints were the marketing ploy. I am lightening the load by throwing most of the doubles away. I am not in many of these photos because I was behind the camera and there was no such thing as a “selfie” without going to a lot of trouble.

The second child came and there were still lots of photos, because the two of them were so cute together. Lots of those doubles come in handy as I am making photo books for each of them to remind them of how it was, who they were to me. When they started taking their own pictures, mine became somewhat fewer.

My brother was the first to get a digital camera. It seemed so expensive and complicated to me, but it wasn’t too long before we had one. We stopped getting our photos printed out, except on special occasions. My box of photos from the 1990’s was the last large collection.  Since then, very few events have warranted hard copy photos. The ones I have printed are either artistically worthy or for special projects.

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Only one of the horizontal surfaces covered with stacks of photos.

The day is done now. Every time I tackle this job, my room is littered with piles of pictures by categories, and the waste basket is full as well. I have stopped being chronological in my organization. When I look for a photo, I’m remembering a person or an event, not the year it took place. I have envelopes with the names of people, special places, memorable trips. It may sound morbid, but I’m only saving ones of myself that I would want shown at my funeral. Who, other than me, should get to choose how I’m remembered? Right.

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Here’s hoping this will help me find that one photo I’m looking for…

These days at this task always leave me flooded with memories, reliving the past and longing for the goodness of those times caught motionless on paper. It’s a strange feeling and not always comfortable because it has so much to say about the passage of time and mortality. I stop frequently and text a picture to my daughters, with my phone. Just sayin’… who would ever have thought it.

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I’m not going to say the cat helps. She doesn’t.

On Having a Library

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Books by old, dead guys (no disrespect meant), some still wrapped in cellophane…

Many times, when not tending to the urgencies of my life, I turn back to the job of paring down, preparing for the coming stage when there will undoubtedly be less space. This week I came to an important conclusion which I hope will help me. I had to ask myself the question “do I want to have a library, or do I want to read?” Some clarity is needed here, because they are not the same.

Over the years, the husband and I have moved six times. Each time our library has grown with our changing interests, filling boxes and boxes of books, taking a lot of storage space. We have seldom done anything to diminish the load. We did sell our Encyclopedia Britannica set when it became apparent that there was better, more current information available on the internet – that’s about it.

I went through a period when my primary furniture interest was bookshelves. I bought them with visions of having a real library in our home, where shelves lined the walls and comfy chairs begged us to sit and read. That didn’t happen, but we did end up with bookshelves in every room but the kitchen (actually there were shelves for books in the kitchen too, sorry).

I have come to some useful observations, one being that I have not read a majority of the books I own. They are not interesting enough for me to want to read them NOW. They are “someday” books, waiting for whenever. The most embarrassing example of this is the set of classics we bought, again with the Encyclopedia Brittannica, in our second year of marriage. Quite a few of them still have the cellophane wrappers around them, having not even been opened in 40+ years. I know I’m probably missing out, but I seldom get the urge to read Socrates, or even Freud. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

Another useful observation that gives me some direction for the future, is that a lot of my pleasure in books is that I like to look at them. Even the ugly ones, old and tattered, please me when they are lined up on the shelf in just the right way. I could pretend that they speak of my eclectic, intellectual interests, but no, I like their color, their geometric forms, their two or three word messages printed with a variety of interesting fonts looking at me down the row. And for my visual pleasure I probably need only five boxes of books, not thirty-five.

You see, the important question came clear to me yesterday, as I took another load to the used book store. The question is, do I want my own personal library, or do I want to read? The answer is that I want to read. But with few exceptions, I don’t want to read what is in my own library. I want to read the book I heard about on the radio, or the book one of my daughters wants me to read with her, or the book that tells me how to cope with life here and now.  I want to read it slowly, note the parts I like, maybe write down some quotes, and then I want to give it back so I don’t have to cart it around and dust it for another 40 years. If it’s one I think would be valuable to read again (and if it looks pretty) it will go in one of the five “keeper” boxes.  Just sayin’, it’s time to lighten the load.

 

One of the things about retirement that I’ve noticed is that a lot of my retired friends have asked for recommendations of good books. I’ve had to think of my favorite reads and be able to name them. I’ve also been looking for good writing. As my interest in writing grows and I wonder how I might express things I want to write, I look for books that captivate me, stir my desire to be moved by words. When I read, I’m also thinking “Do I want to write like this?”, “yes or no?”.

 What have been your favorite, most valuable reads? Whose writing inspires you?

Downsizing: The Terrible Meal

I’ve written several times about my desire to “lighten the load” of my household, to get rid of “stuff” before moving or dying, whichever comes first. But not lately, and lest anyone think the desire has abated I want to update the record. In fact, I am more determined than ever to whittle down to the amount of stuff that will fit in a good sized U-Haul van.  One trip. My determination was fueled by a week of helping someone else with a lot of things move those things into a storage unit. It was arduous, and being that everything is in storage it will have to be moved again sometime. We can hardly wait.

When people move do they throw away all their food? No, they take it with them. What if you live in a place where having a pantry stash is recommended? I have imagined how it would be in a hurricane after a week of no electricity and no food in the grocery stores to have a cupboard stocked with plenty. And I have one of those that I have been reviewing and deciding what to keep and what to trash. For instance, would you eat this?

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I would. And there were other things. Last week I made pumpkin pie with no crust, which turns out to be pumpkin custard or pudding because for some odd reason I had several cans of (outdated) pumpkin and several cans of (outdated) sweetened condensed milk. It was delicious. It was untouched by time. I ate it all. And the (outdated) sauerkraut looked so fresh that I had to go out and get some hot dogs to go with it. Mind you, I test all these things.

There is still a box full of canned goods which must go soon or maybe two or three years ago. Today I wanted to use up a few things so made a menu based on stuff in the box. Dessert was first. There were cans of pie filling, blueberry and cherry. I had also found in my recently cleaned freezer some phyllo dough which I thought could possibly pass for pie crust. I will do anything to not have to make pie crust. There was also a little bit of ice cream in the freezer and I figured that old ice cream could possibly outweigh old pie filling if it wasn’t very good. Dessert, check.

The chicken was new thankfully. I just bought it last week so no freezer burn on that. But I did open up a can of cream soup to make gravy over it. And I wasn’t worried about the potatoes. Potatoes are either edible or rotten even if you don’t know how old they are. You’ve seen the green beans. Honestly they were pretty good okay and probably tasted the same back in 2011 when they would have been best by. Add a fresh green salad and I had a meal that was passable. I call it the terrible meal but I’ve cooked worse, lots worse. The greatest accomplishment was using up four cans in one meal. I was ecstatic.

I’m a little worried about this confession since some of my readers live close by and have eaten at my house. Will I have friends turning down meal invitations? I don’t know. I had a guest at this meal and he didn’t seem to mind, although, now that I think about it, his usual effusive comments were lacking. Now that I think about it, it was kind of a terrible meal, unless you can imagine a hurricane, starving people in other countries, or what they eat on Naked and Afraid. Then it would be a pretty good meal, just sayin’…

A Day in which I Wore a Dress

I have a closet full of clothes.  Some of them I wear almost every week. Some of them I haven’t worn for a long time but I have memories of them as favorites, or I have memories of how much I paid for them that keep me from giving them away.  Since I am engaged in the long term project of downsizing, today I decided to wear a dress and make a decision. Does it go or does it stay?

This has been a good day to wear a dress because I intended to stay inside and write.  A dress is good for writing.  There isn’t a lot else to be done in a dress, comfortably.  I often wonder how our pioneer ancestors walked across the country in dresses, not to speak of all the things they usually wore under their dresses to complicate things. I know some of them probably put on a pair of pants if they could find some to fit, but I’m also thinking that pants might not have been all that great back then either.

So, in my dress, which I bought at a garage sale a couple years ago, I sat and wrote all morning.  The writing was productive and the dress kept me from getting distracted and going outside. But I gradually got the “knowing” feeling. The dress was not “me”. I took it off and put it in the box to go to Goodwill. It was a useful exercise in paring down.

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If I had fewer clothes I would have fewer decisions and wouldn’t that be nice?