These things

“Thoughts were things, to be collected, collated, analyzed, shelved, or resolved. Fragmentary ideas, apparently unrelated, were often found to be part of a special layer or stratum of thought and memory…”  –H.D., Writing on the Wall


I seal in plastic Ziploc bags photographs, letters, my child’s artwork. I pile up large Tupperware containers of high school journals, college scrapbooks, and sticker albums I’ve saved since 3rd grade.  There is even a small box inside a larger box in which I store cut-up cotton shirts; remnants of all the graphic tees I ever stuffed into the set of almond-colored formica drawers of my childhood bedroom. The idea was to make a quilt one day. But it’s been more than 20 years since I cut them and still they remain fragments of a former social life.

Sometimes, I let go. I purge, actually; for the movement is swift and forceful.

I gather up books and plastic toys from McDonald’s and washed out jelly jars I was saving for just-in-case. I rally the troops in their respective bedrooms and we dig out unaccounted for Lego, DVDs, and well-loved teddies they once birthed at Build-A-Bear.

It used to be that we would prepare a yard sale — display all our attachments large and small on the grass for others to descend upon and barter for. Now, I push it all down into a free tote bag I got once at the grocery store and drive to the recycling area.

My load becomes lighter then. I feel clean in the same way I do when I make the bed before sleeping in it.

It’s temporary, though, this weightlessness. I will feel dirty again. I will feel weighed down by the objects that make up my life.

* * *

Sometimes I want it all back.

Not all. But something specific.

Days or years pass, for instance, and suddenly I long for the floor-length sleeveless, blue and white flowered dress I traded in for credit at the secondhand shop on Broadway because I could never bend down when I wore it. When I realize it’s missing, I’m surprised. How could I have given up that dress? Didn’t I understand that one day it might fit me differently? There are photographs of me in that dress I can actually tolerate – black and white strip photos taken on the boardwalk in Ocean City. I was younger then. I wore contacts. But, I think it was the dress that made me pretty.

Sometimes, in a dream, I’ll be certain I still own a pair of shoes I have long since abandoned. Where are they, the black wedges I know will be perfect for the job interview I have tomorrow?  I frantically shuffle around my dusty, hardwood-lined closet floor, pushing to the side my brown suede clogs and my untied docksiders and my Naot sandals. My fingers will never find them because I listed them on a Freecycle board two years ago and subsequently dropped them off in front of a Tudor in South Orange, NJ.

One morning, I wake up and realize I’ve been dreaming about the brown leather backpack I carried with me through four years of college and some years after. I don’t even remember when I threw it away. This pains me. Documenting my losses is a coping mechanism.

Soft to the touch, but robust enough to manage three spiral-bound notebooks, a heavy “baby chem” textbook, and a glass bottle of Raspberry Snapple tucked away in a side unzippered pouch — that brown leather backpack was the security blanket of my young adulthood. Sometimes I tucked the yellow Sony Walkman into the other side pocket, a long track of rubber-lined wire snaking out and up into my ears as I hiked the city blocks between my apartment on F Street and the modern mirrored building on 22nd where I took beginner’s Hebrew on the 3rd floor and piano lessons in the basement.  There were crumbs of a chocolate chip cookie that smelled like nicotine once at the bottom of that brown leather backpack.

There was a flap, too, that closed off the main compartment, but also served as a wallet-like coin holder, with room enough for a wad of cash and easy access to my student ID. With one hand, I could click the flap shut into a magnetic metal clasp. Even though it appeared to be a complicated buckle, it wasn’t. It was very simple actually.

I must have gotten rid of the brown leather backpack in Tucson.

It must have been after my mother treated me to the high end, shiny Petunia Picklebottom diaper bag.  Like the brown leather backpack, it was a handy carryall with suitable compartments – an easy-access exterior pocket for diapers and wipes; one of the side pockets for bottles. It even came with an interior zippered pouch for personal items, a nursing pad, or eventually, a tampon.

When my son was two, we decided to leave Arizona to head back to where we came from in New Jersey.  That’s when we had our first yard sale. We sold the glass tables we registered for at Pottery Barn. We sold one of the lamps, too. We sold the swing set in the backyard.  I don’t remember what else.

It must have been then I parted with the brown leather backpack.

I guess.

* * *

Now, it’s a black canvas backpack I carry daily (a leftover promotional gift from a job I left 14 years ago). Inside are two pieces of uneaten fruit and half a cream cheese sandwich prepared on a gluten-free pita.  There is an unzippered side pocket from which a Laken thermo-insulated bottled filled with filtered water peeks out and another side pocket in which I carry plastic bags for “just in case.”  In two exterior zippered compartments, there is spare change for use in either Israel or in America, but not in both.  There are markers, pencils, pens, bubblegum already chewed.

It’s durable, my black canvas backpack.  And loved, too, in a colder more practical way. I carry it on two shoulders instead of one. I am often in awe of how long it’s lasted.

From time to time –in between classes at the university where I am studying for my Master’s degree or on a plane seated in the middle of two of my children — I consider how long and often I’ve weighed the black backpack down. How I’ve tested it. How it still serves me.

I wonder, too, how I will one day lose track of the black canvas backpack or if I will wear it until it breaks.

What is a classic?

What is a classic?

The Giving Tree in English. But not in Hebrew.

What is a classic?

The Wonder Years. Especially the one in which Paul becomes a bar mitzvah. Or any episode with The Byrds as background music.

What is a classic?

Mighty Love. Let My Love Open the Door. All You Need is Love. In My Room.

What is a classic?

Cornbread. Warmed.

What is a classic?

Square dancing in gym class. Sorry, more Wonder Years.

What is a classic?

I don’t know. Classics are supposed to be timeless and yet some classics have changed for me with time.  Like, The Giving Tree used to be IT for me and now I suppose The Missing Piece is. But that just happened 15 minutes ago. Can it be a classic already? Moby Dick is not a classic, and yet it is, just not for me. Not yet. But it might be one day and then I will look back at today and realize I was ignorant of the classics. The Wizard of Oz is a classic, but I’ve watched it too many times and now it is a classic, but stale.

Like The Shawshank Redemption.

Like TBS.

Like Apple Pie.

I suppose if I had to say, a classic is that which makes me cry when I am not sad.

What is a classic?

The tune to My Darling Clementine.

Mint.

Feet in the sand.

The Barbie Dreamhouse with the elevator.

Jim Croce.

Half-burnt marshmallow on a stick.

Josh and Jodie.

My dad’s green fiat.

Pepsi Free.

Yesterday.

That time my Bubbi cried at Denny’s because her eggs were runny.

That time my brother threw a rootbeer bottle at me.

That time the car was stuck in the mud in a rainstorm, but I only remember that one in a dream.

What is a classic?

Forgot my locker combo.

Forgot to study for the final.

Left my passport at home.

What is a classic?

“These poems do not live: it’s a sad diagnosis.”

What is a classic?

“In those years, people will say, we lost track
of the meaning of we, of you
we found ourselves reduced to I
and the whole thing became silly, ironic, terrible.”

What is a classic?

“It is startling
to realize that
some of our most cherished memories
may never have happened — or may
have happened to someone else.”

What is a classic?

What is         a classic?

——–

The above contains poetry by Sylvia Plath (“Stillborn”) and Adrienne Rich (“In Those Years”), and commentary on memory by Oliver Sacks

I admit it. I am a bibliophile.

Is our melancholic love of books in the digital age just another reinterpretation of our nostalgia for home?

Today, I opened up a 1983 edition of  Madeline L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet (the third book in the A Wrinkle In Time trilogy) and almost tilted over myself.

Okay — that is a tiny exaggeration.  But I wasn’t even able to move past the Table of Contents before I was overcome by a whoosh of emotion rushing through my chest and up into my throat.

“In this fateful hour…”

My pulse turned rapid.

“All Heaven with its power …”

The way I used to feel when a boy I liked was just about to kiss me.

“The sun with its brightness…”

Held my breath. Tried to steady myself.

“The snow with its whiteness…”

Leaned in. Closed my …

The fire with all the strength it hath…”

And took a picture of it on instagram to share with all of you.

 

 

SwiftlyTiltingPlanet

bib·lio·phile   noun \  ˈbi-blē-ə-ˌfī(-ə)l\
: a person who loves or collects books
: me

Photographic memory

I love photography even though I’ve never been as good at the art as I might have liked; might have been. I’m grateful — seriously, grateful — to Instagram, for allowing me an outlet for the scenes I capture in my mind’s eye and feel compelled to share, but hardly ever render to my satisfaction on a traditional camera.

I took photography as an elective in high school — learned how to develop my own film (not very well), and presumably how to properly use a camera. Whatever I learned there didn’t stick, however, and now I find more pleasure in photography as a researcher than as a voyeur. Although I imagine there is an element of voyeurism to my research, as well.

I love the evidence photography provides. I love the secrets revealed. I love the accidental body of information that corroborates or undermines the collective or individual stories we tell ourselves.

As I dig up old photographs in my cardboard boxes, or in the basement storage room of my mother’s house, I’m getting an education on the people I love … and who loved me. But almost as often as questions are answered or light is shed; there are mysteries. There are, in those photographs, chapters to the stories of my life that were never told to me.

On a recent trip to New Jersey to visit my family, I discovered a photo album my mother acquired when my Bubbi died a couple of years ago. The album chronicled a European trip — the only one, I think — my grandmother took with her aunt when she was in her late forties or early fifties.

Aunt Edna (L) and Bubbi

Aunt Edna (L) and Bubbi

Though I can’t be sure, I imagine this trip must have been monumental for my grandmother, who grew up poor in the Midwest; who was a small school girl when she was forced to care for her ill mother and eventually watch her die; who was shifted from relative to relative as her father journeyed from town to town for business. Her Aunt Edna (her mother’s sister) never married, and was very generous to my grandmother over the years (it’s believed Aunt Edna made a small fortune by investing early in Xerox). The two were very fond of each other. Beyond that, and beyond the little I know about Aunt Edna (she was a school teacher and an author), I don’t know much more about the intricacies of their relationship. I do remember my Bubbi, in her younger days, often going out west to Indiana to visit Aunt Edna. I also remember once meeting Aunt Edna myself in the lobby of the hotel in Philadelphia for which my grandmother worked for many years: She was perched on a velvet-lined settee and looked like an Aunt Edna.  She called me Jennifer, as did most of my grandparents’ friends.

The pages of the photo album my Bubbi created are filled mostly by blurry, over-exposed shots of the landscape, of the sites, of the Coliseum, Venice, the streets of Paris, and presumably, the Alps. There are only three photographs of Bubbi in the album and four or five of Aunt Edna. There is one of somebody’s hand — opening up a compact, perhaps? Getting ready to put on lipstick? — as the other snapped a shot of windmills out the window of a tour bus.

bubbi in europe windmills

There are no captions. No notes on the backs of the matte photographs. No written word at all. There are a few blank postcards — one with a watercolor of Buckingham Palace; another from an Italian resort.

What do I learn about my Bubbi from this album? Other than the fact that she was more traveled than I thought, I am presented with more questions than answers.

Did she slide the photos in under the cellophane and never look at them again?

Did she take the album out, every year on her birthday, reminisce and long for a different sort of life?

Was she grateful for this trip? Satisfied? Or did it only give her a taste for more?

I knew my Bubbi pretty well as far as Bubbis and granddaughters go. I took an interest in her life while she was still with it enough to recall it. But she never told me about the trip to Europe she once took with Aunt Edna. Never recalled the windmills or the Hotel Napoleon or the view from the Spanish Steps.

Of course, there are so many stories we never share; never tell. Not even the ones we love. Not even the ones who ask.

In fact, it’s often the stories closest to our hearts we keep for ourselves.

=== === ===

 

If you liked this post, you might also like this one; also about Bubbi and about photographic evidence.