Material as Memory

There are four blue opaque Tupperware tubs stacked in my basement. They contain all that is left of my mother and father’s house, my brother’s and my childhood. Four boxes of musty memorabilia picked out from mounds of decaying mess in the basement of the house that flooded, it seemed, every spring as my father aged there alone, unable to reverse the tide of time and its subsequent erosion. Mostly the tubs contain my mother’s things; she brought the most to their marriage, both in terms of stuff, and the stuff a life is eventually constructed from: history, health, hurt.

It has been thirty years since she died. It has been four years since I packed up those four containers, bought hastily after googling the nearest Wal-Mart, brought hastily back to our house in Milwaukee, full of musty memories. Just days after his death, a dumpster lay out on the yard, crushing the sea of dandelions, welcoming all that we threw out. My husband and uncle worked in the basement, using shovels to scrape the decayed material, mold, and mice, from the cement floor in the basement. I worked upstairs, separating the destroyed from the desirable. We filled a dumpster that day.

I made decisions, then and there, standing in the aftermath of my father’s death, of what these things meant, and what these things might mean enough to keep, after the land—the corn and bean fields, the tumble-down trees in the unproductive apple orchard, the caved-in roof of the granary building that once housed litters of feral kittens—and the house where we lived, were no longer ours. There, my mother had wept, attempting to stave off an early but inevitable death with a small, brown bottle of nitroglycerin tucked always into a pocket. There, my father had sat, maybe waited, until a neighbor stopped by when he didn’t come to church that morning and found him bleeding into his easy chair.

Strangely I am afraid when I open the containers now the smell will take me back to before my mother’s things—her antique china cups, her travel pamphlets from Denmark and France, her hand-crocheted and glue-glittered stars that adorned our Christmas trees, her boxes of costume jewelry worn by generations of women who lived through wars and childbirth—, became nothing but detritus, when each pretty thing still begged to be touched, admired. I am afraid that to touch might reanimate what now sits passively in my basement, encased in impenetrable rubber, deprived of air, each item empty like hollowed-out milkweed pods along our driveway, the seeds long since lifted into the wind, like bodies absent souls.

Maybe some day patience and pragmatism will override my superstition, and I will bring life to material as memory.

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