"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Cleaning Closets–Getting Rid Of The Past Can Be Painful

People are divided in many ways – liberal-conservative; Southern-Yankee; Catholic-Protestant, and many, many more. Perhaps the most significant divide is between those who have children and those who do not. Having children links parents to 99 percent of all people who have ever lived; to Henry VIII, to the Sultan of Brunei, his harem of 100 wives, and his one thousand grandchildren.

There is no reason to have children today.  They cost far more than they contribute. Lineage and family trees count for little; and a good number of parents are very disappointed with what they get.  The child turns out to be cranky, obstinate, a slow learner, and pissy.  He has too many of Uncle Herman’s genes and too many bits of unaccounted for DNA; but parents can neither trade him in, bring him into the shop for repairs, or chop him up into little pieces and feed him to the goldfish like Mommy and Daddy in Edward Albee’s The American Dream.

Yet, most people continue to have families  It’s just what one does; and those that don’t live in their own very particularly constructed world.

Families tend to accumulate things.  Long after the children have left home, old tricycles, Big Wheels, doll carriages, boxes of Barbies, and school science projects pile up in the basement.  After not many years they are rusted, mildewed, and yellowed; but it is hard to throw them out.  Photographs are static, posed, or incidental.  Toys generate active memory. A picture of Janie standing in front of the 5th grade getting an award for her research on why shamrock leaves close up at night is nothing compared to the story boards and the dried plant.

One day as I picked my way through the narrowing path between empty boxes, wine crates, window shades, curtain, rug ends, broken electrical cords, rusted spades and pitchforks, trunks of family linen, cracked lamps, tangled fishing line, ancient toolboxes, bicycle parts, and rubber tubing in the basement, I felt panic.  The basement had a life of its own.  It had grown exponentially, and was now closing in on me. The way forward led to the spooky, untouched part of the cellar – the pipes and rusted furnace parts. The way out seemed to have closed.  The mops and pails had formed a phalanx.  The skis had become stakes in a picket fence.  The vines that had pushed their way in through the casement windows blocked all light from the garden.  The basement smelled rank and dismal.  I was trapped.

My aunt Margaret lived in an old Victorian house in South Philadelphia; and every upstairs room, every available inch of the attic, and every foot of the crawlspace was filled with my cousins’ childhood things.  Margaret had thrown nothing out and had catalogued everything by year.  Bobbie’s frocks, school uniforms, and Brownie sashes were stored by the attic window facing the yard.  Her prom dresses, first low-cuts and high heels, and umbrellas, raincoats, and ski parkas were compressed and sealed under the front eaves. John’s math books, trumpet, and Legos were in the basement by the water heater.

The house was a museum, but one which had never been curated.  There was nothing in her children’s past that had no value.  Every pinafore, toy truck, sand shovel, and G.I. Joe had meaning. Eighteen years of clothes, toys, books, school papers, BB gun stocks, crayon drawings and papier-mâché dioramas had been stored and preserved.

Aunt Margaret never went into the attic.  It was enough to know that Bobbie and John’s things were there – that their childhood was there intact, preserved, and available.

The problem was that after her children had left home, she started to save her own things, and the basement began to fill up until there was no room for the lawn mower, garden rakes, hoses, and watering cans. When her husband suggested that they do a radical cleaning, she panicked just as I had, but for different reasons.  Not only did the thought of throwing things out upset her, but the choices that would have to be made.  It was not just dishes, dresses, pressure cookers, and dolls that she was being asked to throw out, but her past.

Vladimir Nabokov was a self-described memorist.  He understood from a very young age that the past was far more important than the present or the future.  The future doesn’t exist. The present is just a convenient temporal convention; but the past has existed and will always exist.  A person, therefore, is defined only by the past.  The more one remembers, the more complete one is.

What, then, was the issue with Aunt Margaret’s seemingly obsessive and seemingly unhinged compulsion to save as much of her children’s past as she could?  Every time she folded and packed away one of Bobbie’s shirtwaists, she committed to her memory the image of her daughter wearing it, what event she wore it to, and the stories she had been told about the boys, the dancing, and the flowers.

Unlike Nabokov or his wife, Margaret’s husband felt that the past was the least substantive of all three temporal phases.  Memories of the past are subjective, he said, selective, and unreliable; and therefore no more significant or relevant than dreams.  Descartes was not just trying to put his finger on the nature of existence when he said “Cogito ergo sum”, but observing that the present does have substance.

The pictures on his desk were not reminders of the past but recollections of conviction.  The portrait of Tolstoy was a symbol of his own spiritual inquiries and attempts to deal with death and dying better than Ivan Ilyich.  The photograph of him as a five-year old boy had nothing to do with the past but the present.  What of that boy’s timid look was still him?  All of it?

The painting of the palio of Siena did not make him think of his family’s summer vacations in Tuscany, but of medieval Christian history.  The etching of the angel Gabriel reminded him both of the story of the New Testament and of Mary Helen, his first wife who had made it. In both cases he did not recall the past so much as revive the feelings he had for Mary Helen and the impressions he had of the Gospel of Luke when he read it for the first time as an adult.

When the basement and attic had become so full that there was no room for anything else, Margaret’s husband told her that he was going to ‘rearrange’ things so that there would be more space. She knew that he was going to throw out much of what she had stored, but did not object.  As long as she did not have to make the necessary but painful and impossible choices involved in basement triage, she was happy to let her husband do it.  He was careful to respect the semblance of order that his wife had established.  The basement looked more open and organized, but not violated.  He kept enough of the dishes, clothes, and school projects to maintain the fiction of rearrangement.

All this was possible because despite his indifference to the things of the past, my uncle admitted that his very subjective definition of the present was no different than his wife’s assiduous curation of the past. Both were memorists in their own ways.

Most people are not as philosophical and thoughtful as my aunt and uncle.  They pile things up in the basement because they are impatient with the discipline required to sort, sift, and categorize. And they chuck with equal disregard.  Cleaning the basement is done in shovelfuls and garbage bags, not with the care and respect of my uncle.

It took my wife and me many rainy Sundays to finally deal with the basement. For every two things I wanted to chuck, she wanted to save one; but we finally reached a reasonable compromise.  We got rid of no more than half of what we should have; but not a bad piece of work given the existential angst involved.

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