They Aren't Things, They're Memories

(By Aris Economopoulos For The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Mimi Johnson
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, January 7, 2008

There's a great Lyle Lovett song about loss and survivors that ends with the words, "come on and join up the last of the family reserve." I only just realized that I am a member in full measure.

My husband and I are empty nesters. We don't need much room, and lately the stuff -- the bins, the boxes, the literal baggage of 30-plus years of marriage -- started to stifle me. More and more the word "simplify" came to mind. It had such a nice ring; it echoed, like a mantra, when I signed the papers to buy a small -- well, make that tiny -- condominium. Low-maintenance, convenient to his office, the airport, the gym, the pool -- it was simple. Blissfully simple.

Until it was time to go. Surrounded by moving boxes, we had to make choices. It was time to cut the wheat from the chaff, cull the prime from the scrub. But when it comes to the "family reserve," letting go is not that simple.

Between us, my mother-in-law is our only living parent. Even though we're only in our early 50s, survivorship has made us the older generation. Left to us are the little bits and pieces, the debris of loved ones' lives that floated on the surface after they caught the tide. Each bit of flotsam, every piece of jetsam, conjures a face, a voice, a touch.

There were my mother's 13 wineglasses. Once there were 16. I was a teenager when I broke the third one, and I remember her sighing, "Well, looks like I'm left with an unlucky number." There was my grandmother's relish plate, and holding it in my hand I could almost taste the homemade pickled beets and tiny gherkins she always served on it. There was a vase that belonged to my other grandmother, doilies crocheted by my great-grandmother.

The moving boxes were filling up, but I smiled as I dug out a pretty blue plate with a robin on it. This, I thought, I can let go. Then I turned it over. On the back were the words, "From Julia and Ellen's plate shelf above the fireplace." Oh yes, those two sweet, proper great-aunts. They were always stylishly dressed and carefully coiffed even in their 90s, but they weren't prissy. Some of my cousins still talk about how they joined Julia and Ellen every spring to tramp out to their favorite farm pond for a morning of fishing. Neither was squeamish about worms, hooks or gutting a delicious, fresh bluegill.

Discouraged, I unearthed another treasure, my Great-Aunt Otelia's hatpin, nearly a foot long and slightly bent in the middle. There was the set of dishes my husband's family purchased when they lived in Japan years ago. And a souvenir of my Uncle Sonny's, a music box that draws a tiny cable car uphill as it plays "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." There was my mother's statue of the Blessed Virgin, the one I rescued from the garbage the day we cleaned out our parents' home. There was my grandfather's harmonica and my father-in-law's college degree.

And there were bigger things, too. My great-grandfather's rocking chair, and the little table my father refinished just days before he suddenly died. I can still see clearly his thick, rough thumb running along the shining, perfect surface, testing its smoothness. Sometimes I run my hand over it, following the same path. It's the closest I can come to holding his hand.

Something's got to give, my husband sighed as he picked up yet another box. True, but what? I didn't need any of these things. But when it's all that's left of someone, whom do you kick to the curb?

It occurred to me if I couldn't get rid of their things, maybe it was time to get rid of some of my own. "Let's give away our china," I suggested.

He looked sad. "Our wedding china?"

That's when I realized that my husband is even more sentimental than I.

We put extra shelves in all the closets and purchased a storage cage in the parking garage. The harmonica and the hatpin survived another move.

I have to smile when I think of the day when our sons will go through their parents' things. I imagine the blue plate with the robin will be one of the first things bound for the jumble table. They don't remember Julia or Ellen. That's okay. There will be something else, big or small, that they can't let go. Maybe it'll be my ugly china, or my mother's unlucky wineglasses. They'll "come on and join up," when they're the ones left behind.

These aren't simple things. They truly are a reservoir of the family. They are the things that remind us of who our loved ones were, the things that tell us who we are.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company