Finding personal relics in an old desk is such a cliché that when the girls pulled my childhood desk from our upstairs crawlspace on Saturday, I froze up, a little scared of exactly what I’d find in those drawers.
Stylistically, the girls might as well have unearthed a dinosaur bone. A heavy, bulky white child’s desk, with oddly regal, gold-painted trim and accents, the piece matched my old canopy twin bed’s frame (also now in Lily’s room, sans canopy).
“What are you guys doing?!” I asked the girls, as they stood at each end of the desk, in front of the drafty crawlspace’s open door.
“You said we could put your old desk in my room,” Lily said.
Oof. And really, I should have known better than to speak my thoughts out loud. Lily’s messy, modestly-sized room has gotten more and more cluttered over time, in part because she refuses to let me remove the glider that was originally placed there when she was born. You know. When I was NURSING her nine years ago, and there was nothing in there besides a crib and a small dresser. Plus, Lily had recently added a small table to her room to work on her art projects. It’s completely untenable, logistically speaking.
For this reason, I’d recently mulled over offering her my old desk from storage in exchange for removing the rocking chair, footrest, and table from her room. My instincts were right on: when I mentioned this bargain, Lily was immediately all in – a little TOO all in, I guess.
“I didn’t say we’d do it today,” I said to them, exasperated. We’d just spent the morning at Neve’s Lego team exhibition, where Lily was also working a volunteer, and we all needed to pack soon for Lily’s Girl Scout troop’s overnight at the Fort Gratiot Lighthouse. We didn’t have time for this project on Saturday.
Lily didn’t see the problem, though, so I explained that she needed to clean out the area of her room where the desk would go (no small task), and that I would need to go through the stuff in the drawers to clear them out.
Reluctantly, she let it go for the day.
But because she was up for much of that night at the Scout event, having a blast, and because there’s ALWAYS a hard comedown from that kind of thing the following day, she threw a hysterical screaming fit Sunday evening about TAKING A SHOWER. (“I hate this family!!!” Perhaps a dirtier tribe would be to your liking, then, sweetie?)
So while Lily was in the bathroom, mumbling a litany of hygienic injustices imposed upon her, I took up residence in the hallway, sure she was going to fake a shower (which she did) by running the water and getting in just long enough to get wet and nothing else.
Since the exhumed desk was a few feet away, I grabbed a drawer while I waited on Lily and started pawing its contents.
I found an honest-to-God Walkman(!); an old pair of prescription glasses; graduation and birthday greeting cards with no special note, just a signature (into the recycling bin for you); notes and letters that strained my memory, both in terms of their writers (Sara Edge? Who in blazes was that?) and their seemingly of-the-moment inside jokes.
But also, in that first drawer, I found two letters (on flowery stationery) from my mom, who died in January 2009. Both of them reminded me how matter-of-fact she always was in her writing. She reports on the weather; my Uncle Jim turning 43 (“It doesn’t seem possible he is that old. I remember so clearly when he was born”); the progress she was making on a baby quilt with penguins for her nephew, Adrian (now a recent high school graduate); how she canceled and re-scheduled a hair appointment; and there was a subtle moment of motherly support, following my move to Georgia to work toward a master’s degree in English (“Moving across the country is a big adjustment, but I know you will be O.K.”).
We didn’t tend to get super-emotive or “do drama” in my family. That last little encouragement-nugget about my move South was about as schmaltzy as we usually got with each other.
But I read that and melted a little bit. Now that I’m a parent myself, I understand (far more than I did as a kid) how much your parents are rooting for you, even if they don’t come out and say it all that often. Yes, this particular brand of Midwestern emotional restraint means there’s always a little extra unpacking to do – i.e., my mom knew I would be O.K. because she believed in me and thought I was strong and smart enough to pull it off – but I can de-code it far better now, from a distance, than I could then.
And for some reason, seeing the handwriting of a person I’ve lost nearly always breaks me open. I remember, upon inheriting a peacoat that my grandfather wore during World War II, seeing his name and info written by hand on a tag in the lining, and tears welled up instantly. There are a few things that are as particular to a person as a fingerprint, and handwriting is one of them.
So I recognize a letter from my mom the instant I spot it.
I briefly imagined her seated at our kitchen table, facing the back yard and scribbling off a quick note, looking forward to getting back to her latest quilting project or book or soap opera.
Writing these occasional notes to me was just one of several tasks she had in any given day, I know, so there’s nothing heavy or confessional or all that memorable about the events she wrote about to me.
That’s not only because of the collective personality of our family. Traditionally, letters have been a means of delivering personal news, even when there wasn’t much of note happening. In a way, these letters about re-scheduled hair appointments and head colds passed from my Dad to my younger sister remind me of all the pleasant, “regular” days my Mom got to experience before her life was consumed, for months at a time, with doctors’ appointments and treatments and medications and procedures.
When a protracted illness takes someone from us, it’s the tough days we seem to remember most vividly. But these saved notes emphasize to me again the inherent distortion of that. My mom’s health struggles were not her whole story – not even close.
So while I still feel a bit lost, standing at a professional crossroads since my layoff two years ago, I’m taking a moment now to think about what I might write to my mom these days. (I’m chattier in writing than she ever was, so they’d surely be long, time-consuming affairs.) The notes would likely be filled with things like this weekend’s desk anecdote; details about the lighthouse trip; I’d include a recent sketch by Lily; talk about how Neve earned the title “helper of the month” (and a bag of gummy bears) at her after-school care program; the art presentation I gave in the girls’ classes (a hit with Lily’s, iffier with Neve’s); how my mini French lessons are going, and that I’ll have my first story in American Theatre magazine in January; and that I successfully threw a surprise birthday party for Joe, thanks to childhood lessons from my mom on how to be super-sneaky about such things.
They would be reports of typical days from my relatively typical life. But it’s going fast, and I don’t tend to take much note of it while it’s happening. Whom among us does?
The push now, of course, is to downsize and go minimalist, and to donate or throw away everything from our homes that we don’t absolutely need (or that doesn’t bring us joy). But I’d recommend holding on to some things that, on their face, don’t necessarily justify being kept.
Because on some days, just seeing the words “I know you will be O.K.” in your mom’s script will be the balm you need to keep going.