Personal Archeology

The deep closet under the stairs will be our tornado shelter, we both agree, after watching the heaps and shambles of debris from the most recent tornado on television news. And so I start pulling out boxes to make a space for a couple chairs, a radio, flashlight, bottled water, Scotch. Maybe some snacks? Chocolate, of course.

These boxes take up so much of the space! We stacked them in here after the last move, without sorting through the contents. They are labeled “A. memorabilia” or ” L. memorabilia.” There are definitely more of the A. ones. Mine. They are the archives of our lives, separate, and then together, and they call out for attention, for decisions. “Read me and remember,” they say. “Keep me – or toss me if you dare!”

“Here,” I say to “L.”. “This is your stuff. See what you can get rid of.” He is not eager, but succumbs grudgingly. In 20 minutes he has shuffled through the old playbills and promotions from his concerts, the copy of his dissertation, class photos and notes from students; his letters home from Nigeria – and piled them back in the boxes. “Not yet,” he says, shaking his head.

Meanwhile, I have found my first Era – the book of short stories I wrote and illustrated in 4th grade – tucked in among 13 notebooks/diaries from high school, with those black & white mottled covers. An hour later, I have read just one of them and relived 10th grade in Huntington High School and my first anguished crush on Louie Boccia, a cocky, curly-headed kid who sat behind me in Home Room. Clearly this task will stretch on to infinity.

And why keep them? Why not cart the box to the recycle bin and move on? My sons will never take the time to peer inside, and I can save them some trouble. But maybe…my granddaughters? How often I’ve wished I knew what my grandmothers’ lives were like. I retape the box and slide it back into the corner, next to “L. memorabilia.”

A box of photo albums records the H.S. high jinks – the time we were expelled for coming to school in sarongs, and went to the beach instead. There we are doing some form of hula, with flowers in our hair. Then the college photos, a measure more sedate. Here I am in my white bucks and pleated skirt, with the skinny fraternity boy who would become my first husband. We are sitting on a wall outside the freshman dorm, dangling our feet and grinning at the camera, so unaware of the 30 years ahead. The years of pre-med, and medical school as he learned to diagnose and treat diseases, while I tried to fit the proscribed template of the doctor’s wife and perfect mother.

And here are all those years – recorded in color slides, carefully tucked into windows in sheets of plastic. All the years! The moves, the babies, toddlers, baseball games and graduations! I put them back. They are my years, and I am glad I had them, but I don’t want to relive them right now. The boys can deal with them.

But here are shoeboxes of letters, held with rotten rubber bands that snap and give way. Letters from everywhere and everyone. There is in me a real reluctance to part with letters. Some of these might wound my sons and the best thing to do is shred them. And yet…and yet. Let me save them for another day and read them one more time. How they recreate a moment, a place and a passion. How they reawaken the person who was me once, and is no more. The paper is yellowing already, the envelopes have 25c or 30c stamps. I tuck them back behind the others, and bury them under yearbooks and baby books, Little League schedules, baseball cards.

Now a treasure from my three sons; a box of letters – blessedly retained from that brief span of years between graduation and the onset of email and cell phones. There will be no more letters, no more of their scrawly handwriting and careless misspellings. I know that I will never part with these.

In the narrow closet I arrange the boxes neatly and re-label once again. There is approximately 2′ x 2′ of space left that may hold one folding chair, and if I stack things just a little higher, maybe two. L. & A. and their memorabilia will ride out the storm together, or be whisked off to sink in the marsh below, forming yet another layer in the earth’s sedimentary crust.

Alice D’Alessio’s Bio: I am author of four books of poetry and one biography: Uncommon Sense; the Biography of Marshall Erdman. My poetry book, A Blessing of Trees, was winner of the 2004 Posner Award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers. Currently retired, I am contributing editor to Woodlands and Prairies Magazine.