I've been off the blog for a while because I've come to that transition period faced in nearly every adult's life: moving my mother out of the family home. For some people this is a much harder and more emotionally fraught situation than I am facing, saints be praised. My mother is ready to move and has found a lovely apartment that is NOT a senior center so she still has her independence and her choices. She has lived in this house for forty five years; she and my father oversaw four kids, two grandkids, and countless animals. There have been happy days, hideous fights, bloodshed, kisses and drama of every human variety. Sadly, my father died three years ago and my mother's health is not all it could be, so it's time for the house to open itself up to a new family to create their own history within its walls.
Okay, enough of the feel good talk. Now it's time to dig out FORTY FIVE YEARS of stuff. My mother is not a terrible hoarder (again, praising those saints) but the task still boggles my mind. Books, awards, flags, maps, boxes, photos, paintings, dishes, glasses, vases, cushions, corkscrews, rakes, shelves...aggghh. Mom wants to take very little with her and she wants each of us to select those things that matter to us before the estate sale company comes in and liquidates the rest.
This is where it gets interesting.
We've all heard (or lived through) horror stories of relatives descending on a house after the family member has passed away and fighting over their "emotional attachment" to Grandma's plasma TV or diamond broach. This is not that sort of interesting. We are cleaning out the knick-knacks of our childhood. There's nothing of any significant financial value and it has been endlessly fascinating to see who picks what and why.
I had obvious choices: the plastic statue of a knight in shining armor I bought for my father when I couldn't have been four years old. He kept it all these years and I'd have fought the devil himself to keep it. I learned my oft-used party throwing skills from my mother, who has always been an accomplished hostess, so it's only natural I would take her white party dishes. There's nothing unique about them. They're white dishes, but they've been set on beautiful tables and covered in delicious food eaten by happy laughing crowds. The choice is obvious and I worried I might have to debate with my sibs over them.
But no. My sisters and brother and nephews have their own touchstones - a tool box, Grandpa's table, candy dishes, Notre Dame memorabilia. The decisions and the connections are intimate and difficult to explain and I would never presume to publicize them. Seeing who choses what and why, the funny stories that each of us connect to the unlikeliest of items has reanimated memories of my childhood, adding shade and texture I might otherwise have lost.
Now I'm thinking about my characters. Set aside broad physical characterizations, deep forays into back story. What are the totems and touchstones they carry with them from their travels, good or bad? Items of no consequence that evoke powerful sensory memories from one person and leave another shaking their head? How much more real will my main character become if I can peek into that dented shoe box she keeps stuffed in the back of her closet, wrapped in an old copy of Mad Magazine and tied with a piece of leather she braided herself at camp? The details will probably never make it onto the page but we humans are funny things. We may turn our backs on love, fame and fortune but then cling forever to a silver dollar our godmother gave us. We become accidentally interesting.
There's a coconut head we bought as a family forty years ago on a vacation in Myrtle Beach. It is unspeakably hideous and not in a quirky, kitschy way. This thing is fugly. It is also the emblem for the two week vacations we took every year without exception. My parents would have seen us without clothes on our backs before they saw us without two uninterrupted, sun-soaked weeks at the beach with no curfews, no shoes, no baths. Just sun, family and junk food. And really ugly coconut heads. Did I mention that this is REALLY ugly? Even as we speak, I'm clearing a spot on a shelf.