Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Life Props - the things that ring a bell

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.


Anita Clenney said...

Great blog, Sheila. I can completely understand you wanting the dishes and the knight. I haven't had to clean out my parents place, thank God, but I cringe just thinking of my father's storage shed. He doesn't throw anything away. He grew up very frugally. If his mother hadn't scrimped and saved, they would've starved. I don't even want to think of a time when I'll have to do that task, but it does make me consider my own "pack-rat-ishness."

As for characters, I always try to have my them really attached to some object. I love mysterious objects!!! I think it really digs into their character when we see this attachment to some ordinary, or bizarre, object.

In the first book in the series, it's this old disk that hung on the heroine's great great grandmother's mantle for generations. It ends up being very important to the story.

In the second of the series, it's an old candlestick and a necklace that she couldn't get rid of even though it came from her best friend who betrayed her. And there are other things she's drawn to but doesn't know why. Talismans and daggers and even stranger objects she can't even identify.

Christy said...

Excellent idea about spending more time on the characters backstories. I tend to write out a few of their hobbies and interests but it would help to write down what they dreamed of being as a child and if they made it happen or took a different road, either by choice or not.

When my grandmother passed away I only wanted two things from her house. The ceramic doll wearing a green dress and holding an umbrella which she would have me pick up off the coffee table and place on the mantle everytime me and my sister visited so it didn't get broken. Even as a teenager and then an adult, as soon as I walked into her house I moved that doll. And one of her big bangle braclets that she always wore. They were the smallest and cheapest of things but they will forever take me back to being young and hanging out at mawmaw's house.

SG Redling said...

Thanks for stopping by, Anita! I too love mysterious objects. What kid didn't keep a pocketful of "treasures" that only he or she understood? Human nature. It's funny to see that tendency laid bare in my own adult life, though. All I'm missing is my secret decoder ring!

SG Redling said...

Oops Christy - I bumped past you! Those things, those little touchstones, are so telling, aren't they? And what's funny is you have to wonder if your grandmother would be surprised that those are the things you remember. I know my mom has looked at each of us at one point like we had lost our minds. go figure!

Monica R. said...

Oh Sheila, this brought tears. And a strange fit of hacking. I'd never fight you for the dishes, but the coconut head? Hmmm.

SG Redling said...

(Monica is another sister helping dig out the Mothership.) Step away from the coconut head or the red ashtray gets it!

YS#1 said...

Hmmmm the coconut head........I'll let you have that... i'm sure there's some other treasure that i can scarf up

Tina Michelle said...

Beats my division of property when the parents passed. I received little of nothing. My aunt however, got almost everything. Imagine how stunned I was when I went to her home (the aunt, not deceased mother) over a holiday to see her pets eating out of my mother's best dishes. Ahhhhhhhh family. Is there anything better? Or worse? :)

Kristina Polacek Lang said...

I lived with my late grandmother for over 14 years. When she had to give up her home due to illness, my aunt arranged for my cousins and I to get together and take what we wanted from the house. Being the closest to my grandmother, I wanted to take the whole house but there was only so much that my poor camaro could hold! One of the things I did choose was a picture that had hung in my grandmother's livingroom for as long as I could remember. In it, there was a redhaired girl playing the piano and a blonde girl playing the violin. My cousin and I used to pretend that it was us in the picture. I finally got my own piano last year and now that picture has a place above it. I think of my grandmother everytime I see it. And.....I think you should keep that coconut head! It will make a good conversation piece when people come to visit. Or use it for a Halloween decoration!

Alecia said...

Sheila, I'm with Monica. Your post definitely brought a tear.

My father died far too young, in an accident. As you know, the evil step-mother held the reins on Dad's stuff. I did, however, get the only thing I ever wanted from my father, The Poem Book. Forgive me, but I'm going to ramble here.

My father was a deck-hand, working on the tow-boats on the Ohio River. He was big, burly, beautiful and was left with little girls to take care of when he was way too young for the task.

When I was a just a tiny thing, my dad would read poetry to me from the tome of poetry that had come to him from his great-grandmother. I come from a family of readers and they all love poetry.

It made such an impact on me when my father would read to me, tears running down his face, Wordsworth, or Shelly, or whatever moved him at the time. He was so big and strong, but words could bring him to his knees.

My sisters knew how important that book was to me. It was never disputed.

Thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

This made me teary too! Oh the things we do cling too. I just found a long lock of SOMEONE'S beautiful blonde hair that my mother saved for decades! I now save it too. Thanks for the fabulous blog, Ms. Redling! And good luck to your mother in her new abode.

Anonymous said...

It seems we share more in common than our sun sign... I'm engaged in helping my mother prepare for a move as well. Twenty years of packrat action have made the effort monumental in the most frightening aspect of the word. It is fascinating to uncover lost relics and the occassional forgotten photograph of long ago memories. It can be a painful process too. We lost my father this past September and moving has presented the challenge of facing the totality of that change in our lives. Certainly excellent soil to plant a story in... great post as always SG.

SG Redling said...

Thanks for the empathy, Aonia. There's an enormity to the process that is indescribable, second only to the enormity of losing someone you love. It seems a weird thing to say, but it's nice to meet someone on the same path at the same time.