Sunprint: white paper clips and safety pins against a dark blue background

What we keep

Growing up, my mother was the one who decorated my room. She picked out the furniture; she made my curtains (to match my sheets). She wouldn’t let me paint the walls. It was a small room, maybe ten feet by ten feet, with just enough room for:

  • One iron-framed brass bed (twin)
  • One wide bureau
  • One bookshelf
  • One wooden desk, with chair

My mother felt very strongly that I should have a desk, someplace to do homework or create art or write poetry. Having two kids myself, I now believe that it was actually a ploy to keep the overall household entropy at bay. I ought to note that I never actually did homework at that desk. I did my homework on the bed, feet up on the wall, TIME Magazine clock radio blaring Top 40 pop music on KC101 as I read history, or lying on my belly trying to make sense of algebra. I did art projects on the floor, and wrote poetry high up in the branches of the peach tree or out on the hill overlooking the church’s duck pond.

Mostly, I used that desk to store things. In the top drawer there was a plastic tray full of novelty pens, pencils, erasers, broken paper clips, safety pins, stickers, notes and confessions – all the bric-a-brac of a girl’s life that had nowhere else to go. In the side drawers, I kept old schoolwork, spiral notebooks, drawing paper, modeling clay, crossword puzzles. Every now and then there came a point when the drawers would stick, they were so full, and I’d have to clean them out, start to throw things away.

When I went off to college, my mother kept my room pretty much how I left it. She changed the bedspread, I think, and added a few things to the bookcase, but she never touched my desk. Every time I went home, I’d snag something else out of the desk. My old library card. A keyring. A notebook of terrible teenage poetry.

Some things, though, I never touched. I kept a sunprint kit in the top drawer, an elementary-school birthday present that was somehow too precious to use. I kept waiting for the right time.

Last year, my mother died. My brother and I found ourselves digging through two storage units full of her things – things she’d collected over nearly seventy years. She had rows upon rows of Rubbermaid totes, each labeled neatly. Baskets, read one. More Baskets, read another. And also: More Damn Baskets. It made me laugh. At least she knew what she was holding onto.

Among the totes and the boxes and the shattered remains of our baby grand piano (oh my heart), I found my bureau. I found my old brass bed.

And I found my desk.

At first glance, it didn’t look so bad. Someone could use this, I thought. The drawers still had their pulls. With a little polishing, I thought maybe I could even take it home.

But once I dragged it out, pulled it onto the dusty gravel of the U-Store lot, I could see that it was, in fact, ruined. Water had gotten into the storage unit at some point, and the desk was mildewed and warped. The drawers had their pulls, yes, but they also barely moved on their runners. The writing surface was bubbled and pocked.

If I opened the top drawer, I wondered, would I find the sunprint kit? I decided not to check.

Instead, I turned to my brother and shook my head. No, I was saying, I don’t want it. I didn’t want to be my mother, keeping broken things for the sake of nostalgia. I watched him lug that desk to the truck we were using to haul away trash. Watched him yank out the drawers, rip off the warped, cracked legs, splintering the wood and breaking my heart in unexpected ways.

5 thoughts on “What we keep

  1. MichelleH says:

    I don’t even know where to start with this. It’s got such a wonderful flow to it, but it’s so complex at the same time. I guess I should go with – I’m so sorry for your loss. But I’m also wowed by the way you were able to turn a simple desk into a character. Maybe it’s because your desk sounds so much like mine – only I’ve been lucky that mine didn’t get damaged in moves or storage. It’s actually destined for a fresh coat of paint this weekend – even though it’s basically unused to this day.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. atticsister says:

    Isn’t it amazing the emotions that the things we keep can evoke? My 3 sisters and I recently went through Mom’s 4 giant totes of photos; she’s been gone for over three years. We laughed, we cried, we argued about points of view(me being the oldest and my sisters’ view points spread over 10 year’s perspective). Ultimately, we realized what Mom hung onto gave her life meaning (all those photos of her trips, all those sunsets from places we’d never know, all those people she met on her 35+ years of retirement and especially all those photos of us as kids, growing up, getting married and our own kiddos). Ultimately, the one thing that we took away from the purging of Mom’s photos was an understanding of what meant the most to Mom in her final years and that was family.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Christine Hanolsy says:

      We ran into that, too – boxes and boxes of things that had no meaning to us, but were obviously important to my mother. Those were some of the hardest to deal with. Should we have kept them because they were special to her? Even though we knew the answer was no, it felt like disrespecting her memories to get rid of them. There are no actual easy answers, I guess.

      Liked by 1 person

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