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Stuff and Things

Today I bought a book I don’t plan to read.

I know, all you minimalists and declutterers out there are gasping in horror, but look–I’m a Taurus. I like my stuff. Even stuff that doesn’t spark joy.

The book in question is Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott. I must have read it twenty times growing up, I loved it that much. It came in a set with five other books: Little Women and its sequels (Little Men – which was honestly my favorite – and Jo’s Boys), Under the Lilacs, and Jack and Jill. Somewhere along the way, I’d lost Eight Cousins.

I kind of figured that my mom had it. I mean, she had kept everything else from my childhood, from my old Raggedy Ann to the the notes from my high school crush. After she passed away, I found myself digging through a lifetime’s worth of ephemera: my mom was a Taurus, too.

I like my things, she’d said more than once, when I suggested maybe she could downsize.

I searched and searched, lifted hundreds of pounds of books in dozens of cardboard boxes, but I never found this one book. And if I had, chances are it would have been warped and mildewed like the rest of them, victims of a storage unit flood. Even then, Mom couldn’t stand to get rid of anything. The number of books we consigned to the town dump still breaks my heart. I eventually decided to stop thinking about it.

And then, a couple weeks ago, I came across another old favorite in the local bookstore: The Annotated Wizard of Oz. Touching the familiar, bright yellow cover was like stepping out of a time machine; I can remember the exact spot on the bookshelf in our living room where that particular volume was kept. It even smelled like my childhood: sandalwood and lemon pledge and stale cigarette smoke.

That afternoon I went home and scoured the internet for my missing copy of Eight Cousins. I found it, of all places, on Etsy. It sat in my cart for a while, and today I actually hit “buy.” It should arrive next week.

I don’t know if my mother’s things sparked joy. And I don’t know if I will ever open the cover of my beloved Eight Cousins, except to check to see if the publication date matches the rest of my set. It doesn’t matter. We just like our things.


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.


Catching wind

When I was eight I locked the wind in a box.

It didn’t weigh much, made no noise if I shook the box, and looked rather a lot like a handful of dandelion fluff. I’d toss a pinch into the air and a breeze would whisper secrets in my ear. Other kids had soccer trophies and name-brand Keds; I had the wind in a box. It made me feel powerful, strong, magical. Special.

I don’t know what happened to that box, but the wind remembers me, I swear it.

Do you know that feeling, when you walk out your front door and there’s no traffic, there are no people, there’s only you and the sky and the trees and you wonder, where is everyone? What do they know that I don’t? That’s when the wind speaks to me. Sometimes the wind is that lover who rents out an entire restaurant just so you can have a quiet conversation.

In Burlington, Vermont, the wind cuts across Lake Champlain bringing cold air and snow from the Great Lakes region into the valley. That never stopped us from spending New Year’s Eve on Church Street. We’d duck into bar and restaurant and cafe, one after the other, to listen to music – and to escape the bitter cold – until finally, our noses and ears aching, our fingers painfully numb, we’d hurry home to our apartment and the pot of mulled wine on the stove. Sometimes the wind is the voice of reason, the good friend that pulls no punches when she says, this relationship is no good for you; it’s time to leave.

The very first night I spent in Michigan, I dreamed of tornadoes: great, towering funnels of malignant air that chased me across broken staircases and swallowed up the people I loved. I’m not one to believe in signs, exactly, but I like to think the wind was giving me a hint. I don’t want to hurt you, it said, but this isn’t the place for you. As though the flat landscape and flatter stares hadn’t already given that away.

This time of year, the wind comes howling out of the Columbia River Gorge and lodges itself in the great Douglas fir in our backyard, scratching at our windows and shaking branches like fists until the pine cones rain across the roof. It sounds like someone trying to break in, and I understand why my kids can’t sleep.

It’s just the wind, I tell them. It’s telling us we’re safe inside.

They want me to make it stop, but I’m not strong enough for that. I only listen to the wind, I don’t control it, not anymore. If I could, though, I’d catch the wind, put it in a box for them. I’d tell them to keep it secret, to take it out only when no-one is watching. At night, I’d say, if you tuck it under your pillow, the wind will tell you things.


How to plan a funeral

Message your family first. Call your wife. Tell them, she’s gone.

Sit vigil by her bedside until your brother arrives. Her brother brings espresso; her sister brings a cake. They had promised her something with flavor, near the end. Her brother touches a cup to her lips.

Go to her house. Start to assess what needs to be done: estate sale, house cleaning, realtor. Spend an hour or two catching her cats.

Collect her ashes from the funeral home.

Go to dinner with your family. She would have liked that. Order tequila shots all around; she would have liked that, too.

“She didn’t want a funeral,” her sister says. Try not to hate yourself for being relieved.

Swallow your tequila. Start planning something else: a vacation, maybe, to scatter her ashes somewhere she loved.


The boys next door

The knock at the door came at a bad time.

I’d driven for two days straight with a car full of things from my dead mom’s house–on the anniversary of her death, no less. One kid was in the bath, the other was clamoring for dinner. The neighbors were having a Sunday evening backyard party despite the drizzle and we had to shut the kitchen window because it was so noisy. The Kavanaugh debacle was still fresh in my mind and I was still angry. All I wanted was a glass of wine and to shake the knots out of my shoulders.

“It might be someone we know,” my wife said, and so I stomped to the door, ready to snip at whoever was there, and yanked it open.

“Hi,” said the rather good-looking young man on our porch. He was barefoot and held a can of beer in his hand. “We really need someone to take a group picture.”

I wasn’t exactly dressed for a party in my yoga pants and over-sized elementary school sweatshirt. I wasn’t even wearing a bra. Still. “Let me get my shoes,” I said.

The boys next door had strung up lights. Food was laid out on a red tablecloth, and music was playing. Fifteen or so early 30-somethings crowded the small backyard, trying not to step on each others’ toes in the damp grass. Jake and Patrick wore matching Hawaiian shirts; Patrick had their dog, Girlfriend, in his arms. A cheer went up when I came through the gate.

A blonde girl in a red dress handed me her iPhone and scampered off to join the group.

“Dude, did you knock on the neighbor’s door?” somebody muttered.

“I mighta,” said the barefoot beer-drinker.

“Hold on, I’m gonna take a bunch,” I said. “Hopefully one of these will turn out.”

I snapped five or six shots, hoping that everyone’s eyes were open in at least one of them. Girlfriend barked the whole time. The blonde girl came for her phone and squealed at the photos, so I guess I did okay.

“Is there an occasion?” I asked, mostly out of politeness. “Somebody’s birthday?”

“They got married!” someone called out.

In the midst of social chaos, when white supremacists and Nazis speak freely and without repercussion, where passports are being revoked and protections reversed, halfway through the reign of Donald Trump, Jake and Patrick got married. In their backyard on a Sunday night, surrounded by their closest friends, their chosen family. It was a surprise wedding, somebody told me. Everyone thought it was just a barbecue.

“You guys,” I said. “I’m gonna cry.”

“It’s okay,” said the blonde girl. “We all did.”