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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.


Accord

“I will go, if you ask it.”

The lantern is turned down low. Its dim light pools on the table, glints off the brandy glass dangling from your fingers. I wish I could see your face.

“No.” Your voice drifts out of the shadows, gentle as rain. “Stay.”


Launch

“On my word.” The Admiral spoke without rancor.

“Yes, ma’am.” My hand hovered above the console. The bridge was silent; everyone was waiting for me. This could start the end of everything.

“Go,” she said. I pushed the button.


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.