We spent this past 4th of July as every “real” American family should: wearing Old Glory T-shirts (from Old Navy), getting pelted with candy from passing parade floats, and, of course, debating whether or not to take small children to the local fireworks display, knowing that parking would be a nightmare, and that the sound of tired whining could very well overwhelm the explosive pop of celebration. It was good, clean, stressful, dysfunctional family fun! USA! USA!
Unfortunately, this holiday wasn't all sparklers and Shriners. When I wasn't carting around folding chairs, or taking one for the team by consuming several hundred hamburgers, I was down in the basement, or in the garage, sorting through my father’s belongings. Dad passed away in October, leaving behind a specific kind of collection—that of someone who’d died unexpectedly, and who hadn't felt the need to take stock of his possessions. In between festivities, my two brothers and I—alone or in different combinations—combed through piles of artifacts: hospital awards; golf trophies; brittle, handmade birthday cards; fishing equipment, much of it unused; and enough books about Ohio’s hiking trails to pave one of them.
This inventory has been ongoing. The first time we went through the leftovers had been before one of the public services immediately following my father’s death. As part of its preparations, our funeral home asked for photos of Dad to use in a memorial video. I was not satisfied with this tribute. Instead, I became weirdly obsessed with the idea of building mini exhibits to capture my father’s different interests and identities. As a writer, it's my job to make everything more complicated; and I am constantly seeking to ascribe a narrative to everything around me.
For the visitation, my brothers and I built stations around the building to capture Dad’s various personas: physician, sportsman, military medic, father, grandfather. I don’t know if people even noticed what we’d done. Emotions blur most of my memories; but it wasn't the reaction I’d cared about, it was the act of diving deep to find answers that made sense to me, and that fit into the larger context of Dad’s life story. I wanted answers that led to more questions. That way I would keep coming back, and the story would never end.
After the holiday, we returned home to Washington, D.C. and prepared for a week of summer and its new routines. However, almost as soon as we walked in the door, I felt increasingly unsettled, even anxious, about what I’d done with my father’s stuff. I didn't want to be the one responsible for reducing someone down to their essence, of picking and choosing what remained; in a sense, by sorting through those boxes we were curating a person’s life and how the world might remember him. I do this all the time. I spend every day plotting structures—arcs and threads—and dropping the anchors that root them. I create coherence and meaning. And hopefully I find some sense of resolution.
But this was different. This was real, and the ending of the story would never change.
I decided to do something I’d been putting off for months. I visited the nearby home of my in-laws, where my wife and I have stored many of our belongings during our recent relocation. Most of the furniture and daily items had been delivered to the new house on the day we got the keys; but as it is with every move, we’d left behind an impressive stockpile of crumpled cardboard boxes, most of it containing the crushed husks of old books, outdated paperwork, and childhood memorabilia that had been trailing us like breadcrumbs for the last decade or so. After plenty of procrastination, I was going to sort our possessions as I’d sorted those of my father. I was going to make choices—thumbs-up or thumbs-down, Coliseum-style.
It turns out that I’d saved very little from my childhood. Not that I’d expected a collection of trophies to rival my Dad’s, and I hadn't been an exemplary student so there weren't stacks of framed certificates collecting cobwebs. (I was the kind of youngster who always won the Most Improved award, meaning that I exhibited very little actual skill.) Of the items I did save, however, most of it had to do with writing, starting as far back as 2nd grade and ending with drafts of books I published only a few years ago. (Wow, was I boring.)
On the surface, these boxes held some surprises, particularly about my growth as a writer. A few key observations are as follows:
- I had a strange, somewhat questionable obsession with the McDonald’s character Grimace, a purple blob that is constantly seen flapping his arms excitedly in the background of hamburger commercials. I’m not lying when I say that he probably starred in half of my short stories, and I drew hundreds of doodles of him in different outfits and cosplaying as other characters.
- I was too lazy to create fictional characters, and instead stocked my stories with an assortment of my real-life friends. When they angered me, I dispatched them in a ridiculous, often over-the-top fashion; if they wanted to rejoin the cast, they had to make amends. Such power! I like to think that I paved the way for other successful ensemble troupes, such as those of Wes Anderson, Christopher Guest, or Michael Bay.
- For whatever reason, my handwriting peaked at about the 6th grade. No, seriously.
To my surprise, as I climbed the mountains of spiral-bound journals and cracked green composition books, a more interesting truth began to emerge: I’d gone through all of it before. This initial lack of childhood memorabilia, the weak breadth and depth of my past, indicated that I’d gotten rid of so much already, and probably done so multiple times. For whatever reason, I’d started shaping my narrative years ago. Or at the very least I’d gotten tired of renting U-Hauls for $119 a day and decided enough was enough. I was living revisionist history.
As I stood there surrounded by all those mildewed boxes that I hardly ever opened, and that I never had any cause to unearth from their lairs beneath the floorboards, I wondered what my own kids (or grand kids) would discover after my exit. Did I want them interpreting who I was based on the relics of my earliest years, or did I want them to remember me as they knew me, a brooding, slightly nervous, somewhat lanky breakfast cereal fanatic? Would I sentence them to days of rifling through old bills and photos of people no one recognized? Was it important to give them more to analyze, or give them a few choice details and let them fill in the blanks themselves?
I didn't know. I still don’t.
I threw out a lot of my boxes that afternoon; but I kept a few I didn't expect to.
Maybe that’s the point. One lesson was in filling the boxes, and the other was in letting them go.