Middens

By Carol Smith

The sense of dread begins to build even before I punch in the code on the metal entry box. The gate scrapes open and I pass through, driving down the catacomb of storage lockers with their corrugated metal doors. About twice a year, I gather the nerve to visit my storage locker and face the endless task of whittling down what I’m keeping. I survey the unit, a steel tomb of unmet dreams, overstated ambitions and boxed-up grief.

I will never again be a young mother, or a newspaper reporter, or a dealer in garden antiques. Yet I’m warehousing boxes of baby clothes, and old newspaper clippings and curlicue remnants of cast-iron fences. I will never turn the giant box of wool scraps into intricate hooked rugs. I no longer have the space to put up a Christmas tree big enough to fit the decorations that fill boxes along one wall. I have furniture saved for someday houses.

My son had a will to survive. The marriage did not.

But each time I try to “get rid of a few things,” there is a reckoning. Whole industries have sprung up to help me with this problem. I have a shelf-full of books on how to simplify my life, declutter, slim down my stuff. The irony of this is not lost on me. At the moment, a Japanese author’s book about the transformative power of “tidying up” is topping the best-seller lists. I’ve bought not just the book, but the magical thinking that goes with it.

I have my own tactics to psych up for streamlining as well. Occasionally, I’ll watch a dose of reality shows about hoarders as a form of aversion therapy. And sometimes, I browse floorplans for tiny houses, indulging the (entirely unrealistic) notion that I am someone who could dwell in a house the size of a closet.

But much of the self-help industry misses the point. It’s not the stuff that’s hard to deal with. It’s what the stuff represents.

Transfer stations.

When I was a child, I used to love to go to the dump with my great aunt. She lived in East Texas, in a cottage on Lake Striker that she maintained by herself. She had flaming red hair well into her 70s. And for many years, until I learned about the miracle of hair dye, I thought red hair never got gray.

We would go to the dump once a week to get rid of the trash we’d accumulated. But also to keep our eye out for things. I remember the thrill of looking over the lip of the pit and seeing all kinds of cast-offs — sewing machines and sinks, bicycles, refrigerators, bookshelves — enough detritus to furnish a whole house, if you were handy. If it didn’t require too much work, and appeared amenable to rehabbing, we would haul something back out of the dump and make a project of it.

She was descendant of the Great Depression, and no one on my mother’s side of the family liked to see anything go to waste. But as I got older, my own relationship with discarding things grew more complicated. I grew up with a parent of each persuasion — one who squirreled possessions, and one who purged them. Faced with the choice — should I keep or toss, I’d be paralyzed and consumed with guilt, frozen between holding onto the past and moving on.

Middens

Standing in the storage unit with the stages of my life shelved before me is like looking into an archeological dig.

There’s a long and rich history of deducing who we are from what we throw away. Ancient middens — where people dumped the remnants of their everyday lives — are gold mines for learning about how people in other eras lived, and worked, what tools they used, what they cared about. We can reverse engineer a picture of them from what wound up in these pits. Digging through the layers, we see the stories of their lives.

Once, I visited a grand, but decaying farmhouse in Virginia that had belonged to someone in my family tree generations earlier. My mother recalled her father telling her how he would visit there as a child, bouncing around between relatives, essentially orphaned after his mother died giving birth to his sister, and his father left to stake his fortune in the Alaskan gold rush.

The house had wide and peeling porticos with some vestiges of grandeur. It was vacant now, and boarded up. I wandered the grounds, trying to picture what it had been like when my grandfather was a child. Out back, near what seemed to be the ruins of a stable, I picked up a shard of blue-and-white china and ran my fingers over the braille of its tiny forget-me-not pattern. I slipped it in my pocket, and instantly I could picture a long table set for a formal dinner, perhaps the children in another room. A way of living — as foreign to me as a distant civilization — came to life.

As I sort through the boxes in front of me, shards of my own past life keep rising up, the sharp edge of memory sometimes drawing blood. There are tax records from the house sold in a divorce, my son’s favorite books from the year before he died at age 7, the box of recipes my mother gave me, the ones she no longer remembers because of the creep of Alzheimer’s. A stuffed bear my grandmother had made for my son many years earlier catches my eye.

Three moves

I flash back in time to a conversation I’d had with my grandmother years earlier. We sat outside on a patio at her retirement center in California, the sun making sun dials out of the metal tables with their umbrellas. I watched the shadows play across them while we chatted about yet another move I was making, this one from California back home to Seattle. It was, I hoped, the last in a long line of moves. She listened without saying much, then suddenly her face, still barely lined at 103, brightened. She leaned forward as though sharing a secret and said, “Three moves are as good as a fire.”

When I’d first moved to California, I was newly divorced. My textbook life — college degree, college husband — had been upended with the birth of my son, who was born deaf and desperately ill with kidney failure and stunted lungs. Our lives revolved around hospitals, surgeries, and endless medical appointments. My son had a will to survive. The marriage did not.

I had moved to Los Angeles from Seattle with my son to start over. My half of my worldly possessions, the wreckage salvaged from the divorce, I left behind in storage.

I arrived in Los Angeles with little more than the essentials for the two of us — Christopher and me. He was three.

As we settled in, we inventoried what we’d need in the way of basic furniture and household goods — end tables and bookshelves and glassware. We frequented the flea markets that dot LA every weekend to stock up. I loved the carnival atmosphere, the smell of hot dogs and churros in the soft LA morning air. I looked forward to the greetings of vendors setting out their wares, the hugely improbable assortment of stuff for sale, the celebration of the discarded.

Christopher and I made a habit of wandering the markets. He trolled the aisles low down for treasures, tugging me down to see. “Beautiful” he would sign enthusiastically. “I like.”

I cruised the higher altitudes, fingering textiles soft with age, running my hands over well-worn pottery bowls, turning the odd, old piece of glass in the sun. It felt like I was on a giant set, and I could choose the props for this work in progress that was my life.

We were salvagers, rescuers, finding things and putting them to new purpose. It was a game, a language between us. He appropriated my old garden stool and made it his table. An old wicker fishing chair stood in for a campsite on his bedroom floor. We high-fived after finding a large iron gate, abandoned in a thrift-store parking lot. It its center, a radiant star. We struggled to lash it to the back of my car and brought it home, thinking what a fine table it would make.

Later that night we looked at the stars together.

“How many?” He signed.

“Big number,” I signed back, throwing my arms wide to show how big.

“More big,” he signed, giggling and stretching his whole body to best my sign for big with an even bigger one. I wasn’t just furnishing a house, I thought. I was furnishing a life for us.

Christopher died unexpectedly on a December morning. He was seven.

I could not move at first. I barely traveled through the rooms of the house. That’s the paradox of grief. First you cannot move. Later you cannot stay.

After a year, I decided to move back to Seattle. Suddenly I was faced with trying to move a truck full of memories now enshrined in all our “stuff,” the treasures we had found together, the artifacts of our life.

Getting rid of things seemed impossible. I clung to them for fear of throwing away that one thing I would later regret.

I was afraid that letting go was the same as forgetting.

Yellow Whispering Bells

“Three moves are as good as a fire.” My grandmother’s words spin around in my head as I survey the stacks of boxes in my storage unit. I start the dig, my hands getting filthy with newsprint from the newspapers I’d packed them with. Suddenly, I notice a headline: “Researchers Unravel How Fires Spark Dormant Seeds.”

I smooth out the paper and read the article. Two scientists had tied a chemical compound in sage smoke to the germination of a scrub herb called “Yellow Whispering Bells.”

Yellow Whispering Bells. That something so delicate sounding could result from something as violent as a fire, seemed somehow absurd. Like hope. But in that moment, I realize what my grandmother had been trying to say all those years earlier. Three moves are as good as a fire, not for destroying things, but for making things grow.

I turn back to the task at hand with a new goal — to make space in my life for nothing. One empty drawer in each room. A blank wall. Unscheduled time. A reminder to myself to make room for new things to come into my life. To invite change.

Goodwill Archeology

At first the work was agonizing, each item’s disposition carefully weighed against its sentimental value and future use, each box delivered to Goodwill with a dose of donor’s remorse. But one day, after I dropped off my boxes, I went inside the thrift store to have a look around. The array of what we shed from our lives instantly made me dizzy. Abandoned woks stacked like so many hermit shells, ready for other inhabitants. Tripods tottering in the aisles like unsteady shorebirds. Clunky old IBM Selectrics, and lonely VCRs. Mysterious kitchen appliances and flourishing ecosystems of cast-off kitsch.

People wandered the aisles — some looking to furnish the stage of life someone else just vacated, their overloaded carts lumbering like RVs through alleys. Children tested the toys on the floor. Collectors trolled for bargains. Two men stood in front of the dishware.

“It’s too Southwestern-ish for my taste,” said one.

“A lot of people collect it,” said the other.

“And then they don’t use it, which is silly.”

They moved on to the next row where a child pleaded with his mother to buy a bright red egg baker that tempted him at his eye level, just the kind of thing, my son would have spied as well.

“You don’t even know what that is,” she said, and laughed. “And neither do I.”

Instantly, I was back in time, wandering those flea markets with my son. The memory made me smile.

Thrift stores (and their upscale cousins, antique malls) are a living chronicle of how our lives change, a record of our reinventions. We don’t just discard objects, we discard the way of life and cultural values, and sometimes the relationships that went with them. We shed our skins of consumer goods, but not the memories that go with them.

The trips to Goodwill soon got easier. And with each donated box of toys and books, sets of dishes I no longer used, craft supplies and unfilled photo albums, l felt lighter. Less paralyzed. Guilt-free.

Because here’s the thing: If I miss any of my stuff, I can always visit any phase of my life here, or its proxy. I can celebrate who I was, the life I had, and move on.

On my latest trip, I walked over by the couches, and sure enough, there was a set of blue ones, roll-armed and low-backed, just like the ones I bought when I got my first real job decades ago. I had loved those couches, my first grown-up furniture for my grown-up life.

A young couple lingered nearby.

“I like these,” the woman said to what appeared to be her new husband. “They’re so retro.”

And so a new life begins.

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About Carol Smith

Carol Smith is a Seattle writer and Pushcart Prize nominee whose work led the anthology The Best Creative Nonfiction (W. W. Norton & Company, 2007). Her poetry, fiction and essays have appeared, or are forthcoming, in the literary journals Signs of Life, Mississippi Review, Pooled Ink, The New Guard, Hippocampus Magazine, Oberon Poetry, The Florida Review, The Southern Indiana Review, and Travelers’ Tales. She was selected as a finalist for the 2015 Prime Number Magazine Awards for Creative Nonfiction, for the 2015 Arts & Letters fiction prize and for Arcadia’s 2015 nonfiction contest. She is currently working on a novel.

2 Comments

  1. david largent
    Posted July 2017 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    you took my breath. spaces.

    • david largent
      Posted July 2017 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

      middens 5 paragraphs. :::)))[[[{{{ . me. you took my breath. spaces.

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