I sat in my son’s room yesterday afternoon, in this heat-wave, with his air conditioner blasting, watching as he went through the ages of his life’s detritus that have found their way into his closet. I’ve tried to get him to do this at least once a year for the past decade, with no luck, but, yesterday, it was as if no one had ever suggested it to him – the idea born from his head, Athena-like.
It’s certainly about time. He just turned 20. He’s in college. He’s six feet tall. He has a girlfriend he’s moving in with at college (they’re doing it for COVID-safety, but still). It’s time he got rid of his childish things.
As I watched him toss old toys and books into the three piles (store/donate/throw away), as I shared in his “Remember this?”s and “Oh my god, look at this!”s, I felt that it was me he was taking apart. It’s crazy, maybe, but I do remember every toy he pulled out – buying it, giving it to him, watching him play with it, fixing it if it broke (although we could never get that flame reattached to that dragon’s mouth); I remember every book. His stuff, ready to be cleared out, wonderful to outgrow and move on from, absolutely, but also, if incidentally, these are all artifacts of my past twenty years, which have been about him in a way I could never have imagined my life could be about someone else’s. Each time he put something in the throw-away pile, I had to fight the impulse to grab it back, to say, “No, not THAT one!” And I didn’t want anything to go into the donate pile, either, honestly. I kept quiet about it, though. Not his problem. Not his job to stay a child just a little bit, for me.
When he was done sorting, he looked at it all and said, “You know, I don’t think it’s a good idea to have my memories attached to objects. I like them to be more abstract. Because if the memory is attached to an object, what happens if you lose the object? It’s too material.”
As if he could read my mind.
It has been a season of losses. In February, I held my mother as she died after a decades-long decline into Alzheimer’s. Then COVID hit, and my life, along with everyone else’s, spun into a swirling dust storm of change and loss and bewilderment that sucked my mourning for her right up with everything else.
I’d clipped a piece of her hair after she died – it was a sudden idea; I hadn’t thought of it until I was told that the people from funeral home had arrived to take her. I tied the hair together with pipe cleaner that was for some reason on the end table next to her bed; in a drawer, I found a little manilla envelope meant for change. I sealed the lock of hair inside the envelope and put it in my make-up bag. And now I get a little shock every time I unzip the bag (which is not often; I haven’t been wearing make-up much). There you are, I think. I’m not sure if that you refers to the lock of hair or my mother.
Which makes me think of a passage from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time:
I feel that there is much to be said for the Celtic belief that the souls of those whom we have lost are held captive in some inferior being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object, and so effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by the tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison. Then they start and tremble, they call us by our name, and as soon as we have recognised their voice the spell is broken. We have delivered them: they have overcome death and return to share our life.
And so it is with our own past. It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.
Maybe when you’re young and everything is still new and close, there is no separate realm, yet, and so no need to summon the past; you can just glance over at it. But once you’re older and farther from it, you can’t rely on the abstract, anymore; you need the signifier, the artifact, to bring the past into the present, to un-lose the past. If you want to do that.
We put the store pile into a plastic bin at the top of his closet, the throw-out pile into a large trash bag and on the curb to be picked up. The donate pile went into a couple of shopping bags that I’ll take to the local family shelter. But I’ll rescue at least a book or two before I do.
If I had found the right object, had shown it to her, put it into her hand and said, “Look, Mom,” would her eyes have cleared and brightened? Would she have laughed to be so suddenly brought back?
Kate Neuman’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Iowa Review, The Independent (UK), Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at Hunter College and acting at The Barrow Group Theater Company, where she also performs occasionally. She has always lived in New York.