Goodbye to all that
I’m bent over in my kitchen, emptying my office wastebasket into a blue city garbage bag in anticipation of trash day. Trash day is a big deal in our house, mainly because it occurs but once a month or so. It’s not that we’re walking around ankle-deep in cat food cans and Doritos bags, or that I’m too cheap to shell out a buck a week (the cost of one 15-gallon bag) to have the city haul away my crap. It’s that our household of 2.5 (John, me, cat — I’m not saying who the .5 is) just doesn’t generate that much refuse. We recycle like crazy (right down to clothing price tags with the plastic tabs removed), we compost year-round, we store all other food waste (i.e., anything that can generate stink) in the freezer and all the cat poop out in the garage. So we generate about a sandwich bagful of rubbish per week, mostly used dental floss, cat fur and the occasional blown-out sock. I’m sure some enterprising recycling zealot could fashion a nice sweater out of those things, but even I have my limits.
So when I said “emptying,” I was being a little liberal with the definition. What I am actually doing is panning the waste stream from basket to bag for treasure. A couple weeks earlier I’d gone on an office purge, cleaning, sorting, and chucking stuff that had accumulated for years. It started with a search for a misplaced magazine article that I use in my writing workshops, and it ended several days later with me sifting through the contents of two bags stored in my office closet. See, I work at two tables, so I don’t have any desk drawers. For years, I’d borrowed a big oak teacher’s desk from my friend Kim. The thing had seven capacious drawers where I stored … well, drawer stuff: a purple Dab-O-Ink marker that was a souvenir from a story I wrote about the bingo games on Indian Island; my Gumby and Pokey action figures, a Felix the Cat dancing doll (the kind that collapses into a spineless heap when you depress the bottom of his stand) and a wooden Winnie the Pooh; a set of watercolors, a tube of glitter and a bottle of glue I’ve had since high school; used batteries, golf tees and guitar picks; Post-it notes with sayings like “blah blah blah” and “shit” printed on them, and microcassettes from interviews I conducted a decade ago; pencils with dried-up erasers and souvenir pens from places like The Skinny, Peavey’s General Store and the funeral home that saw to my mother’s arrangements; cocktail napkin drawings (an entire stick-figure series about my one-time alter ego, Action Girl), a bag of foreign coins and a rubber martini stamp; a yo-yo (a real one, by Duncan), playing cards, a cribbage board and a travel chess board; a paper maché pear, a bolo tie, two spare calculators and a cow bell. Treasures all!
This junk once had a role and a purpose: to live in drawers and enliven them, each compartment a playpen of surprises to distract an undisciplined writer’s mind. For example, if I needed a glue stick, I had to paw through the drawers, where I’d discover things I hadn’t seen in a while and get enthralled. Maybe I’d try to do a trick — say, walk the camel with the yo-yo — and forget what I was looking for and never get my project completed (though a middle-aged woman armed with a glue stick can’t be up to any good).
But then Kim’s son had the nerve to grow up and need a study desk for school, so it was time to return it. That’s when all the drawer stuff got stowed in bags in my closet. Removed from their desk habitat, these objects served no purpose and lost their luster. The bags were constantly tipping over and spilling. So, on the day of my office purge, I went at them with a fury. Out went pens and pencils by the handful. The Dab-O-Ink. Notes and cards. Junky jewelry. Old photographs. Chuck, chuck, chuck it all!
Except most of the stuff only made it as far as my office wastebasket, the one that only gets dumped once or so a month. And now, as I’m emptying it, I’m seeing things with fresh eyes. As items tumble out, my hand reaches in to nab one or two: a hair clip, a pencil with a moose head on the eraser end, a sparkly button from an article of clothing I no longer own, a (surely) dried-out Wet Nap. I’ll find a use for them.
Then something clunks by me: my father’s watch. It’s not a good watch. My oldest brother got Dad’s dress watch when he died almost 30 years ago. This is a piece of crap, an early digital model, the Ice Quartz by Texas Instruments, probably from the 1970s. The clasp is broken, and the band is missing several links. It just fits my wrist. The metal is corroded and scratched, no doubt from the boat and yard work and the tennis court. A thing of value, it is not. What gets me is the gray nothing that stares back from the display. The face almost looks like a scuba diver’s helmet. When I hold it up to the light and turn it just so, I can see that the time in my father’s world is now permanently 18:88 o’clock — the perpetual start of happy hour in the sweet hereafter, if he had any say in the matter.
People who saw my one-woman show, My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother, know I have been trying to divest myself of my family’s things ever since my mother died, four years ago this May. I didn’t have that problem with my dad. There was so much stuff and a huge house to store it all; no one had to decide about anything. Mom did her best over the ensuing years to scale it back. But it occurs to me now that I have almost nothing of my father’s. A sweater I never wear in the bottom of a box. A wooden puzzle that sat on his desk for 25 years. And this watch, busted and crappy, though when I hold it in the cup of my hand, weighty.
John and I were over at our friend Christine’s house recently. Her husband, our dear friend Bob, passed away in February. We’d been spending a lot of time with her, but this was the first official dinner “party” she’d hosted solo. Our friendship largely revolved around food, most often involving culinary duels between John and Bob, each trying to one-up and outdo the other at our frequent dinners together. (Christine and I agreed that one could do worse than have husbands battling it out in the kitchen.) Bob always ate with his eyes shut. An accompanying look of bliss was a win in John’s column.
On the drive over that night, John and I were pretty quiet. Shortly before we got there, I said, “This is going to be hard.” I didn’t have to say that. It already was.
But when we arrived, the house was filled with delicious aromas. We were greeted with a pitcher of martinis and settled into our comfortable places. Glasses were raised to our friend, memories of meals were shared. At the end of the evening, Christine said she had a shirt of Bob’s — brand new, hardly worn — she wanted John to try on. John is tall and broad-chested, larger than Bob ever was, but Christine assured us the shirt had been way too big for him. As we waited for her to return, I said a silent prayer, Let it fit, let it fit.
Earlier in the evening, we three had made a trip to Bob’s cellar, so John could select a bottle of wine for our meal. “He would’ve wanted us to,” said Christine. She asked John to find something that might be pushing its prime. John, who’d been down there often with Bob, took the time to carefully examine labels. We agreed on a 1996 St. Francis Estate Cab, but when the wine was decanted, we all saw the brown tinge and smelled the port in the nose. Too late — maybe not by much, but too late — and it was dumped. So the evening already had that disappointment. Let the shirt fit.
When John tried it on, he looked like Mr. Bill — arms extended, cuffs riding up his forearms. Oh well, Christine said. It would go to someone else. After all, it’s just a thing. And things — a shirt, a watch, a Gumby doll — have the emotional weight we choose to give them. It’s up to us to say when it’s time to let them go.
Hell, I’ll drink to that. It must be 18:88 o’clock somewhere.
Elizabeth Peavey quotes, “So fill to me the parting glass / Good night and joy be with you all.”