The past recaptured. Then disposed of.

December 6th, 2006 | Uncategorized

asbestos mask

I’m still at my mom’s. Tomorrow she’s getting a new hot water heater installed, so this afternoon I thought I’d just go down to the basement and clear a path for the plumber. Here I am three hours later. Everyone in my family collects or has collected things. Between my mom’s costumes and hats, my brother’s cars and planes and trains, and stray antiques left over from my dad–plus twenty years of entropy–it was pretty rough sledding. I hardly made a dent.

But look at this. I unearthed this intact jar of pens and pencils from circa 1984. My mom apparently just packed it up and stuck it in a box when she sold our old house. I remember the jar as clearly as I remember my own hand. I even remember each marker in it. Some are from a cool set of Marvy Markers I got when I was eleven. Others my dad stole from the high school where he taught. There’s also a pair of children’s scissors, and one of the red marking pencils that both my parents used to grade papers.


I kept the stoneware jar and the red pencil and tossed everything else.

33 Responses to “The past recaptured. Then disposed of.”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Nice Croc shoes! That’s a good color on you.

  2. AK says:

    I did something similar this past August when I visited my parents’ house. I had to wait until my father was out of town because otherwise all Hell would have been unleashed for my act of sacrilege. Five truckloads (I filled the bed of my father’s pickup) went to the dump and one went to the recycling center and Goodwill donation station. Five VCRs, two microwaves, old molding from our previous house(!?), tools older than my father…All examined and assigned value quickly before nostalgia or hoarding could get the best of me. It was telling that he didn’t even notice my work when he got back.

  3. AK says:

    That work wears you out. Oh, my mother and father both used the same red pencils! She when editing legal documents, he when grading students’ papers. (Before those damned bubble tests.)

  4. Deb says:

    What a wonderful feeling to come across something old but also new. A cherished memory.

  5. Jaibe says:

    Ha! My school gave those pencils to the kids & had us mark up our own things. Must be because I’m 4 years younger than you so that much more hippy-taught.

  6. silvio soprani says:

    Sister Ann Emily in my 8th grade Catholic school English class (we’re talking 1964 here) gave us red pencils and told us to circle anything in our essays that was not essential to the meaning of the sentence. My first editing lesson! And Sister Ann Emily was definitely pre-hippy era!

    I read somewhere that adults file information in categories in their brains, whereas children file info randomly. This must explain Proust’s memories from biting into the madeleines (I know I spelled that wrong) and also the intense exhaustion caused by the cleaning out of one’s basement, encountering all those objects which trigger those random childhood memories.

  7. maxine says:

    I anticipate this chore with fear and anxiety. Both my parents aare pack rats and I can make no headway unless one of them is not present. I think the five truckloads noted above would be about the same, with noone noticing. Someday the task will be mine and I think a nine yard dumpster will be in order in the front yard. Lucky for you to have found a treasure!

  8. --MC says:

    Cripes, those Dixon red pencils. That whole jar fills me with a weird nostalgia — we used to have a jar of pens and Phillips head screwdrivers — so I can only imagine that it makes you feel weirder.

  9. Ellen O. says:

    Three years ago I helped clear out my aunt’s house after she died suddenly. I had to push the grieving part aside and be functional, which was sad and exhausting and typical of the way my family behaves.

    Over the past two years, I’ve helped my parents clear out my childhood home. Lots of odd plastic items from the 70’s, including a box of tiny plastic “charms” —hot dog, gorilla, kewpie doll, movable clown face, pig, and piano. I think there’s an art project in there.

    On the other end of the continuum, I “inherited” some cool things that belonged to my grandparents and great aunts, including mother of pearl opera classes, engraved golf balls, and a collapsible Brownie camera.

  10. tallie says:

    you kinda look like a pirate in that photo.

    what does it say about me that i would have kept that jar full of old pens?

  11. LM says:

    This is not just a parental problem. Having found myself shockingly, uh, older, all I seem able to do is mutter: “Too many things!” I guess you have to bring the sensibility of a stern editor to your life before you hit the end paper.

  12. Feminista says:

    I’ve participated in the sorting,throwing and donating process three times–twice for my maternal grandmother,whom I prefer to call an archivist rather than a packrat, and once for my parents,who were very well-organized. It is indeed an emotionally draining experience,but also fascinating historically.

    In Grandma’s house,occupied by family for 100 years,we found everything from a dead skeleton of a mouse in the crammed-to-the-limit attic,to mid-19th Cen.Norwegian skates,to complete collections of National Geographic and Life magazine from their respective inceptions. Nine of us worked 10 days to sort,save,and organize for an auction.

    In my parents’ retirement condo, I was fascinated to read their early courtship and WWII letters. They were deeply in love and wrote each other very frequently when Dad was stationed in Europe–France,Belgium and briefly in Germany towards the end of WWII.

    The most valuable thing we found was Dad’s coin collection,which netted $8000…Even with things well-labeled and organized,it took 4 of us 2 weeks to sort through and make decisions about the condo’s contents. Then my sister and I hired an auctioner and a real estate agent,among other things.

    Mom is slowly declining,but is well cared-for,in an assisted living facility near my childhood home in E.Lansing,MI. My sister and I are in OR and CA,respectively,adding to these challenges.

  13. Jana C.H. says:

    Hell, I still have a jar of pens, pencils, and miscellaneous small bits of paper from high school, and I graduated in 1972. Over Thanksgiving I went through the smaller closet in my old bedroom at my parents’ home. I got rid of all my remaining clothes from high school (except one blouse which will still fit if I open the side seams a few inches to accomodate my 52-year-old hips) and a large number of spiral notebooks containing notes from college courses. I kept the ones with extensive doodling. I’d forgotten I doodled so much. I also discovered (Eureka!) five hats I’d forgotten I owned. I haven’t yet tackled the larger closet with the collection of china cat figurines from my grade school days

    Feminista, your letters from your parents are a treasure. I have a set from my grandfather to my grandmother during World War I, which will form the core of a book I’m researching. I trust you either kept yours or donated them to some historical institution. I figure on eventually giving mine to the University of Washington, of which my granddad and I are alumni.

    Jana C.H. “The Hat Lady”
    Saith Floss Forbes: If you don’t know the tune, sing tenor.

  14. Feminista says:

    Hi Jana,

    One of Mom’s letters to Dad,describing her campus’ reaction to Pearl Harbor Day,was published in Since you went Away: WWII letters from American Women on the Home Front,edited by Judy Barrett Litoff and Daniel Smith (1991). I saw a notice in an historical journal about Litoff’s and Smith’s search for women’s letters,and alerted my parents. It’s an excellent book.

    How wonderful to hear of your WWI book-in-progress. Do you have a working title?

    My sister and I also found fascinating political documents which we sorted and saved: info on Dad’s involvement in peace,student and socialist organizing in the late 30s,as well as my parents’ involvement in an effort to establish a coop housing group in early 50s Detroit. This project was squelched by conservative Mayor Cobal,despite widespread community and state support,but my parents maintained friendship and/or correspondence with many of the group’s members.

    Currently I’m still sorting through my late husband’s archives of his 28 years of labor and other left activism. Some have been donated to his union and others will go to a progressive newspaper,The Portland Alliance.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Is that a bandana against dust? What a good idea. I’ve got to do this soon. It seems to be a very common, yet intensly personal, experience.

  16. […] I enoyed Neil Gaiman’s post about his daughter Maddy’s self-referential whiteboard (at right) and post-it notes. They remind me of the childhood journal entries Alison Bechdel reproduced in Fun Home, the ones that were written more to win the approval of some indeterminate audience than for herself. […]

  17. Mame says:

    Sometimes saving things is good. i had a trunk of stuff from my grandmother’s apartment that we cleared out in 1975 when she passed away. I have carted this trunk from place to place unopened for 30 years. About two years ago, I bought a nice leather scrap book and went through the trunk, fishing out an incredible trove of letters from my great-grandfather who owned a factory in Jersey City to my grandmother who was up at summer camp in Vermont and preparing to go to college the following year. They were type written in the summer of 1916.

    it was a great (and extremely inexpensive) to make my mother’s 70th birthday memorable…to let her have a “visit” with her mother and her grandfather.

    I urge everyone who just wants to “clear out junk” to keep an eye out for somethings worth hanging on to.

  18. Andrew Ogus says:

    I was insufficiently greedy about taking things from my parents home when they were getting ready to leave it a couple of years ago. The spoils of their world travels were so much a part of the house i couldn’t bring myself to take everything I wanted, and foolishly let it be sold to strangers as a result.

    Alison, you didn’t keep the screwdirver?

  19. Andrew Ogus says:

    P.S. I’ve always said Saint Accumulata is the patron Saint of San Francisco, where I live, and people go dumpster diving for treasure. A long ago roommate found an intact 1920’s evening gown he wore to a Hallowe’en party. Obviously her sway is much greater than I’d thought.

  20. kate says:

    yeah, why in hell did you throw away that screwdriver?

  21. Actually, I lied. I did keep the screwdriver. And also a groovy little device for slicing coupons (or comic strips) out of the newspaper.

    Hey, maud newton
    posted here! If you’re not familiar with her excellent literary blog, go check it out.

  22. Chris (in Massachusetts) says:

    Actually, I lied. I did keep the screwdriver.

    Good! You never throw away tools. Particularly tools that were/are part of your family.

    There’s a connection with the past that is there with old tools.

  23. Danyell says:

    My brother moved back home into a basement owned by a family of packrats. I know your pain. ‘Nuff said.

  24. Deb says:

    After my father’s death in September, my sister is the one who has been flying out and going through the house. I did this in September and got my remaining stuff out. It was very hard. Very bitter/sweet.

  25. meg says:

    Glad to know you kept the screwdriver! Tools are good friends.

    It’s the thought of clearing out my dad’s house that gives me the willies… stuffed closets and corners and boxes and boxes mouldering in a damp basement. Last time I looked through the top layers there were still things – a bag of my old clothes coms to mind – from over thirty years ago, before I was nine. Ancient camping gear. Boxes of rocks from his mother’s house, warping and splitting furniture. And everything mixed and layered, no telling where or what.

    Already I have stuff stored in my attic for my mother – boxes she labeled ‘Winter Project 2004’, from when she sold her house. Ummmhmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

  26. AnnaP says:

    My mother was raised by four spinsters who had inherited a house from their father. After the last one of them passed
    away,we had to sort out thing that 4 generations had stored up. Back then nothing was thrown away. I sill have a bucket full of buttons, and pencils for a lifetime.
    Some storage boxes were never opened but simply moved to my dad`s garage. Perhaps my kids will have the energy to organice it all, since they have no personal connection to any of that stuff.

  27. judybusy says:

    AnnaP: “My mother was raised by four spinsters who had inherited a house from their father.” Sounds like a fabulous opening line of a novel! And, now, an off-topic request: I am participating in an office gift exchange (luckily, a pleasant ritual)and would like to get a travelogue about either the Andes area or Central Africa. Knowing my giftee, the book should not be packed with dry info (he got through the first chapter of Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse and just couldn’t do any more)and have a good deal charm and insight about it. Any ideas? I am thinking of Bill Bryson-meets-Paul Thoreaux feel.Thanks, all!

  28. AnnaP says:

    Yep, I have asked my mom to write a novel about her chilhood but she sais that there allready is too many books on the topic.
    Talking about non traditional families, they aren`t that non-traditional when you talk about literature.
    My dad sais, that only good reason not to accept same sex marriages would be fear of having 2 mother-in-laws.
    He had four.

  29. Jana C.H. says:

    Dear Feminista,

    The title of my book-to-be is “My Dear Wife”, which was my granddad’s usual salutation in his letters. They were married in May of 1917 (after he’d courted her off and on for ten years) and he left for basic training in September. He didn’t get home until June of 1919. I wish I had my grandmother’s letters to him, but they have not survived.

    He was a dour Scot and always aware of the censor reading over his shoulder. He cut loose with his emotions only when he could get a special “blue envelope” which allowed his letter to be censored by someone at Headquarters rather than by an officer in his own regiment. Even then he was self-conscious about it.

    Mostly he wrote about mundane things like washing socks and having pancakes for breakfast and “It’s perfectly safe where we are, so you don’t have to worry.” My job is to track down what Company A of the 21st Engineers was actually doing on those days when he was assuring his newlywed bride that he was perfectly safe.

    I figure this will take a minimum of five years if I make it a regular book, and much longer for a graphic novel. I do not draw quickly.

    Jana C.H.
    Saith Floss Forbes (my gram!): If you don’t know the tune, sing tenor.

  30. Olivier says:

    I personally think these expeditions into the attic are very dangerous and would only undertake one under extreme duress, after having exhausted all attempts to offload the task on someone else. Maupassant wrote a fine story about this (“Suicides”) that you can easily find on the web.

  31. Carmen Sandiego says:

    Wait…so when moving boxes out of a basement….you wear Croc shoes? Are they really that comfortable?

  32. Croc-er says:

    Yes, they are that comfortable. Or at least, my pair is on me. And thousands of other pairs on thousands of other people, apparently.

  33. Timoty says:

    cool blog!