The Last Box: Of Trash and Treasure

Posted by:
Susan Rooke
January 4, 2018

They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the bong-tree grows […]

—from “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat,” by Edward Lear (1871)

It’s January 4th, 2018, and I’ve just added last year’s engagement calendar to the stack in the office closet. That makes twenty; I’ve been saving them for a while now. Twenty years' worth fits in a compact space:

As I’m shelving 2017, I decide to pull another year’s calendar at random. It’s 2011. Opening it to a week in July, I see that Glen and I had two dinners with friends and attended a Dwight Yoakam concert with two of those same friends. I had a hair appointment, a lunch date with a girlfriend, an Austin Poetry Society Board meeting, and sternly reminded myself to “pay electric @ HEB!” I glance through a few more weeks, finding notes of surgeries on family and friends, funerals, a wedding. Five minutes later, it’s back on the shelf with the rest.

Why do I hang onto these calendars? I don’t really know. They aren’t diaries. The entries are sketchy, at best. It’s not as if reading them will transport me back to the hour, to the electric energy of the moment, that Dwight Yoakam took the stage. But there is something about flipping through these pages, despite the cryptic quality of some of the entries (“PUNCH HOLES!”), that makes that time tangible again. And oddly, it’s the utter banality of most of those days, rather than the excitement or the trauma, that serves to make them even more real.

The good thing is, saving those calendars doesn’t require much room. I wish I could say the same for the family memorabilia that I’ve been saddled with since the early 1970s. No one else would take it, so I became the designated relic-keeper. It wasn’t my idea; it was my mother’s, presented to me as duty, a sacred trust. Some of it, from my father’s side, dates back 140 years or more. The very formal letters of courtship that passed between his mother and father. His mother’s riding habit. Old reel-to-reel commercially recorded tapes of popular music. (Why was there ever a demand for such a thing?) My mother’s collection of 78s. Photographs from the late 1800s, of a little boy in a dress and very long blond curls, as the fashion of the time dictated. If my mother hadn’t taped typewritten labels to the backs, I would never have believed those photos were of my father. (He’d be 125 if he were alive today.)

Why ruminate on temporality and keepsakes now? Well, in the month following Thanksgiving, I finally finished unpacking the last of the moving boxes in the “forever home” garage. I’d put off the memorabilia till the very end because the decades it spent moldering in a series of other garages meant it was in disgusting condition. What hadn’t crumbled into dust was crawling with silverfish or freckled with mouse droppings. As I wiped the pieces down before transferring them to large, sturdy plastic tubs, I was overcome with a giddy thought (probably a symptom of incipient hantavirus): Why not throw it all away? Anyone who at one time might have been interested in that stuff was long gone. Oh, it was tempting! But guilt stopped me. Someday it’ll all be Katie’s problem. Just like the sewing basket.

Among the spiders and dead moths, I found some much more recent memorabilia, though: keepsakes from Katie’s early childhood, and some drawings I’d made in the month before she was born. Mutant floral designs, which, out of some misguided notion of “nesting,” I’d thought I would embroider on a quilt:

These, in turn, made me remember “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat,” a favorite of Katie’s when she was a little girl. Unlike some of the books that bored us senseless after we’d read them to her countless times, it was one that Glen and I always enjoyed too. Now, after all these years and all our adventures, Glen and I settled in what we hope will be our last home, The Daughter soon to turn 30 in hers, I heard myself reciting that poem of Edward Lear’s while unpacking these final few things. The Owl and the Pussy-Cat embarked on their journey “in a beautiful pea-green boat,” with only themselves, a small guitar, and “some honey, and plenty of money, / wrapped up in a five-pound note.” I’ve never tired of the reckless, glorious enchantment of their romance, and that two such different creatures found in each other a soulmate.

And hand in hand on the edge of the sand
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

Imagine that. A “nonsense poem” as a metaphor for life.

14 comments on “The Last Box: Of Trash and Treasure”

  1. Happy New Year!
    Susan, you really have a huge treasure of fond memories of your dear parents. Old diaries where important moments are arrested. Loved your collection of beautiful water color paintings done for your daughter. I think you have exciting material for your next project.
    Thanks for sharing precious memories with us.

    1. Thank you, Shubh! I'd forgotten I'd even done those flower designs until I unpacked them. There are many things I can dispose of, but these keepsakes are too meaningful to throw away. I'm sure you're right; they will serve some future purpose in addition to being a repository for memories.

      Happy New Year to you too!! <3

  2. Wow didn't know you were a painter as well. Beautiful!
    Hold on to the memories they are all you will have forever!!

    1. Thank you, Susan! Now that I remember how much fun they were, I want to do a few more. A trip to Michael's is in order!
      I will definitely keep the memories. Now that they're cleaned and put in good containers, I can appreciate them so much more, looking at them any time I like!

  3. Happy New Year my dear friend !

    There are several phrase of it, but but they say : One man's keepsake is, another man's treasure. Hopefully Katie will hold your keepsake as her treasure.

  4. Happy New Year to you too, my dear friend!! <3

    Yes, I hope so. You know what? I bet she will after reading these comments!

  5. I love those flowers! I don't think I've ever seen them before. Shame you never got around to making that quilt. Oh, well. There's still time. Maybe for my 30th birthday present? ;D

  6. Susan, calendars seem to have a persona of their own. My only good story about calendars is once (I'm a retired CPA, right) a client got audited by the IRS and they challenged his entertainment deductions. Well, guess what, his wife's trusty Girl Scout calendar saved the day. All the documentation we needed was right there. Go figure. Happy New Year! Best, John

    1. That's a great story, John, and excellent justification for me to continue saving my calendars well into the future. (In any case, I can't seem to stop.) For IRS purposes, I'll need to make them a bit more detailed, though. PUNCH HOLES! won't do me any good in an audit. ^_~

      Happy New Year to you too! Glen and I hold good thoughts for you.

  7. Truly beautiful I may have to break out the quilting frame from my totes of the elders
    It was an impressive stack - good for you and totes are easier to forget than boxes

    1. You have a quilting frame, Denise? Wow, that's cool! I was just going to fly by the seat of my pants. Luckily, Katie was born and the project got shelved.

      I'm glad you came to visit us and saw the boxes for yourself. Soon it will be time for you to visit and see the clean garage!

    1. Hahahahahahaha!! Thank you, Carie! I want to paint some more mutant flowers this year. I forgot how fun it was! I'm probably really out of practice after 30 years, though. ^_~

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