Life In Review One Box At A Time

I’d like to report that I have been fully present and entirely mindful throughout the course of a lifetime, that my progress is a journey well mapped with boundaries clearly defined and the best route given traffic and construction followed assiduously, turn by turn . At this late stage, however, let’s toss out the map idea and move instead to a kaleidoscope; it’s colorful, slightly jagged at the edges, lacking definition, and, honestly, not that much fun to look at for more than a few moments.

This retro-fragmented vision pulses more quickly this week as we follow through on our decision to pack up and move one more time. Leaving aside the existential paralysis that accompanies any major decision, I’m in the box-by-box stage of assessing what goes and what goes away, a process that calls into question every purchase I’ve made over the last half-century. The pain is not in letting things go; I’m ready to pare down and simplify. The issue is WHERE things go.

I’ve uncovered some junk and broken things. Heave ho and another trip to the landfill. No looking back. On the other hand, I’m also looking at the accumulated detritus of my life, some of which has value, I’m now convinced, only to me. I’ve moved two crates of my kids’ pre-school art work across the country, stored them in three subsequent moves, and now understand that the archives have to be thinned with steely resolve; only the finest work is to be curated and passed on to the adult children. Similarly, of the thousands of action figures only those still retaining heads and most body parts go into the box to be passed to the next generation. Why I find ten headless Barbies is a question I choose to leave unattended. American Girl dolls — saved. Faded Care Bear? The first sweep was brutal but I find myself able to function quite nicely without the tuxedos I never wore. Did I donate the books I did not read in my college career? I did, and Huzinga’s Homo Ludens, a book I’ve intended to finish for a half-century, is no longer sitting in mute accusation on my shelves. My hope, of course, is that it will go to a good home after the library’s used book sale, but I’ve resigned myself to the possibility that it may end up as confetti, and that’s ok. Really.

This cut is more challenging and with each decision I am confronted by information about myself that arrives unbidden and unwelcome. Ann Lamott reminded us that the seemingly impossible task of counting innumerable birds takes place bird by bird. I might be able to manage birds, but there are no decisions to be made as they fly by.

One level of attachment might appear to be purely sentimental. My kitchen cupboards were filled with bowls, pans, mismatched flatware, tiny silver plated salt shakers, and small ornate spears that are intended to be used in separating the meat of the walnut from its shell. It all came from my childhood home, and for a moment I felt I was recycling both my childhood and memories of my mother as I packed the spears in bags and took them to the Hospice Boutique where I knew all things silver plated are melted down for cash.

Today’s paralysis includes three objects that combine sentimentality with unresolved emotional puzzles. At first glance (which is where I should have stopped), easy decisions. I’m looking at an unopened gift wrapped box that has been shelved for seven years, an object defying categorization that came from my former mother-in-law’s home in Michigan, and a cardboard box filled to the brim with copies of comic books about Archie Andrews, his pal, Jughead, and the various denizens of Riverdale.

The unopened box is a gift from a student who has now finished her career at Yale and has returned to Seoul where she was active in raising funds for victims of tuberculosis in North Korea. I don’t know what’s in the box. It’s beautifully wrapped. The card thanking me for kindness to her at Cate is still attached. Why have I not opened the package? It’s a tricky question, but I think I still feel attached to the many students I have loved in a long career of teaching. They’ve gone out into the wider world and made their way with varying degrees of success. Some are in touch; some are not. I remember them as they were, of course, chuckling as I read a message from a scamp I particularly admired from my days at Berkshire School. I guess he’s in his late fifties at this point, but to me is still the crafty seventeen year old finding loopholes in every rule and every crack in the school’s facade.

The package is exceptionally well wrapped; the paper is still vibrant; it reminds me of a William Morris textile. Gorgeous. I don’t fear opening the box and finding a gift I don’t need or appreciate; it’s not that. In addition to the gratitude I feel to her and the others I one knew, there’s something about an unopened gift that carries me back to a time of wonder. As a boy, I was frantic in my anticipation of Christmas. That state of mind in which all things were possible has pretty much escaped me now. As an adolescent, the melancholy that followed Christmas was profound. Looking back at myself, I understand my habit of rewrapping the gifts I had been given so that I could open them again even as I recognize the folly of trying to recapture the delicious mystery they had represented only days earlier.

There’s probably more to be discovered in thinking about this gift, but for now, I’m just going to pad it with packing paper and take it with me to the next chapter.

I did enough research to find a name for the object sitting on the kitchen table. It’s a vintage 200-count suited poker chip set in a wooden carousel, protected by a leather cover. I have no idea how many chips or cards have survived the many moves from a small town in Michigan; it’s looking scruffy at this point, still taped shut from its first move. I’d use the term “shabby”, but that’s the word that describes my behavior in the years when that carousel first came into my possession. I don’t much like the person I was in those years, especially as I think of the generosity with which my former wife’s family welcomed me. My mother-in-law was an imperfect person as are we all, but she was funny, and vulnerable, and loyal, and kind. This poker set was hers; we played cards in her dining room, a safe place for me to be silly and at ease. She was a remarkable grandmother and is an important part of my eldest son’s childhood.

I walked away from that family, embarrassed and awkward, self-conscious and fearful. I regret much of what I was in those years, and particularly regret not thanking her. I did not step up in her last years, and I did not say goodbye.

So, that poker set reminds me of the good and the bad. I’d like to move out of complication, but the past is complicated and it is my past. I’ll ask my son if he wants the poker set. If he does, I’ll pass it on with gratitude; if he doesn’t, I’ll wrap it up in packing paper and add it to the growing pile of boxes in the garage. Still grateful.

Now, Archie. It’s worth examining why it should be more difficult for me to discard a Betty and Veronica Christmas Digest than an oversized Plastic Man retrospective or one of the many adventures of Nick Fury and His Howling Commandos. I’ve written elsewhere about my distress at the fictive death of Archie Andrews, an example of how quickly the very fabric of the universe can be ripped apart. I get it; time lumbers on.

What is at stake in pitching a series of comic books that are frivolous at best and idiotic at their worst?

Once again, it is more complicated than I had imagined. I was a lumpy kid with no redeeming qualities that I could identify, stuck in a story that did not seem to have much to do with me. I dove into books, and magazines, and comics. The books fed some part of my imagination and gave me an appreciation of language. The magazines, The Saturday Evening Post, Sports Illustrated, and Reader’s Digest, seemed to promise entry into a wider world as an adult, although I understood I was not likely to appear on a jolly Norman Rockwell canvas. Most of the comics took me to alternate universes where cities such as Metropolis and Gotham were protected by superfolk; I thought superpowers were pretty nifty but knew they weren’t coming my way.

Riverdale, like Oz, seemed just around the corner, slightly more likely to have a place for someone like me. Oz could be a pretty terrifying place, with wicked witches and Princess Mombi with her collection of heads. Riverdale was a sanctuary. Archie made a mess of things, but it never mattered very much. He had friends who stood by him and rivals who never brought rack and ruin. Betty and Veronica were two sides of the same coin, one salt of the earth, the other pampered debutante, both competing for the affection of freckled, goofy, feckless Archie Andrews. Nobody flunked out of Riverdale High; everybody made the varsity teams. The Malt shop was always open, and parents stayed pretty much out of the way, with the exception of Veronica’s father whose vast wealth allowed some stretch in terms of plot.

I never saw myself as Archie Andrews, but I was pretty sure I could hang out with his gang. Theirs was a world suffused with acceptance and humor. The holiday editions were particularly restorative as snow fell softly, gifts were tied up in bows, and all misunderstandings resolved themselves before Santa arrived. I continued to buy those digests, assuring myself that they were for my kids who would love Archie as much as I had. Maybe they did, but I was the one who picked them up off the couch and put them in boxes to be savored again and again.

They sit in a cardboard packing box this morning. I’d like to pass them on to kids who would enjoy them, but thrift stores don’t take comics, and I can’t stand thinking of them in a landfill. They don’t take much space; my granddaughter might find them amusing. I seem to have reached the decision I’ve made with every move.

They’re coming with me.

I’m the author of four novels and America’s Best Kept College Secrets, a retired teacher of the humanities, eclectic reader, and prisoner of popular culture.