Mud Balls in the Basement

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I can’t seem to let go. It’s not so much the practical things. It’s the words scrawled on little slips of paper. It’s the cement-hard mud balls that were rolled up by tiny hands. It’s the heartfelt message on a Christmas tag. It’s the smooth rock from a happy shore.

Bereft of so many of my own childhood memories, I have always clung to little things. I’m so obsessed with not losing something meaningful that I have been known to dig through my children’s trash as they purge their bedrooms. “WHAT!! You can’t throw that away,” I gasp, as I snatch it and add it to my pile.

Now, don’t get the wrong idea, I’m not real big on ticket stubs or figurines.
It’s the more important things — like the little construction paper leaves we cut out at Thanksgiving time. Each of us would take one out of the basket, which sat in the center of the table, and write on it what we were thankful for. When the kids were little, they were always thankful for daddy and the dog.

Or it’s the notes — things that indicate who we have been in the world.
It’s the cards and drawings and well-used trinkets.

IMG_9839As a little girl, we moved across country and practically severed all family ties. Because the tiny fragments of family history that I could remember, were not underscored by tradition or cemented by rehearsal- they began to fade away and get buried in the intensity of the painful every day. While my propensity to collect things that bore meaning began long before I lost my mother, her sudden, violent death caused my inadvertent quest to preserve precious memories to grow more intense.

By the time we unlocked the door to Mom’s condominium, the crime had been solved and there was no one around. The bright yellow police tape, which barred the door, was the only obvious sign that anything had taken place at all. Mom had been brutally murdered and her body had been hidden in a closet in the spare bedroom. Ironically, the house was spotless. There was no sign of the argument that had led to her death. The broken statue that had crushed her skull was nowhere to be found and there was no sign of the gun. The bed was made, the cat was fed, and the dishes were done. It took us awhile to find the shadow in the chocolate brown carpet. It was just about the only clue left. Her blood.

As we began to open drawers and dig through closets, we searched desperately for something we could take away that embodied her essence — something that would allow us to keep her. Perhaps some private note that would unravel the mystery — something that was attached to her plaguing sadness. But there was nothing. No diaries. No special jewelry. No treasured trinkets. Only her smell, which was growing faint in the robe which hung on the back of the bedroom door. I tied the robe up tight in a plastic grocery bag with the hope that I could capture her fragrance there. She was a lonely woman. She had no friends that could tell the story of her heart.

Now, some 30 years later, I am thinking through a recent visit to my mother-in-law’s home. In her prime, Joyce was a proud and lovely woman — the consummate hostess, accomplished homemaker, and a keeper of treasured things. She is spending her final days waiting for heaven in the memory ward of a nursing home, unable to speak. Dad is still walking the halls of the house, but nothing is the same without her. As I ran my fingers over the things that used to mean something to her, which are still neatly arranged in her home, I realize her essence is fading. One day soon, all of the treasures that fill Joyce and Stew’s home will be disassembled and divided. If the stories aren’t told that are attached to the objects held dear, they will one day become items to be taken away in a box.

3229343087_c485ed07cf_bThen, as I sat in the middle of a heap in my own father’s basement, wading through the items he and my stepmother collected over the years, I contemplated what it all means. Sally died of breast cancer a few years ago and it’s hard for my dad to figure out what matters. What if he gives away something that could be meaningful to someone? How can he possibly muster the energy to sort through all the things that have no meaning to him without her? Cookbooks and sewing stuff, and bathroom junk, and pretty pictures, and little statues, and extra shoes, and bags, and jackets? There seems to be nothing that truly bears her essence.

In the end, we all lay in our beds and face the end of opportunity. Our piles of stuff, no matter how well pared down, gather dust and go out of style. Much of what we hold dear will be loaded into boxes and hauled to Goodwill. So how do we capture the essence of what has been? It’s not the things we keep that bear meaning. It’s not the bed or the sheets, but it’s the warm place left by the breathing person who slept there. It’s not the after-shave my husband wears, but the way the room smells after he’s gone. It’s not the swing set, but the bare spots left in the grass from all the days little feet wore away patches. It’s not the field, but the path that runs through it.

So, through the connection of many dots, I have arrived at today. I’m going to approach the pile in the basement, and write down the stories that are associated with my little things. Then, maybe, I can let them go and my children won’t have quite so many boxes to take to Goodwill. They won’t have to wonder why I saved a little wooden box full of mud balls.

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Photo Credit: Locket photo by Paula Bailey