As published in the Providence Journal, Sunday, October 16, 2016. Photo: Rob Walsh
Two blue storage containers await my attention. They are tucked away in the basement of the ad agency that my brother Rob and I own on Main Street in East Greenwich.
“We need to grab some beers and go through Dad’s stuff,” Rob says to me every six months or so, referring to the contents of the containers. I agree, without reservation. But then another half-year passes, and Rob says it again.
We have yet to part with any of our father’s buried treasures. From past efforts, I recall an unfinished short story in a file folder, a spiral notebook listing late-night shift times at a manufacturing facility off Route 146, and an eclectic collection of LPs — Sondheim, Springsteen, George Carlin.
Up on the second floor, cardboard boxes of our mother’s possessions sit in an unused office. Rob and I, along with our younger brother, James, moved them there shortly after Mom died three years ago. They hold ledgers from her store on Federal Hill; a tin box filled with recipes written in her hand; a vintage glass perfume bottle that always sat on her bedroom dresser.
Other parental belongings had been easier to part with. We gave furniture to the Salvation Army, and dropped off coats and shoes to St. Luke’s Church. But the items that remain are harder to relinquish. Mom’s oil paintings lean against a wall in the upstairs office; Dad’s Marine Corps uniform hangs in my closet at home.
The first time I pored through my mother’s stuff, weeks after she died, I was a mash-up of emotions. I smiled at the black-and-white photo of her as a teenager as she laughed with my father and their friends. I was grateful for the personal artifacts she had saved — grade-school essays by my brothers and me, birthday cards we had made for her, the family tree her cousin Grace had researched and carefully drawn up.
But my heart ached when I found Mom’s oversized 2013 calendar with her halting handwriting in almost every square — medication reminders and doctors’ appointments to deal with her failing eyesight and compromised breathing. I didn’t consider throwing the calendar away. I was nowhere near ready to let go of such vivid traces of her.
When my father had died years earlier, I counted myself lucky to have young children. Amid the grief, my 2-year-old and infant sons kept pulling me back to the present. There were meals to make, cries to soothe, bedtime stories to read, foreheads to kiss. A lyric from an R.E.M. song kept playing in my head: “These things they go away, replaced by every day.”
A good friend of mine, an Episcopal priest and psychotherapist, is fond of the word “unpack,” especially as it relates to sorting though deeply felt emotions. I’m sure he would counsel that curating parental belongings involves more than deciding whether to discard Mom’s favorite scarf.
I know going through my parents’ remaining possessions will generate feelings as messy as life itself. I’ll gaze at the smiles in their wedding-day portrait and scrutinize the legal correspondence that preceded their divorce decree. I’ll relish the opening page of my father’s master’s thesis on Graham Greene and reread newspaper clippings documenting the abrupt end of his career as a dean at Brown. Certain objects will remind me of the keen eye my mother had before losing her vision: a felt cloche hat, a carved antique mirror, flowing sketches that helped her earn her degree in fashion merchandising.
On a recent morning, I arrived at work and found Mom’s vintage glass perfume bottle sitting on my desk.
“I dug out that relic,” Rob said, walking into my office. “Go ahead — take a sniff, like we used to do as kids.”
I pulled out the stopper and held the bottle to my nose. The floral scent was faint and distant, with so many years gone by, but present enough to be instantly comforting.
This unpacking business is a mixed bag, to be sure — but not without the occasional sweet reward.