Minimalism. I embrace the concept but I pretty much stink at practicing what it means. I am a walking contradiction. On one hand, I’m not much of a materialist. I live in an old house, drive an old car and have mostly old clothes. I do try to wear sturdy supportive shoes, having never forgotten my parents’ admonitions about getting only one pair of feet that have to last a lifetime, and that I should take good care of them. Same for teeth. No old toothbrushes for me – but the worn ones are good for cleaning small spaces.
Despite my indifference to stuff, and multiple attempts to pare down my belongings over the past half dozen years, my house remains pretty packed. I still have loads of photos, books and greeting cards which are stuffed into storage bins, packed into folders and stacked on shelves. I think I was supposed to be a curator or an archivist or maybe just a plain historian. I imagine these urges are connected to the fact that I have very few tokens of my early life. Some photos, a few letters, my school report cards. But I wish I had more, things that might fill in the holes in what is still my fairly prodigious memory. As parents are wont to do, I made every effort to save close to a complete historical record for my kids. I used to jam all their school papers into their backpacks, setting each one aside to be replaced by the next for the upcoming year. Each year I wrote them a letter on their birthdays until they were 18, when I turned them over for their perusal of forgotten incidents. I’m doing the same thing for both my grandsons. For my kids, both strivers and multi-talented successes, musically, academically and athletically, I kept every scrap of publicity about them, each getting an athletic scrapbook, programs from their concerts and award ceremonies, and on their 30th birthdays, a memory book with letters from former teachers, classmates and family members, sharing all the reasons they were cherished by those people. I made a memory book like that for my father for his 65th birthday and one for Michael for his 50th. I think it’s kind of funny that no one has made one for me, but in truth, since I started keeping a journal at age 12, I’ve kind of been making them for myself. Effectively, this blog serves the purpose of providing information for my family after I’m no longer around to do it, describing my own personal history which runs parallel to theirs.
But lately, I’ve been thinking there’s more to my motives than I’d previously considered. In my seemingly never-ending process of re-sorting the hundreds of photographs I removed from albums when I was assembling the slideshow that was part of the event honoring Michael’s life, I ran across a photo of my three year old son, riding his Big Wheel down the sidewalk in front of our house. Michael’s adored big red Chevy truck was parked at the curb in the picture. I know it was 1990 because he bought it brand-new that year. Finances were tricky – we wound up having his music store make the purchase which we paid off monthly, as you would a bank or a finance company, but with a more favorable interest rate. Wheeling and dealing was our motto. You can dimly see our old recycling buckets, the ones our city passed out to residents when we had to separate glass, paper and the like, instead of our current bins, now on wheels, no separation required. Oh how Michael loved that truck, in his favorite color, cherry red. At least he did until it rusted out, way too early in its life, even thought it was garage-kept and treated like a baby. In any event, as often happens in my head, a few truck-related memories came to mind as I looked at that photo. I remembered that when he brought it up to our multi-family Michigan trip every summer, all the kids, normally belted into their seats, got to clamber into the truck-bed for the short one block drive down the hill to the Driftwood, the souvenir and ice cream shop that drew a crowd every night in those days. I also remembered a time when Michael parked the truck toward the end of our driveway which slopes downward to our street. Mr. Absent-minded forgot to put the gearshift in park. After exiting the cab, we heard an odd gravelly noise and turned to watch as it slowly backed itself into our busy street, angled itself slightly and winding up across the avenue, backed into our neighbor’s driveway as if it was actually supposed to be there. We laughed in our post-terror relief, grateful to have not killed anyone or wrecked the truck. My son, who is in town these days, was nearby while I was reminiscing about this event. I asked him if he remembered the episode. He had no clue what I was talking about. So I think the only person left with that vision is me, although I’m not sure if my daughter, who might have been away at college at the time, recalls it. Lots of memories are like that as people vanish from our lives, leaving us with the vision that will disappear when our time is up. I think my keeping concrete records of what’s transpired is a way of making those delicate memories tangible and hard to forget.
But memory is a complicated issue. I remember having so many talks with my mother, whose memory stayed powerful until the end of her ‘80’s, in which she would complain that my older sister had multiple memories that didn’t match hers. She would say that she had no idea where these stories came from, as she had no inkling about them at all. I always discussed these discrepancies in a couple of different ways. First, I think everyone knows that memories can be selective, with what is so important and significant to one person, not making a blip on the radar screen of the person standing right beside them. There’s also false memory syndrome, believed to be a result of a brain injury or some personal trauma, in which a fabricated memory takes hold in a person’s mind and stubbornly resists removal despite significant evidence to the contrary. I remember driving my son and one of his oldest friends in the car one day while they were having a conversation about an incident in which my kid made a hard choice about participating in a social event that excluded his buddy. Except to my astonishment, that friend had reversed their roles in his recall of the story, with himself as the hero in the tale. Even with my validation of my son’s version, his friend stubbornly refused to let go of his revised tale. I was amazed by that episode of deeply remembered false facts. In light of all these possible memory tricks, there’s the issue about how the passage of time, in which characters in our personal histories are no longer alive to help us reinforce shared experiences from long ago. Mostly an age-related phenomenon, I sometimes wonder if my recall is fact-based or if my desire or my need of these memories is my own creation, possibly embellished by wishful thinking. What was real? The mind is capable of interesting tricks, even if that’s an unpleasant concept. Sometimes, as more years pass since Michael’s death, I have moments when I wonder if I’m generating the power of our relationship all by myself. Moments like that make me feel terrible, wondering what’s genuine and what’s a creation of my imagination. Which brings me back to my habit of hanging on to stuff.
After over 5 years, I’ve still held on to Michael’s laptops which are so old they still operate with Windows 7, software no longer supported by the manufacturer. When he died, I was able to unload most of Michael’s clothes really fast, except for a few items I’d saved intentionally. I knew they weren’t him so it was easy to let them go. I remember my mom taking years to accomplish that task. Dad’s clothes hung in her closet for a long time. But the computers felt different. Looking inside them to see what needed to be saved felt so much more like an invasion of his privacy, which both of us felt was our personal right despite our long relationship. Michael had given me a list of all his passwords before he died, but going into those computers took me a very long time. I’d dealt with certain accounts and other businessy kinds of things but got out of there fairly quickly. On the second round of having a peek inside, I found a couple of files under one of Michael’s crazy nicknames for me, Barnacle. Don’t ask where that one came from – I gave up on all his weird ideas long ago. When I explored them, I found they were downloaded songs, some familiar ones that meant something to us and others I didn’t know. Those were attributable to the fact that in the 27 years before he became a teacher, while he was in that store, he listened to more obscure music than I ever did, exploring every album that came through the store and selecting his favorites, which often included a one-hit wonder before the group faded away. I was fascinated by these playlists. At the time of his worst prognosis, he’d made me three wonderful CD’s called Love Songs for The Lovely Renee. Because he lived so much longer than anticipated, he gave those to me while he was still alive and well, a wonderful, emotional and sustaining gift I’ll have forever.
I was desperate to get those new playlists off that computer. I searched around his software and found an old-school CD creator program called Roxio and for the first time ever, I burned two CD’s and photographed the playlists to make sure I got the names of the songs and groups unfamiliar to me. The only problem was that I no longer had a CD drive on my computer so I couldn’t tell if I’d succeeded in getting them or not.
Last week, a friend suggested that I buy an external CD/DVD hard drive to plug into my computer. I ordered that and finally felt ready to recycle those computers after figuring out how to remove their motherboards in case I’d missed any information that could come back as a problem. I dropped them off and felt that I’d made one of those final steps in paring down the things to which I’d been clinging. Back home, I plugged in that external hard drive, and optimistically, slid one of those CD’s in to see if it worked. A success. I only made it to song five before I had to turn it off, overcome by emotion.
Michael was my refuge. I used to dream of him having a zipper in his chest that I could undo so I could slip inside for a rest from the world around me. I’d always ask him to hug me tighter and he’d reply that if he hugged me any tighter, I’d be behind him. I remember how stunned I was when I found the photos above which perfectly illustrated my feelings, feelings that I now sustain on my own. And there are those moments that with his continued absence, have made me wonder if everything I feel is real. Finding that music at the moment when I was ready to get rid of that hardware certainly validated my feelings. While he sat clicking away on his keyboard near me in our living room, he was busy planning my sustenance for my future. A remarkable gift. Yes. It was all real. Lucky me.