Detritus

trunk

As the last of four generations of only-children, I inherited all my grandmother’s belongings when she died in 1965, along with those she had kept of my mother’s, who died when I was five, and another vanload of things left by my great-grandmother.  It all arrived one Tuesday morning, piled in the back yard of the small tract house where I lived with my pregnant wife.  In addition to all the housewares, books, paintings, clothing, and decorative items, I found photos, letters, and diaries scattered in trunks, suitcases, and furniture drawers.  I spent the day going through it, so fervently that I found myself working in darkness as raindrops began to fall.  I tried to get most of the things inside and the remainder under the eaves.  Sitting on the sofa amid an ocean of bags, boxes, papers, and pictures, with a mountain of trash beside me and various groupings strewn over the whole room, I noticed it was after three in the morning.  I felt suddenly disoriented—in freefall.  This was someone’s whole life—three lives: mother, daughter, and granddaughter—things that had deep meaning for them; and I had no idea what to do with most of it. 

There was a daguerreotype of my great-grandmother as a little girl, standing in her garden by a large basket of peaches, holding hands with her older brother, who died soon after.  In a broken box in yellowed tissue was the wedding dress she wore at age 18, marrying a Sacramento hardware magnate who bought her the gingerbread mansion that would later house California’s governors.  My grandmother, in her nightgown at five years old, stared out of a photograph in some vast room of that dark house, lost in a forest of oversize urns, paintings, and statues.  There were love letters, dated 1903, from her husband-to-be, a San Francisco doctor who died in the 1918 influenza pandemic; and wads of loose notes from evening lectures she attended while aging alone in her Washington Street flat.  There was a flapper dress my mother must have worn to a party—some effervescent celebration of youth on a warm summer night, the future stretching away to infinity, everyone immortal.  In a box in the drawer of a steamer trunk was the doll she took everywhere as a child, the arm now broken and the dress yellowed; and a menu from the SS Luraline, her honeymoon trip to Honolulu.  And here was the white dress with large black polka-dots that I had long forgotten.  She bought it one day while I was with her, choosing it over another at the entreaties of a five-year-old struck in that moment with how pretty his mother was.     

I put down a handful of things, so suddenly aware of my charge as curator of three lives that it seemed an effort to breathe.  Sitting back on the sofa, surveying it all, I broke down for a few moments and went to bed.  The next day a more efficient self quickly dispensed everything to some expedient terminus.  One of the realities of death is the utter inadequacy of the survivors to the responsibility—to the impossibility of even knowing what the nature of that responsibility might be.  We are all destined finally to clutter someone’s garage, attic, or basement, the antechambers to oblivion.

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