My father’s father died four years before I was born. Dad reacted to the news by hoisting a massive trunk containing the man’s every worldly possession into the backyard trash barrel and setting it on fire. My mother, who had talked him out of destroying family heirlooms on other occasions, arrived at the pyre too late to protest. She could only stand near the blaze, chastising my father ineffectually, watching priceless relics succumb to engulfing flames.
“The trunk alone was worth a fortune,” Mom told me. “It was an antique.” She recalls its contents: Dad’s baby dress, a long-sleeved shift of thin cotton lawn made by his mother. A yellowed baby blanket. His mom’s wedding dress, handmade of light blue linen. A three-and-a-half inch celluloid collar that a man could attach to a button-up shirt for a tidy appearance. A gold baby ring, set with a turquoise stone the size of a grain of rice.
And photos—all ancient and irreplaceable— of his parents, his grandparents, and his siblings. There was even one of Evelyn, the sister who had died of some unnamed disease at the age of six, leaving behind a corpse the size of a doll.
“He didn’t even ask Flossy if she wanted any of it,” Mom grumbled.
“Why did he do it?” I asked.
“Because if it’s gone, he doesn’t have to think about it.”
I know why my dad didn’t want to think about his father. The man was a layabout and an alcoholic, according to family legend. After his wife died of appendicitis at the age of 36 he made passes at my mother and his other daughter-in law. Then he moved to Elgin to work at the insane asylum, leaving his children behind. My dad and his three surviving siblings were sent to live with Flossy, the single, blind aunt who subsisted on her father’s civil war pension.
Many years later dad’s father had a stroke in front of the television at the boarding house where he stayed, a bottle of bourbon in hand. For half a day the other residents assumed he’d simply passed out. My dad hadn’t spoken to him in a while when he got the news.
Still, one must hold on to family things, my mom said. It indicated something amiss that my father would so carelessly destroy the sacred artifacts of his past. “He painted over those measurements in the utility room, too,” she said, referring to a spot near the door where she’d measured the growing height of my brother and me for the first decade of our lives. “It wasn’t an accident,” she added. “He knew what he was doing.”
I remember when the big black trash bag full of family Christmas ornaments, last seen on a shelf in the garage, went missing. Dad claimed there was a mix-up with the trash, but had his disdain for sentimentality struck again?
Nothing in the bag was new, nothing objectively pretty. There was a cross I made of burned matchsticks at Vacation Bible School. A construction-paper elf. Plastic icicles that glowed in the dark. A star my brother made of fluorescent-colored toothpicks, better suited to a science fiction diorama than a Christmas tree. Angels my mother and I crafted out of straight wooden clothespins, with painted-on faces and glittered gowns. Silk balls with pins full of seed beads pressed into them, an ambitious family project that had yielded only a few pieces. And bone-colored plastic Mary-and-Jesus scenes ensconced under clear plastic domes, one on red felt for me and one on blue felt for my brother, given as gifts by my mom’s grandmother, who was still alive and very old.
I know this animosity for nostalgia.
There was that one Christmas that was perfect. My entire extended family gathered at my aunt Betty’s. Her house was smaller than Grandma’s so it wasn’t often chosen for family gatherings. But it was the coziest, most beautiful house I’d ever seen. White wicker furniture stood against a dramatic, large-scale floral wallpaper in black and pink. Antique valentines hung in frames and were tucked into wooden blinds. The beds and windows were draped with lavender-scented, crisp white linens. My aunt Betty had two Christmas trees—a delicate, lacy fir embellished with tiny pine cones and perfect raffia bows for herself, and a sturdy blue spruce decorated with shiny tinsel and homemade baubles for her children. My cousins and I spun wooden tops on the hardwood floors as a fire raged in the fireplace and cookies baked in the oven. After dinner, my aunt Betty sat down at her piano and played Christmas carols, inviting everyone to sing along. We sang for hours and I felt warm and and content and enclosed on all sides by love. That one Christmas would forever hover in the back of my mind, a reminder of what Christmas was supposed to be and would never be again.
Instead, my family celebrated holidays half-heartedly, if at all, and never the same way twice. One year, we’d observe Christmas the day before, another the day after. Sometimes I’d end up at a Chinese restaurant with Renee. Too often, Mom and Dad would load my brother and me into the car, pile it with presents, and take off for the two-hour trip to Grandma’s, only to turn the car around for home after some knock-down, drag-out argument.
Your family provided the traditions I never had.
Spared from Dad’s ruin were a handful of items Mom had secreted away: his dad’s folding straight razor with its pearl handle and rigid box, a heavy brass cowbell engraved with French writing, and the coins that were placed on Evelyn’s eyes to close them when she died.
Mom is a revisionist. She keeps everything; for her, souvenirs become substitutes for happy memories. They spark her imagination and from the spark she invents good times that never were. I don’t throw things away like my father did. But I don’t reminisce over them like my mother, either. I just share my space with them and let them make me sad.
What will trigger my tears now is unpredictable. I think nothing of trashing a vacation photo of us at Myrtle Beach in a picture frame decorated with plastic crabs, but feel a pang when I throw away your moth-ridden Yoda shirt. I toss our wedding scrapbook into a pile in the garage, but feel funny striking your name from the neighborhood association’s directory. When it’s time to donate a pair of cozy fleece pajama bottoms adorned with hip-looking illustrations of reindeer, I recall my joy three Christmases ago at how well you’d nailed my taste. Living alone has imbued mundane objects with sadness, too. An ice cream maker taking up too much space in the cabinet was your idea, a rubber spatula a better companion to your non-stick pans than my iron skillet, a freezer full of food less useful to a single woman than to a couple who cooks and eats at home.
Sometimes what makes me sad is inexplicable. I choke up over a co-worker’s computer wallpaper featuring a tiny cottage in a heavy falling snow at dusk, its windows brimming with yellow light. I lose my voice mid-order at the coffee shop when I see a small stuffed bear in a duck costume propped up near the register.
Even my own childhood keepsakes have become harder to look at. I spent a decade and a half explaining their significance to you, passing on memories my aging mother has started to forget, that my unconceived children will never see. This is a plaster cat that a shopkeeper gave me when I was five, the first to spur a collection of chintzy cat figurines that would cover every surface of my childhood bedroom. This is my ticket to the Lief Garrett concert from 1979. This is a love note my date wrote on a tiny slip of paper, placed in a souvenir bottle from the table of our pirate-themed prom, and slipped surreptitiously into my sequined clutch.
Here is a third-place ribbon from a community art fair for a finger painting I did when I was only three. Here is a cassette tape of me talking into a fan, pretending to be a malfunctioning robot. Here is a hardback journal titled Top Secret, containing the location of a found treehouse in the woods and the minutes from the Archie comics club my friends and I held there. My class ring, representing a school I’ll never return to, even for a reunion. My Frankie Says Relax t-shirt, a staple from the 80s. My photo of Wendy Thomas.
I drop the trappings of our life together into a garbage bag destined for the Goodwill. You and your family and your Christmases represented the stability and the ceremony I never had at home. Where is the love that once underpinned these trinkets, that gave them meaning? They feel like bits of wood and paper and plastic now, Heidegger’s cold hard objects of science that will now cease to be things, that will now stop thinging.
An edited version of this excerpt was published in Burningwood Literary Journal.