Monday, February 27, 2006

Familial archaeology


It seemed simple enough, getting stuff out of the way to set up something new in her bedroom. Two hours later, with one small corner cleared and three bags of garbage to show for it, I had to leave so she couldn't see me.

"Time to put the Downy in," I said, running down the basement steps. Lifting the bottle, my hands were shaking. The familiar, comforting scent of fabric softener wafted through the air.

My mind clung to it: clean folded towels, crisp collars, a fleeting memory of a small plastic riding toy, an impossibly silly plastic sheep - of all things - that I used to toddle around on while she washed these same towels, years ago.

As a kid I loved laundry day.

We'd spend hours together in our comfortably chilly, cheerily decorated dungeon, both of us constantly in motion... the sheep's wheels rolling across a cement so cold that it swept right through the heaviest of socks like an apparition, making the skin recoil. We measured our time in cycles, the abrupt clicking sound signaling rinse and spin, the angry buzz of the dryer reminding us our time was coming to a close.


Her small black and white television, rabbit ears askew, had the volume cranked up to compete with the comforting hum of the dryer. You could set your watch by the familar, dramatic soap opera theme music. Their snail-like plots and the unchanging faces were comforting.


Funny how even the most fleeting scent can evoke such a visceral, yet ethereal, response.

But I had to stay downstairs for just a few more minutes. Dust was everywhere. Clinging to my pants like cotton candy, stuffed down my throat, it blended with the moisture. Together they tracked down my face like two vertical lines of magic marker. I couldn't go back up there and continue digging. Not just yet.

No sense in wondering why things were that way. It was as unquestionably real as the worn sheep tricycle, and just as trapped in memory.

One thing though to know it, another to see it, sift through it, make sense of all of it.

Each pile melded and mingled with the next: neatly folded bags and clothes so old they nearly disintegrated at my touch; empty envelopes; unopened birthday cards. And look, here's a photo from 1976. I was all of nine, smiling broadly, standing proudly before the door that eventually became the backdrop for all staged photos. Maybe out of necessity, because it was the only space where exits were still possible, the only corner unburdened by piles of all that is by turns meaningful and absurd in a person's life.

Stacks of Reader's Digests, brown center wrappers untouched, they were old treasures to be opened on a someday that never came. Piled atop one another, they obscured my brother's worn yellow t-shirt, the Kawasaki logo chipping away like so much old polish from nails. Below it all, seven layers down beyond a point for which Dante could find the words, my Mrs. Beasley doll, her smiling mouth faded and altered to a barely perceptible grimace. These truly were the days of our lives, and I am now drowning in them.


Once I thought this was exactly what I wanted to do: clear the decks, reduce the chaos, unearth down to bare floor. Relatively easy, definitely sensible. I've always hated clutter.

Years ago in her other rooms, I'd even squared my shoulders and set to work, hard of heart, mercilessly discarding. But it was different then. She'd complain about every piece; every plastic bag or square of blank paper tossed away was like an affront. And she would rail, even though we both knew the job would need done again in a year.

This time, there was no argument, no sense of Sisyphusian struggle. We worked together - tersely, silently. Where once my fingers would've cavalierly tossed now they lingered, to caress a bit of fabric, feel the crinkle of old newspaper, before slowly letting go.

What must she have been thinking as she stood over me, looking for non-existent empty space in which to relocate this sweater, or that bag of paper clips. Did it hurt her, short circuit her system to watch these decades pass only to return a few layers below?

Like some crazy calendar, time bent and flowed, almost tangibly and visibly tied with each item. Did she fade ever so slightly with each? Were vague and gossamer memories flooding over her, and did they eventually also disappear forever into the big black plastic bag, my own always trailing after?

So much of nothing. So much of everything. All disappearing.

Once something leaves it is gone forever. Maybe she needed me to know she accepted that. Maybe she'd really always understood just that, and long ago set out to fight her battle against the intransigence of time, fashioning a fortress from unread magazines, folded bags and packages never opened. Only to discover and understand, finally, the battle is rigged no matter how it's fought or by whom.

The dryer buzzed, signaling that time was coming to a close. Wiping my face off with a dusty sleeve, I stacked the neatly folded towels and began to slowly climb the long stairway, back to the endless task that still awaited.
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