A few weeks ago my sister called to tell me she had a hole in her garage roof and I needed to come and get my stuff before the roofers got there. And then she said, “That’s an okay thing to ask, right?”
I was stunned. She was wondering if it was okay to ask me to come and get my stuff— the stuff of more than half a marriage, three kids and my share of our parents’ lives my husband and I had packed into barrels and boxes and bins years before we moved them to her garage when we listed our home for sale and needed to declutter. It was stuff I had forgotten all about. Stuff I had been storing in her garage, for free, for nearly fifteen years. “Yeah,” I said. “That’s an okay to thing to ask.”
But what a strange thing to experience.
As soon as that garage door opened my husband cooed, “There’s my firetruck I got for my fourth birthday,” and then he proceeded to imitate the giggling, whispering, “little Janie Hackenmueller” who couldn’t keep a secret what was wrapped in the giant box. A story that happened more than 50 years ago he told as if it happened yesterday. And it mattered just as much.
We saved the firetruck, but quickly pitched a bushel basket full of McDonald’s Happy Meal toys into the garbage. We placed a mouse-eaten media chair by the curb, and determined that the 400-pound butcher-block table would require a truck.
And then we opened a barrel.
I had remembered a barrel full of stuffed animals and toys. Not a barrel full of clothes. Layered like the Earth’s strata, dating back to the Big Bang, were baby clothes. My children’s baby clothes next to my baby clothes, next to my father’s baby clothes. In another barrel I found my father’s white medical jackets, and my wedding dress next to my mother’s wedding dress. “Wow,” I kept saying. “Wow.”
In that garage, in those barrels, in an instant, my parents' youths felt no farther away than mine and my children’s.
Oddly, though, it wasn’t the baby clothes that got me. Or the wedding dresses. Baby clothes and wedding dresses are iconic. They represent historic moments in our lives—moments often preserved in photographs and stark reality. I know I can’t squeeze into my wedding dress. I know my mother died before I turned thirty. I know, especially now that I am a grandmother, that my children are all grown up. I am fully aware that if the baby clothes in the barrel weren’t oozing mildew, their own babies could wear them.
What deepened my reactions from “Wow,” to “I remember this,” followed by long silences, were items like the Number 13 baseball jersey that belonged to my oldest son, the fuzzy white winter hat that made my daughter’s head look like a snowball, and my youngest son’s favorite t-shirt with gray and black stripes, which he would have worn to kindergarten everyday if I had let him. I could see those baseball games, cold winter days and school mornings as if they were yesterday. As if they were every day.
And then time hit me in the face like a tsunami wave. The seconds, the minutes, the hours, the days, the weeks and months and years of raising children—the meals, the laundry, the books we read, the hugs, the tears, the fights, the spelling tests, the baths, the tantrums, the birthday parties, the overnights, buying school supplies. . . The list goes on. A marvelous list of ordinary things.
About the time I was getting weak in the knees, I took another step back in time. A small step in the scheme of things, but a giant leap into the abyss of memory.
Because there was my gym uniform, worn from seventh through tenth grade, my name still legible in black Magic Marker on the hem. Beneath the gym uniform was my burgundy reindeer sweater dress—a reproduction of reindeer sweaters from the 30s—followed by the lime green bathing suit my mother crocheted for me when I was 14.
Wow turned to why. Why were these things saved?
Consciously or unconsciously, I think they were saved to remember the everydayness of growing up, which is why I saved more than just the baby clothes that belonged to my kids.
The memories kicked loose by random articles of clothing from my teen years could have happened on any given Tuesday afternoon, or Saturday morning. My gym uniform led to a memory of running the 50-yard dash and then showering in a group for the first time, the air wafting with the scent of strawberry splash that belonged to a girl who was far more developed than I was—than most of us, really, but at the time I was sure it was just me—rousing doubts of self-image all over again. And the first time I jumped into the water in the crocheted bikini, the strings expanded. Needing more of a figure than ever to fill it, it slipped off. I remember feeling terrible that my mother had put so much time into something I could never wear again, and also relieved I would never have to wear it again.
I wore the burgundy dress with matching burgundy tights and chunky crinkle patent shoes—the same year I had a crush on the boy who sat in front of me in math. Between that dress and a pair of elephant leg pants I turned into knickers, an old pleated skirt I found in the attic, and any number of daring outfits I dreamed up, I managed to be voted best dressed in ninth grade. Going the extra mile for my wardrobe was the only way I could counter the embarrassment of weighing 90 pounds and looking like a small boy. And knowing that no boy ever had a crush on me.
Oh, for the days of scrounging the original Ragstock for vintage clothes—from sailor pants to real reindeer sweaters and pea coats—and wearing them to school. Only now do I realize those of us who made the trek to the big warehouse in Downtown Minneapolis were culling our identities from an earlier time. We dug through barrels and barrels of clothes in search of ourselves.
Suddenly I was doing the same thing in my sister’s garage. And I finally realize why the sight of ordinary things got me the most.
Ordinary things conjure memories of growing up. Not having grown up, not having achieved a milestone, but the emotions of being “in process.” As I relived embarrassing moments, I imagined myself stronger, bolder. What would I do or say this time around with a second chance? Who would I have been with real confidence? Who would I be now?
The everyday memories are the memories filled with stories. Stories filled with real, everyday emotions. Memories of what made us happy, such as a toy firetruck, or sad, or embarrassed, when we were kids, are the emotions of who we were, bumping into the unknown of who we wanted to be.
For a fiction writer, those are the memories that turn into novels. Novels that can change people’s lives.