Sunday, January 13, 2013

Where the past went

“[...]How that time has passed away,
grown dark under cover of night, as if it had never been!”

- Beowulf

There is a family story that, upon his engagement to my grandmother, my grandfather built a fire in the yard (of wherever he was living—probably in an apartment in northern New Jersey with his mother, already a widow) and burned all his old love letters. Since he was 36 at the time, there may have been quite a few of these, but I grew up knowing little of his history—and nothing about his loves—before my grandmother. It was as if that point in time was when his life really began.

When I’ve thought of this story before, I saw his action as a disciplined, rather Sicilian gesture that I admired, but would never imitate. And I haven’t. I’ve clung hard to my past, dragged it all over the country with me from state to state and relationship to relationship, through the ambiguities of marriage, divorce, and parenthood. Over the past few years such “baggage” was taking up a lot of room, so the love letters et al. migrated to a large plastic bin in the laundry shed behind my apartment, where they waited to be perused and ignite old feelings. But I discovered yesterday that someone in the city of New Orleans has decided to relieve me of them.

It’s a bizarre, creepy crime because the person(s) did not take other items in the shed that, unlike the unwieldy storage bin, have material value: a TV, boxes full of crystal glassware. Instead he or she removed only the happiest or most meaningful parts of my past. This includes not only the love letters (since I came of age in the 1990s, these were on actual paper) but my first stuffed animal, a beat up, mournful-looking dog I named Georgie Porgie and used to talk to and take everywhere; a framed photo of my ex-husband Chris and I, in the first flush of dating, taken in a restaurant in Albuquerque; and years of notes my high school best friends and I randomly, often hilariously wrote each other. God knows what else was in there, but I never will, because it’s gone (to where or for what purpose, I cringe to imagine).

Since discovering the theft yesterday, my feelings have ranged from rage at whatever creeper would steal someone’s memorabilia, to tears as I imagine delicate Georgie Porgie, who I’d wrapped in tissue paper, in a trash compacter somewhere. When I was in preschool my grandmother sewed a collar, bright red with a pattern of stars and hearts, around his neck (he was always mysteriously getting holes worn into him); and I wish I still had this reminder of her. But regardless of how the tangible past may be purged from us—by act of will or natural disaster, by our choice or someone else’s—a lot of mine just was.

Maybe I finally have to process that many of the positive and negative remnants of who I used to be, who and what I used to love, need to be decisively left behind. That they were stolen or they faded, were misplaced, abandoned, or yielded to something else; or the feelings I used to attach to them fled, shifted, transferred onto other objects. This is a natural process. In igniting those letters, my grandfather was embracing it and welcoming the new, making space. Or maybe he couldn’t bear to be reminded of some things.

My grandmother Olinda (circa 1940s)... a woman worth burning stuff for


Anonymous said...

I stumbled across this post by accident while reading another blog. The Beowulf line caught my attention. I was really quite moved by your story here. I have had a similar relationship with objects from the past and equal difficulty with the idea of letting them go. A collection of photos from living abroad was destroyed by flooding and I was surprised by just how deeply painful it was. Its funny how much of a loss the past can seem even when one knows it was not idyllic and the present may actually be better. Anyway, this and some of your other posts that I've now read resonated for me. Thanks.

Liz said...

Thanks for your eloquent, thoughtful words.

MOM said...

Grandma Catanzaro owned the family home on Gordon Road in Ridgewood, and there is where my dad brought my mother to live after their marriage.