The past’s touchstones
Twenty boxes arrive on a moving van and part of my life pours from their contents. Stacking these boxes on my porch is like assembling the pieces of a time machine.
In one box I find an old wooden bow and arrow set; another produces a college ID card from 1969, another a framed picture of my grandfather from 1890. My family history floods back like waves washing up on a beach.
In June, my brother and sister and I underwent an emotional marathon as we spent a week of 16-hour days clearing out the family home. Our father died in March, 14 years after our mother, so we set to the task of dissecting our collective beginnings in the house where we had grown up.
We felt like archaeologists sifting through the remains of a long-gone civilization. Fifty years of personal artifacts is a mountain of memories. We excavated from attic to basement and packed it all into cardboard boxes, labeled and addressed to our various homes in Connecticut, Minnesota and Colorado.
Each box is like a Christmas package containing multiple treasures. Savoring such a palpable past is like catching up with an old friend. It has to be done piecemeal, over time, preferably with a snifter of scotch.
Now that the “stuff” has arrived at my house, what do I do with it all? Is there a place for my old Boy Scout merit badges? Where do I put a photo album from 1951 or my grandfather’s architectural drawings from 1909?
My 9-year-old son helps out by immediately laying claim to some of my hallowed treasures. His favorites include a hand-pump pellet pistol (“I love this!”), a cast-iron Bangsite cannon (“Is it really loud?”), a swallowtail butterfly in a display case (“Cool!”).
At first my wife is cautious about the volume of family heirlooms spilling forth, then she gently handles lace tablecloths and embroidered aprons of my mother’s. She helps me hang family photographs and artfully place assorted keepsakes. Most of all, she appreciates what all this means to me.
Finally, the last box is emptied, the last items held, the last stories told. Only then does the finality come home. My parents’ passing, the sale of my childhood home and the dissolution of my closest family ties are a poignant reminder that living requires adapting to change.
One afternoon, I play one of my father’s favorite tapes ? a Horowitz recital. The dulcet music produces a rapturous mood and I gaze at a watercolor of a beach scene that had been one of my parents’ favorites. Now it hangs in my house.
The beautiful music and the beautiful painting speak of my parents and the joy they derived from art. I glance around the bedroom and notice a framed photograph I had taken in Fravert Basin and another from Trail Rider Pass. There are pictures of my wife and son.
I look at the mountains rising into a blue sky outside my window and am aware of my own home and family. Suddenly, past and present coalesce in a dissolve that opens a window to a world both melancholy and gratifying. These things and this place represent the span of my life.
I can see myself simultaneously as a child and as an adult. I can see where I have come from and the place where my choices and the turns of my life have delivered me. I feel the loss of my parents, but also the living connection to my wife and my son and to our mountain home. Time becomes a continuum, life a journey.
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“If I was moving through the herd, the others would begin walking away, some of them at a jog, taking their calves with them, but the big brown ungulate would face me sideways, reluctant to move, not wanting to give any ground,” writes Tony Vagneur.