There are certain events that tend to bring people together. Happy things like weddings and babies. Miserable things like potato sack races at a dreaded Family Reunion. And sad things, like the sudden death of a valued and significant patriarch.
Yesterday we went to Stouffville. The time has come to pack up Jeff's family home so it can be sold to the highest bidder. There's a laundry list of things to do, for fear of home inspections and a looming buyer's market; areas to tidy and organize, paint to touch-up, treadmills to pull out of closets, staging them as if they'd been an important part of family life in this house. It's critical you paint a picture others want to see themselves in. It's a time to de-clutter and de-personalize, real estate experts urging you to encourage the buyer to take over your life, your household. It's a strange thing, especially under the circumstances.
This kind of deep-tissue purging unveils a lot of history. Boxes labeled lovingly in marker "Jeff's Kindergarden Art" or "Baseball Cards" provoke a break from the task-at-hand, as it's rather more interesting to read the writings of a 6 year old version of my boyfriend. Sassy and arrogant, concise and straight-forward. A voyeuristic peek into a past I was not a part of, but, over time, am starting to feel belongs to me too.
While preparing for his sixth grade speech (Topic: the perks and quirks of his family) Jeff made comprehensive lists of the "ups" and the "downs" of each person in the house. He had no problem rattling off an inventory of negatives about his Dad (eg. "He gets us in trouble and won't listen to our part of the story!") but it was the first "up" that got me down. "He carries us upstairs to bed when we're too tired to walk." What matters most listed there in a bubblier style of his still-bubbly handwriting.
I sat on the floor in the mudroom, amidst stacks of finger paintings and Social Studies projects, and thought about the people who lived together in this house. 40% of them are gone now, how strange. Three kids charged with the task of sifting through these lives to decide what matters, what can be discarded. Does this token remind you of anything? Does this knick knack conjure a memory too important to add to a growing heap of garbage in the garage? How much can we possibly keep?
Jeff's grade school journals tell me a lot about his family. The trips they took, the friends he had, the games he and his brother would make up in the yard. It tells me about his Mom, who died before I was around, in tiny fragments. She liked her baby. That's nice. She had a black friend. That's something. She didn't buy sugary cereals (a down) but she always helped with homework (up!). I tend to ask specific questions, which always come off as crazy (Was your Mom the kind of lady who sang in the shower? Was she a morning person? Did she like buying new purses?) These ramblings of a tiny boy are more descriptive and powerful than anything he's told me.
Jeff was a good student - Academic, even. I met him after he had abandoned such scholastic proclivities, and as such, had always thought of him as the cool kid, perhaps even someone who might have bullied me on the school yard. It turns out he began as something of a nerd. Check marks and A+ stickers and friendly little comments from teachers in the margin. He wrote a lot about his cousins, great friends then, growing more distant as adulthood wore on, as is usually the case. But I didn't know they were so close. That will mean something when I see them at Easter, or find them standing next to me in a potato sack.
A day like yesterday brings up a lot. Mostly a series of clichés and Hallmark cards yet-to-be-written. But all the best bits are just that, aren't they? Whenever I need to laugh I'll open to page 3, November 26, 1986, to read about a first grader who likes his baby. Because she is fun.