I’ve found a home for my vintage hats: one festooned with a horsehair sprig, another a cap of brilliant pheasant feathers, and one surely fashioned in mournful imitation of the hat Jackie Kennedy wore to the President’s funeral in 1963, complete with short black veil to shield eyes puffy from weeping.
Christa will adopt them—a successful hard-boiled crime novel writer, she can carry off a retro look with great style, unlike me, who would simply look daft in them. The hats have languished in my attic for years. I love them: the sequins, the “National Hatters and Milliners Union” labels, the jaunty tilt. I know they must have been worn with white gloves by women who shopped in elegant, long-gone department stores and went to afternoon teas.
I used to pick up these hats at garage sales, swap meets, or antique shops, someday envisioning owning a large house with a big, sunny, welcoming foyer with marble floors where I could display these hats on a vintage hat rack. That day is not going to come. I will never own such a mansion, and I also happen to be married to a man who finds these old things creepy and funereal. He doesn’t understand why I haven’t chucked all this stuff long ago—not only the hats, but the now-threadbare quilt my grandmother sewed from feed sacks in the 1930s, the 1950s cocktail dresses my mother wore, the winter coat my sister bought in Paris 30 years ago.
So I’ve spent the last several days rifling and groveling through the boxes in the attic, trying to winnow the collection of mementos. What stays, what goes in the dustbin, what gets donated? I don’t know how I morphed from someone who zigzagged across the country with all her earthly possessions in only a few boxes or milk crates (the albums!) to an old woman who somehow has amassed decades’ worth of letters, books, journals, and photos.
This dusty and painful process doubles as a rapid weight-loss program. Mounting the ladder multiple times and hoisting heavy boxes is only part of the workout. Opening some of these boxes fills me with such acute sorrow that I begin to tremble violently.
A huge card from my sister to my mother—remember those enormous cards? Outsized and costing what was then a whopping $3, they had a clear plastic sheet over a photo, usually an elaborate spray of flowers or a waterfall. Both my mother and sister are gone: Mary for 22 years and Mom for six. The card was given for no special occasion, simply because my sister wanted to tell my mother how much she appreciated her. She wrote:
Mom, You always have so much dignity and grace, even when things have been very hard. The older I get, the more I want to be like you. . .”
I check the date: 1980, when my sister thought she was getting “older” at 26. She died at 33.
Such shaking burns up to 400 calories an hour according to some fitness gurus. I guess I’d rather lay off the Hagen Dazs to trim down because this is too hard. But I can’t really cry; I just shake and get a headache from unshed tears.
Then there are the journals I’ve kept since I was 13, filled with all manner of drivel and self-indulgence, not to mention cringe-inducing misspellings: “definately,” “surprize” and, could I bear to read this insufferable stuff further, I’m sure I’d find it riddled with “beleives” and the like. I stop myself out of pure embarasment (sic).
There is crate after crate after crate of books: mine, my mother’s, my late husband’s. Books seem to be an unwanted waste product now—no one wants them. I leafed thoughtfully through some of them, finding the odd letter, ticket stub, or postcard tucked between the pages, feeling like getting rid of the books erases these people I loved even further from my life. But it must be done.
My teenage son will never face the stomach-clenching angst of sorting through boxes like this. Not only is he completely unsentimental, but with Kindle and text messages, musty old boxes of books and letters will be an ancient relic of a time he never knew.
Not all the foraging is bad, however. Sifting through years’ worth of letters and cards, I’m reminded of the enduring, precious kindness of my friends who have faithfully remembered my birthday, sent loving notes after a loss, and written funny, wisecracking letters. I unearth a photo of a childhood friend I kept in touch with after our family moved from Kentucky 45 years ago, but with whom I lost touch after we both went to college. I punched her name into a Facebook search, and it popped up—she still lives in Kentucky. I dispatched a brief note, telling her of my fond memories of our friendship, saying I wasn’t sure if she would remember me after so long. But within an hour she had replied, and it was delightful to hear from her.
Perhaps the most fitting thing I found was a copy of the eulogy I gave for my husband when he died of melanoma in 1987 at age 32. I had forgotten that I began it with these lines:
“It is said when a man dies, he takes with him only that which he gave away. If that’s so, then Mark must have left this life with very heavy baggage indeed.”
I went on to say that Mark tended to give away everything, his money, his books, once even his car. And that to every person he countered, he gave love, compassion, openness, and honesty.
The Salvation Army truck drove up on Friday and took away an entire roomful of boxes. Watching it drive away I felt weepy, exhausted, unburdened.