The Things of the Dead #52essays2017 no. 1

I’m doing this #52essays2107 challenge. This is the first one.

black and white photo of a giant perched rock in Arizona
Perched Rock from the LACMA.
I am 41 years old and I have not yet learned that the dead no longer inhabit the objects they leave behind. My father’s body is no longer in his shirts, nor does his breath flow through his pipes. He no longer reads his books nor sits in his chair nor hangs knives from the knife rack he made that fits nowhere in my house but that I keep just the same. He does not mix drinks with the jigger that I don’t use.

The one remnant of him that lives is his voice, but it is locked away somewhere in a backpack full of reel to reel tapes I can’t play, tapes that may well, in the 36 years since he died, have disintegrated completely, so that I am carrying around a backpack full of nothing. He and I used to play a game about that—we each carried a bag full of nothing, and we were gleeful over how big our bags were. I did not know that my bag would someday fill with all the things he left behind, things I hoard even though they serve no purpose.

I come by this tendency honestly. My grandmother carried her checks in a holder with a picture of her dead father in a photo sleeve on the outside. My mother carries it now. I carry my grandmother’s cigarette case (I store credit cards in it) and wear my great grandmother’s ring. Those things at least we use. My office is piled high with my great-grandfather’s rock collection, and our house is full of boxes of papers from my grandmother’s house. To give you an idea of their value, one turned out to contain a folder labeled “Receipts—Toss.”

My grandmother never got a diagnosis as such but was likely a hoarder in the clinical sense of the word, especially with pieces of paper. The maxim that you should handle no piece of mail more than once was lost on her. Most of them got handled eight or ten times, or, more likely, piled in a pile to be dealt with later. I still remember her sitting at her dining room table, extended to its full length with leaves, sifting through pile after pile of paper looking for her property tax bill, which she hadn’t paid. She had, at least, opened the letter that said they were putting her house on the market in fourteen days if she didn’t fork over the cash.

On one of the last weekends we all gathered as a family at her house, she set my cousin Jennifer to alphabetizing her catalogs. Some were more than a decade old—the LL Bean Christmas catalog from 1994 was among them, as I recall. Jennifer looked at the catalogs, looked at me, and said, “Laura, could you do me a favor? It’s eleven o’clock in the morning, but could you go to the kitchen and get me a beer? Because I don’t think I can do this without one.” I got one for her and one for me, and we set to work.

We moved my grandmother out of her house eventually and into a one-bedroom apartment at a retirement place, but the problem continued. I used to say that getting her a printer was the worst decision we ever made, though I contributed to it, buying her a multifunction printer/coper/scanner exactly like mine so I could help her troubleshoot it over the phone. She printed out recipes and articles and movie reviews and the prices of books she owned as collected by AbeBooks and Powell’s and bookfinder.com. She was convinced her first editions would net us a fortune and always believed the highest price listed was the one we’d get.

It was maddening, and yet I loved her. I loved her even when, when visiting, I could not find a place to sit down and had to move treacherous piles of paper from the sofa to the floor in order to have a place to sleep. I loved her even though she’d never let me help—or not really. She was happy to accept help she got to delegate, so you could sort by year or alphabetize to your heart’s content (after you wiped down the corner of the table you’d just cleared so you’d have a space to sort on), but there was no wholesale tossing or recycling of the sort we all desperately longed to do. Those pieces of paper were as valuable to her as her checkbook with her father’s photo, as her mother’s ring (the one I now wear), as the china bouquet in her glass topped coffee table that came from the Chicago World’s Fair.

I suppose if I were to cling to my grandmother for real, I would keep all those scraps of paper—the movie reviews (she was always hoping to improve the selections for the movies at her retirement home), the book prices, the articles, the magazine clippings, the ancient catalogs, the piles and piles of Sunday New York Times crosswords waiting for their final clues. And indeed, sometimes when I find one, I am tempted, especially if it has her handwriting on it, writing like no one else’s.

But for all that I loved her, I am trying not to become her. So I let them go. But I keep the rocks.

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