Thursday, August 4, 2011

From the Depths

First comes the funeral, then comes the sorting-out.

Both my elderly parents died within six months of each other in 2009. In summer 2010, all the heirs (heiresses) gathered to sort through all the family belongings that were still left in storage. I chose a minimum of old things (mostly books) because I didn’t want to leave anyone else with such a massive job after I’m gone.

Summer 2011: the time of reckoning. My own basement was stuffed with the detritus of several lives, so I decided to sort out while I’m still here. It’s been three days, and I’m nowhere near finished.

Basements or cellars are such an obvious symbol of the subconscious that it hardly seems worth mentioning. In both cases, stuff that is simply ignored or left to moulder eventually becomes a health hazard.

“Closure” now seems to be what all distressed souls want, a kind of holy grail that leads so many into therapy of various kinds. It sounds like a great relief: after all the sorting and analyzing, a door can be closed. In some cases, the house can be torn down so that better use can be made of the space it stood on.

The longer I live, the more I see “closure” as a fantasy and a convention in fiction. Readers (and writers) want to know when they’ve reached the end of the story. Something needs to happen to wrap up the loose ends.

Real life, of course, is so much messier.

My mother kept every drawing, poem and story I ever made as a child. It was a mind-boggling collection that I couldn't afford to keep, so I shredded most of it this morning. The big themes of my artwork and writing were family love, patriotism and some vague but enthusiastic Christianity (including a picture of God as a smiling man with a brown beard, made when I was six.) There is even a romance involving three fairies who live in "cucumber cottages" (the actual cucumber plants in the family vegetable garden). It all indicates a happy-enough childhood and a degree of naivete that would probably be hard to find now.

According to most of the stories that were read to me when I was young, and the stories of "older girls" that I found in school libraries, a wedding was usually the grand finale of the life of a young girl exploring her options. Marriage was the conclusion, the end of loneliness but also the end of choice. Apparently there was nothing to say after that.

The ever-present assumption that I was a "normal" girl who would eventually marry and "settle down" to have babies and keep house helps explain the rage and despair that seem to appear suddenly in my sketches and jottings (often done in class) from my teens. School felt like an oppressive institution, but to become a "career girl" I would need to stay in school as long as I could stand it. Then I had to hope I could find a workplace that would hire a pathetic, unmarried woman. As a wife, I probably wouldn't be allowed to work for money.

Most of the girls I knew were hoping to get married as soon as they could get pregnant: at 13, 14 or 15. In Mormon country, this was both legal and expected. My reluctance to do this identified me as a freak.

My caricatures of middle-aged teachers (who look like zombies or gorillas) and my political cartoons about the War in Vietnam (more evidence of the stupidity of adult authorities) expressed my general resentment in a way that seemed trendy to me at the time.

My male classmates were understandably afraid of being drafted into the war and not living to the age of majority. I sympathized, and wanted to rescue all of them, including the ones who still clung to the patriotism of American childhood. (At an early age, I couldn't distinguish God from the President.) To my dismay, boys seemed to resent girls in general. We weren't being drafted, and they assumed we all expected them to support us for life. Except for ball-busters like me, who wanted to steal their jobs.

I realized that a wedding wouldn't begin a phase of "happily ever after" for anyone involved. In due course, I learned this by experience.

Being reminded of all this by fragile old documents reminds me that not only is the personal political (and vice versa), but that some sources of stress are really persistent.

While I struggle to rid the basement of black mould and useless, broken things, I've been told I am not only haunted by my parents and my own past. A psychic friend of my spouse said she "saw" an African man in our house, and asked her if he could be her ancestor. Spouse said she doubts it. She thinks he is my Nigerian ex-husband, who died suddenly of a heart attack on New Year's Eve 2006.

I don't know if I am haunted by anyone but myself, but I do know that relationships don't end with death. Only amnesia on the part of the living could end the silent conversation. I hope my Ex is at peace, wherever he is, but I don't want him back, not the way he was. I can't seriously imagine him any other way.

The mess in the basement leads me to messes on other floors. I can't be sure I will ever have a perfectly clean, well-organized house to live in. And I can’t find a way to bring this piece to a satisfying conclusion. It seems that life is a series of connected rooms, or chapters in novels that can always be followed by one more sequel. Stay tuned.


  1. Hello Jean,

    How true this is. "Relationships don't end with death." I actually find myself glad that this is so. I'd hate to think I'd forget the people who were dear to me. Childless (by choice), married to a man a decade older than I am, I wonder who will keep up a relationship with me when I am gone.

    I used to keep all my love letters. Then one day, I threw them out. Although they took up a relatively small amount of space, they weighed me down. I'd find myself going back and rereading my favorites, trying to recapture the breathless thrill of those youthful days. Then for a while I'd feel dissatisfied with my present. I didn't want that.

    The present is really all we have. As you say, though, the present never stands in isolation. There are always echoes, hauntings, all the messiness that makes us human.

  2. Jean - Was is Lisabet who pointed out that we like stories because they provide closure? Yeah. Life never follows the nice, predictable line of a rising story arc. Instead, it lurches around like a drunk, and is about as coherant. In real life, we never get that catharasis moment where we confront our demons and tell them off.

  3. I don't know about haunting, but my partner (Velvet Tripp) and I have both had an interesting few months in which we came to realise that we both had things in our past that were emotional triggers for the present, in each case a hangover from our previous relationships. And, separately and together, we managed to deal with them. She blogged about her experience on our joint blog, though I never blogged about mine - it may become a story someday though.

  4. I was especially interested in your descriptions of the basement and rooms, because I know that in my own dreams usually the interior of a house is a symbol for the interior of my mind or thoughts. Very often the dream houses are haunted and of course basements can be very unpredictable dreams. I remember in the original Dracula novel by Bram Stoker, the Count warns Jonathan Harker by no means fall asleep in certain rooms of the castle because ". . . It is old, and has many memories, and there are bad dreams for those who sleep unwisely . . ."

    If it were me though, I wouldn;t have thrown out all those drawings from your childhood. You might miss those someday.



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