I am living in a family museum. When I look around there are reminders of my childhood. The Lazy Susan spins in the kitchen cupboard that used to house a stockpile of forbidden goodies. At eye level, my grandparents would provide Kool-Aid, Peanut M&Ms, and Frosted Flakes – all things we were not allowed to have at home. Although the fireplace looks different, the walls are textured and light, the windows are free of blinds, the dining room furniture sits in the exact same place where generations of my family dined. There are the antlers of the red deer my uncle killed in New Zealand, the tiled kitchen floor my dad arranged with his own hands. And not least of which, the place in the living room where he landed when his heart stopped working. On shelves, and in the corners of my mind sit memories preserved over time, safe and sound, in the place where I live.
As I look around I wonder why I have attached so much emotion to items and memories. After all, memories aren’t erased when things go away. When people die, they don’t take our memories with them. And still, we attach grief to our memories with a certain reverence. We cling to the things on this side of living as a lifeline to the ghosts of our past. It is particularly poignant when the smell of our loved ones linger on their clothes or bed sheets. When I open the basement door, I smell my grandmother’s Borax and the aroma of something else, perhaps mothballs. When I open the garage door, there is a lingering odor of engine oil, sawdust, and cigarette smoke. Without warning, I am whisked back to a different time where the men I loved spent time together and invited me in as if I belonged. In my museum, when the floor creaks just right, I’m sure my dad is walking across the floor.
The nostalgia we experience for the past is everything and at the same time nothing more than our hopes and dreams for the future wrapped up in the sadness we have of losing it. We clothe ourselves in memories of times and places and isolate and associate feelings with those things. We stack mementos up on shelves where we can look at them in passing. Eventually, we start tripping over all of the stuff in our way. I think that’s true for gram’s living room where we watch TV at night and also of our minds where we retreat when things get hard.
And things always get hard. Cousin Martha told me that grief is the fear we have of transition. We are afraid of change because it brings discomfort. We avoid discomfort like the plague. When we are in a moment of transition all of the memories we’ve stored in our minds and in our museums suddenly hold more relevance and weight. But, there are so many things we have to deal with. And now, sadness is suddenly replaced by the urgency to revisit our memories and our things. Some of them are truly part of the past and can finally be put away, but there are the little things that once sat on corner shelves and now sit broken in the middle of the living room floor.
There are times and places for our museum pieces to be on display. And, as part of the grief cycle, we know we will take them out from time to time. We know we will revisit the past until we are ready to put it away or carry it forward. I wonder if we gather these things and these memories in our living museums because we are not ready, yet, to deal with our own sadness. It is easier to attach our discomfort to the things we put on the Lazy Susan or how we place the dining room furniture precisely over the spot on the living room floor. Someday we’ll have to deal with the spot, but not until we’re ready to move the furniture in our museum; in our heads.
And I am afraid to let go of the things and memories that carry emotion and connection and belonging. I am afraid to be left behind and left alone. I want that spot, I want my dad to walk across the floor, I want my granddad to love me as if I belong in our family and I never want to forget what it smelled like when gram did the laundry. I didn’t ask for a transition. I don’t want to deal with the sadness and discomfort. With this comes the purging of things and memories and dreams. There’s that little voice in my head that is going to tell me if I let go I will miss this someday. I need room for the living and the present. With all these things cluttering the spaces in my mind and in my museum, I’m having a hard time making new memories.
And so, for a time, I will put away the mementos and stack up the memories. I will get busy in the business of surviving, I will do the laundry and walk across the floor and head out to the garage for a hammer. I will become complacent about the fact that I am in a living museum of many things I’m still grieving for. I will embrace the present and I will get comfortable on the couch that sits across from my uncle’s antlers. I might think about grief and how far I’ve come and worry about those who are in the depths of its despair. I might wonder why I ever thought change was so hard because I’m embracing it right now. I might not feel worried about losing someone else. And then I’ll walk by the laundry room and the scent of detergent will bring me back to square one. It is the cost of storing a lifetime of memories in the place where I live.