The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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The Kansas summer of 1953 was hot and humid — too hot to play war or basketball. By midmorning the temperature had climbed to one hundred degrees. Most houses had nearly worthless “swamp coolers,” but my dad’s appliance store was air-conditioned, so I jumped on my bike and rode there for relief. I soon spotted the empty cardboard boxes that had held large appliances, and I nagged Dad until he let me take one home.
The box was five feet long, and I was at a loss for how to transport it sixteen blocks on my bike. I tried “wearing” it on my head with the back corner hanging over my rear fender, but it was blown off by the Kansas wind before I passed two buildings. Next I tore down the box and turned it into a wing, which I tied to my back fender. Looking like a Cessna buffeted by the gusts, I slowly pedaled home. I had to make three stops to retie the string, but I finally got there.
The number of potential uses for the box made my head spin: a fort, a house, a secret cave. No other kid in my neighborhood had a box this big. I whipped out my four-inch jackknife and began sawing away without a plan, cutting crude windows on three sides and a door on the fourth. Then I crawled inside, poked out the window flaps, and opened the door, but it was hot and stuffy, so I got out.
Dad offered me five more boxes, and I recruited Karl and Roger next door to help me transport them home. I would direct our project, now known as “the Cave.” We cut more windows and made telescoping slide-outs and secret exits. We stocked the Cave with peanut butter and Kool-Aid, then morphed into pirates, speaking in brogue and dueling with swords.
That afternoon it rained hard, and our cave’s roof became soggy and lost all pretense of form. We went into the house to listen to The Lone Ranger on the radio.
Later that summer we built a platform from scrap lumber in a large maple tree and obtained three new boxes for walls. We tacked the cardboard panels to the tree using vertical boards as supports. At the end of a day’s work we had an enclosed treehouse seven feet high. Exhausted, I sat on the floor and leaned back against a wall, which instantly broke loose. First a hammer fell, then a can of nails, and then me.
Ronald L. Riffel
In the military I became acquainted with a box called the “seven cube,” which takes its name from the seven cubic feet of space inside. Marines use seven cubes to store the gear they are taking overseas. I worked for the chaplain, so my box had a thirty-day supply of wine (both kosher and sacramental), prayer cards, prayer beads, rosaries, Bibles, Korans, Torahs, Armed Forces Hymnals, candles, Communion hosts, and grape juice. It was a waterproof box with a heavy-duty lock, mostly to protect the wine from unauthorized consumption, though it was almost undrinkable.
I learned to pack only what we needed to care for our Marines and not what some officer in Washington said we needed. I dragged that box all over Iraq, keeping a running inventory of its contents in my notebook. Sometimes I slept on it.
I also became very familiar with the medium-sized flat-rate box from the post office. Everyone on deployment got them in the mail. They were magic, because they transformed combat-hardened Marines into excited children when they arrived.
The red-white-and-blue Priority Mail boxes brought us fresh socks, snacks, pictures from home, and, if we were lucky, soft toilet paper. Some were sent by strangers and addressed to “Any Marine.” Mine from home often contained my son’s schoolwork or art and the occasional handwritten note. We had to burn all of that to protect our families in case we were captured, but I liked getting his boxes anyway.
These days I send boxes to my son. I fill them with Legos, snacks, and a handwritten note. He lives in California with his mother, while I live in North Carolina. Divorce isn’t exactly a war zone, but it’s not easy.
Leland, North Carolina
Packing up our possessions for a three-year sojourn in the German countryside was a daunting job. For me it awakened memories of having to leave most of my belongings behind when my family immigrated to the United States from Germany many years before. “You may fill one box,” my mother had instructed me.
For this move my husband brought home many boxes: sturdy, uniformly sized, and folded flat. “Take along whatever you love,” we told our three young daughters, hoping to make the transition easier for them. They still couldn’t quite imagine trading our light-filled home in Berkeley for a thatched-roof house near the North Sea.
On Sunday I started wrapping favorite pictures, glasses, and teacups in soft towels. The girls deliberated about toys, games, and tchotchkes. Occasionally they came to ask my advice: Stuffed dog? Yes. Legos? No, you’ve outgrown them. Scrapbook? Yes. Metal detector? No.
“Won’t there be buried treasures in Germany?” my youngest wondered.
“Of course, but it’s just too bulky,” I told her, and she cried.
I was having my own dilemmas: Favorite cutting knife? Needles and thread? Dog pillow? The bronze Buddha? Knowing we would be returning to Berkeley eventually, I didn’t even consider anything in the back of closets, the attic, or the basement. And still there were so many items! I thought of the refugees who’d escaped Hitler’s Germany with only the clothes on their backs, a few coins in their pockets, and perhaps a diamond brooch sewn into the hem of a dress.
By Friday a pyramid of boxes rose in the center of our living room: sixty-five in all. Everything in them had seemed indispensable to at least one of us.
Two big men from the shipping company arrived and loaded the boxes onto their truck. Our own departure was still two weeks away. I watched them drive off, wondering how we would fare for fourteen days without our essentials.
As it turned out, there were plenty of dishes, towels, clothes, books, and CDs to keep us happy. Though we had just shipped away sixty-five boxes of belongings, we still had everything we needed.
As a young apprentice at a small pot-growing operation in the 1980s, I learned the art of raising high-end cannabis amid California’s chaparral-covered Santa Lucia Mountains.
My mentor, a Vietnam veteran, taught me the secrets of successful guerrilla farming. We started work in March, after the rainy season, by digging — more like chiseling out with picks and shovels — seventy holes in the steep and rocky hillside. The tough ground gave up only about two holes a day, and all the equipment had to be backpacked in, including wire-mesh liners to lay in the holes as a barrier against gophers. It took two months of ten-hour days to complete this phase of the enterprise. Next came the daunting task of burying what seemed like miles of PVC pipe and drip-feed waterlines, all while fending off thorns, ticks, biting flies, stinging ants, and rattlesnakes.
By mid-June the exotic seedlings of white Indo-Kush, Afghani, and ruderalis — along with our hearty hybrid of indica-sativa — were stout enough to go into the ground. We transported three hundred one-foot-tall plants to the wildlands of San Luis Obispo County and set them in the soil.
With all the heavy work out of the way, my mentor moved back to his sailboat, leaving me with the chores of watering, pruning, and checking the traps: our greatest threat was not government helicopters or wildfires but the humble yet voracious Mexican wood rat. The three-pound vermin live in mound colonies the size of Volkswagen vans and can gnaw through the base of a plant’s stalk in minutes. Giving up on traps and poison, I soon found that I could foil the rodents merely by wrapping each plant’s base with chicken wire.
Harvest time finally came in October, though some late-blooming strains weren’t ready until early December. Manicuring and drying involved weeks of labor. The plump and sticky buds were packaged in quarter-pound zip-lock bags, which then went into nondescript boxes: four per box, with twenty-five boxes in all. They easily fit into the back of my little pickup, representing a year of hard labor — or ten years in prison if I got pulled over.
My connection ran a Christmas-tree lot in town, where the deal went down without a hitch. I gave him twenty-five boxes, and he gave me back one — filled with fifty thousand dollars.
Deer Lodge, Montana
I’ve done a little carpentry, but I’m by no means a skilled woodworker, so I was surprised when my mom called to ask if I would make a box to hold my father’s ashes for his memorial service at the Grand Canyon.
My father was an unorthodox Christian but a devout geologist with an offbeat, sometimes morbid, sense of humor. He once dressed as his own tombstone for Halloween and would make leprosy jokes when a toenail fell off. His death was unexpected: a heart attack after a fifteen-mile bike ride. It was hard to lose him so suddenly, with no chance to say goodbye.
As I designed the box and selected the wood, I kept thinking of what had happened after my grandfather’s death: I was seven, and the night after he died, my grandfather came to me and told me that he loved me and he’d see me later. I’m not a religious person, and I’ve always wondered about that experience. Maybe it was a real visitation, or maybe I’d just picked up on the atmosphere of mourning. Whatever it was, I was desperately hoping for a similar experience with my father. As I cut and sanded and angled, I prayed for him to visit me one more time. Each night I went to sleep hoping to hear his voice or see his face, and every morning I woke disappointed.
When I arrived at the Grand Canyon, I handed the finished box over to my mom. I did not wait to see her fill it. I wasn’t ready to imagine him permanently joining the layers of granite and sandstone he’d known so well. The next morning, when we gathered at the canyon’s edge, she handed the box back to me, heavier this time, and asked if I would be in charge of giving people ashes to spread.
Still disappointed that my father had not appeared to me, I looked out over that incredible panorama and tried to feel his presence. When it came time for us to say our goodbyes, I opened the box and looked inside. There he was, appearing for a last farewell in his elemental form of calcium phosphate. It wasn’t the ghostly apparition I’d been hoping for, but it was just the kind of parting joke he would have made.
It was Christmas Day, and we’d all come to my parents’ home for dinner — my brother, his wife and children, my husband, and I. The children were eyeing the bright packages under the tree and begging to open them, but we told them they had to wait because Grandpa wasn’t ready.
My father had been outside since dawn, plowing snow. He’d announced that he was plowing so he could leave early the next morning to celebrate the holiday with his mistress and her family.
As the children grew more restless, I went outside and shouted over the roar of the engine for Dad to come in. “Please? For the grandkids.” He waved me off.
My mother worked quietly in the kitchen. She had broad streaks of white in her hair: after she’d found out about the affair, patches of it had fallen out and grown back colorless.
Finally my father came inside, stomped the snow from his boots, and poured himself a drink. “Let’s see what Santa brought!” he exclaimed, and we circled the tree to open our presents. He handed Mom a foil-wrapped package, and I held my breath as she tore off the paper. (He’d bought her a toilet seat on their anniversary.) It was a carved wooden jewelry box. She seemed delighted at such a personal gift, and she kissed his cheek and smiled as though nothing were wrong.
Three years later she died. I phoned my father at his girlfriend’s home to tell him. Later my father gave me the jewelry box but not the diamonds from Mom’s engagement ring.
Within months he and his girlfriend had married and bought a house together. On my first visit to their new home, I asked for some aspirin, and Dad directed me to the bathroom. Passing their open bedroom door, I noticed a wooden jewelry box on his new wife’s dresser. It was identical to my mother’s. He’d bought them the same gift.
I found the aspirin, went back to the living room, and smiled as though nothing were wrong.
Cle Elum, Washington
I was born just as World War II ended, in October 1945. My grandfather and uncles had seen plenty of action in the war, and I vaguely remember them telling war stories when I was little. There was a place on Granddaddy’s shin that was discolored from some disease he’d contracted in the tropics. One uncle told of being a gunner on a destroyer and seeing the face of a kamikaze pilot moments before he shot the man’s plane out of the sky.
When I was five, I heard my older brothers talking excitedly in my grandfather’s room, and I walked in to find them sitting on the floor, pawing through a box they had pulled from the bottom of the closet. I had never gone into Granddaddy’s closet. He was crabby and rarely smiled, so I gave him a wide berth.
One of my brothers was examining a knife. The other held a small sword with a decorative sheath.
I squeezed between them and grabbed an envelope from the box, then moved to the corner of the room to open it.
Inside were three black-and-white photos. One showed a grinning American GI squatting on his haunches. Propped on his right knee was the head of a Japanese man. The eyes were open, and jagged flaps of skin hung from the neck. Another photo was of a head on a stick poked into the bare ground before a blank gray sky. The third photo was confusing to me after the other two. (I realized years later that it must have been taken from a dead Japanese soldier.) It was a professional portrait of a Japanese woman holding two boys. She was smiling, her hair done in a forties style, combed back from the forehead and up from the ears. She wore a white blouse and a tailored jacket. If not for her almond-shaped eyes, she could have been one of the Andrews Sisters.
Those photos left me feeling shaky, and I knew it was wrong for me to have seen them. I never told anyone.
When we were kids in the late 1950s, my brother and I used to ask our mother, “What are we?”
She would always answer with schoolteacher-like certainty, “You’re half black and half Puerto Rican.”
Our father was Jamaican. Our neighbors were mostly African Americans who had recently migrated to New York City from the South. We were bused to a school where most of the students were Jewish. So I can see why we wanted to know where we fit in.
In the sixties I aligned myself with the black-power movement, and I announced to my mother that Puerto Rico was a country and black was a race, so she was mixing apples and oranges. Also my mother’s family was from the sugar plantations in Puerto Rico and obviously of African descent — not “Spanish,” as my mother called herself. My definitions were part of a new sensibility that she didn’t completely understand or even care about.
As I grew older, I earned degrees, traveled to many countries, and married three times. My third husband was white and a southerner. Today I teach in a university graduate program. In this modern world we’re constantly asked to identify ourselves — on census reports, job and mortgage applications, car-loan forms. I ask my students to do something that I’m still learning to do myself: not to be in such a hurry to check a particular box.
When I was a little girl, I loved the sitcom Bewitched, about a witch who was married to an advertising executive. I wanted to work in advertising someday and come up with catchphrases and clever illustrations.
The first person in my family to go to college, I majored in art, took writing classes, and got an advertising internship as soon as I could. After graduation I took a job doing graphic design and copywriting for a small ad agency. At twenty-four I started my own agency, and it grew until I had six employees, but I was miserable. I wasn’t doing much writing or graphic design anymore — my employees did that.
Shortly before I turned thirty, I sold the agency with the intent of becoming a freelance writer, but I needed structure to my day, so I also took an afternoon job as a barista. I was trying to find my way out of the confining box I’d built for myself. Before and after work I wrote fiction and nonfiction. I submitted manuscript after manuscript. And I made lattes.
“So, this is what you’re doing with your four-year degree?” my older sister asked derisively. No one in my family understood my decision. They just knew that I’d owned my own business one year and was working at a coffee kiosk the next.
Ten years later I had published four books and was offered a job as an editor at a university, where I still work. I also write a weekly magazine column — more than five hundred of them to date. So, yes, Sis, this is what I’m doing with my college education.
When my father died suddenly in his sixties of a stroke, my stepmother packed some of his belongings into boxes and sent them to his children: cycling gloves, a plastic water bottle, the contents of his desk drawers. We’d never seen these items before and couldn’t see the sense in keeping them.
Five years later, in 2006, another of those boxes appeared on my doorstep with a short note from my stepmom saying how sad it was what had happened to my mother, and that she thought I’d want what she’d found.
My mother had committed suicide in 1978, a decade after my parents’ divorce and after many years of struggling with anxiety and hearing voices and taking powerful antipsychotic medications. I put the box, unopened, in my basement and left it there. If I ever opened it, I knew I wanted my brother to be present, so we could support each other.
I wondered if my stepmother had found my mother’s suicide note. Part of me wanted to read it again. I’d never understood why none of us children had been offered the chance to keep it — or throw it away, or burn it, or whatever you did with such a thing.
I’d read her last words to us just once, while everyone was assembled at my dad and stepmom’s house before the funeral. Breathless, I took the note to the sunny breakfast nook. “My beautiful children,” it began.
I was amazed not only that my mother had written a cogent, full-page letter explaining why she was leaving this world, but that her handwriting was so neat and regular. I wondered when she’d written it. Just hours before she’d died? The day she’d bought the gun?
My brother never read the note, but he did find another, much shorter one taped to her bedroom door the Sunday of her death. He was the youngest and the only child who still lived at home with her. Captain of his high-school long-distance running team, he had returned from a run and gone to her bedroom to ask about dinner when he saw the note: “Call your father.” He did, but not before opening the door to see blood splattered all over the wall, the bedsheets, the carpet.
I knew that paranoid delusions had still plagued her toward the end. What I didn’t know until I read her note was that her short-term memory was failing because of the medications; that half her face was paralyzed; that she couldn’t live with the drugs or without them. I also knew that she loved us, but until I read the letter, I had never heard her say she was proud of us. I couldn’t understand how a mother could be proud of her children and still pull the trigger. Twice.
The box had been in my basement for two years when my brother came to visit, and I told him about it, warning that the contents could be disturbing. He assured me that he wanted to open it.
We sat together in my living room, and I sliced the tape on top. One by one I took out bundles of papers, files, and envelopes. Still playing protective older sister, I shared them only after I’d screened them first. The files seemed to be from our dad’s desk at home: musty manila envelopes filled with papers that were mostly meaningless to us. One, however, held documents from the coroner, with line drawings showing where the bullets had entered our mother’s skull. My brother insisted I give this one to him, and I handed it over, feeling a grief I hadn’t experienced in years.
And then I saw it: a plain white envelope. “Oh, no,” I said.
My brother put down what he had been reading with a shaky hand. I pulled the letter from the envelope and unfolded it. It was what I’d thought it was.
“Let me see,” he said. I placed it in his hand and watched his face as he read. I hadn’t known my heart had the capacity to break again.
When he’d finished, he looked at me with brimming eyes, and we fell into a fierce embrace.
Afterward I made him a copy of the suicide note on my printer’s scanner, laughing wryly over what we were doing. I replaced the original in its envelope and put it back in the box. “That’s it,” I told my brother. “That’s all I can take.”
The half-explored box is back in the basement, maybe to remain there until after I die. Or maybe I’ll get it out before then, if the time is right and I can finally read her precious last words once more.
Boxes, boxes, and more boxes. Sacks of every description: paper bags, plastic bags, green garbage bags. All unmarked and piled to the ceiling, filled with unknown “treasures” that my mother might someday use or want. In the meantime there is no room for living.
Next to her worn recliner is a small tea cart with kleenex, the TV remote, her pills, half a glass of water, a nail file, a few crossword puzzles, and pencils in need of sharpening. Here she sits, eats, and sleeps while her body slowly deteriorates. There is a narrow path from the chair to the toilet, its porcelain dark with mineral stains. Another path angles off to the kitchen, where dishes are piled high, crusted with dried food, awaiting a rinse before being put in the dishwasher, which is crowded with dishes needing to be unloaded and put away. Garbage spills onto the sticky floor.
She vehemently refuses to let any of this junk go or to allow anyone to help her sort through it.
“There are some very important papers in here,” she says.
Years ago I threw out boxes of “important” catalogs, most of which were more than ten years old, and she has never forgotten that. It will not happen again! She is absolutely convinced that any offer to help is an attempt to throw away something she might want.
One day, on her way to the bathroom, she has a small stroke and falls and hits her head. She lies there calling for help for four days before a concerned neighbor phones the police. The fire department breaks into her condo and lifts her by crane through the patio doors because there is no room for a gurney. She makes an amazing recovery but has to spend two weeks in the ICU and even longer in rehab, after which I will bring her to live with me.
During her convalescence I clean her condo and find among the garbage a will, a trust agreement, and safe-deposit-box keys. I also find gimmicky kitchen appliances (my mother doesn’t cook), exercise devices for firming one’s abs (just the ticket for an incontinent, barely mobile eighty-year-old woman), and many other items she purchased off television, all unopened.
Meanwhile she lies in a hospital bed, fretting over every scrap she imagines me throwing away. (Remember those catalogs!) I dutifully ask her permission to sell, donate, or, God forbid, get rid of most of it. Reluctantly she signs papers giving me control over her possessions.
The contents of her condo fill three commercial dumpsters. What I don’t toss, I sell or donate to my mother’s favorite charities or give away. With some hired help I scour the place from top to bottom, restoring it to its original beauty. Her precious antiques are now polished and ready for the move to my house.
Returning to see her home one last time, she says, “This has always been such a pretty place,” but she gives no acknowledgment of how it got this way now.
Then she walks carefully to the credenza and begins to look for an antique sterling-silver pickle fork she is convinced she left there. When she doesn’t find it, she grows angry.
“You didn’t get rid of it, did you?”
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Rob and I fell in love one summer evening between our junior and senior years of high school. We had each arrived early to the Methodist church for youth group because we were eager to escape our parents’ houses, and we sat on the side steps of the church and talked about capital-letter concepts: God, Free Will, Authority, Existence.
Rob and I heard the others arriving out front. Our deep conversation was far more interesting than youth group — where we mostly played ping-pong in the summer — but there was no way to make a run for it without being seen. As the voices approached, I saw an empty refrigerator box from O’Malley’s Furniture Store lying on its side in the alley. I crawled in, and Rob followed me. The others went into the church without seeing us. We sat there together and whispered for hours in the dim light until it was time to go home.
Laurie McAndish King
© Jarrod McCabe
My father just turned ninety and can no longer live by himself. I’m going through sixty years’ worth of items from his life and journalism career: crumbling newspaper articles, rusting hinges from broken gates, springs from patio furniture from 1952, shoe boxes brimming with every photograph he ever took. He had a habit of labeling things according to their contents, such as a box marked, “Pens Too Good to Use” and a folder labeled, “Massive Flood of 1965,” which referred to the time when the hose broke on our washing machine.
In the garage I come across a familiar wooden cigar box overflowing with bolts, washers, nuts, and screws. My father had named it “The Box of Ten Thousand Bolts” and reinforced it with tape to hold all that weight. It had belonged to his father, who’d constantly reminded him to save everything.
I’d hated that box as a young boy, because my dad would dump the contents on the garage floor to find the part he needed, and then it would be my job to pick it all up. The metal fittings would roll, bounce, and scatter. It would take me ten minutes to gather up every cotter pin and finishing nail.
The way my father handled the box made me think he hated it even more than I did. He seemed angry that someone didn’t magically hand him the right part. I imagined that I had inherited this ritual from his father and him.
When I was fourteen, I told my father that if he dumped the box again, I wasn’t going to pick everything up. My mother always said that I declared myself a man that day. The box disappeared after that — until I found it behind the power tools while cleaning out his house.
The moment I picked it up, I knew I wouldn’t keep it. I would never use its contents, and neither would my father — not anymore.
My father had taught me to love words, but when I offered the Box of Ten Thousand Bolts to his gardener, I couldn’t find any. The man was grateful to inherit so much spare hardware, but all I could do was nod and hand it over carefully, as if I were donating a Ming vase to a museum curator. I worried the box might fall again in my presence and its contents scatter the way they had all those years ago. I couldn’t bear the thought. Twice I warned the gardener that the box was heavier than it looked.
Today I labeled a shoe box “The Sad Box of Electronic Adapters Waiting for Something to Adapt To.” Maybe I’m more like my dad than I once thought.
The olive-green box sits on my bedroom-closet shelf. My family vaguely suspects that this box may be special, so no one touches it.
Through the years I’ve asked myself why I keep it. My question is promptly answered whenever I pull it down and read one of the letters inside.
“I believe that space and time are illusions,” Brian writes, “that we exist in eternity, but since the world we perceive is the way it is, we should try to help one another as well as we can.”
These were profound words to an unvarnished sixteen-year-old girl. They were written by a twenty-six-year-old Vietnam War veteran and UCLA graduate who was in a wheelchair. He had a passion for words and a longing to discover the truth about the human condition.
Brian and I had become pen pals after I’d responded to his ad in the Hollywood Free Press. Before that, the only audience for my writing had been Grandma and a high-school English teacher who was trigger-happy with his red pen.
Brian’s take on life was intoxicating, and his letters helped me discover more about myself.
“My feelings right now are too big for a typewriter or a pen or even for grass or sand or water,” he writes. “Today even the ocean is only a great big wet place compared to these things like galaxies that are turning me inside out.”
One day I realized I was falling in love with Brian, a man whom I had met only on paper. Fear paralyzed me, and I was unable to write another word to him. His letters stopped coming.
Forty years later, on the days I regret my decision, I reach for the green box.
I noticed Brenda during the first year of my ten-year prison sentence. Her eyes were bluer than her uniform.
She guarded the spoons during meals while I wiped tables, and she had a habit of propping her foot on the wall, leaving black marks that I later had to clean. When I pointed out that she was making more work for me, she looked into my eyes with a defiant grin and rubbed her heel up and down against the white cinder blocks. I’d clean the marks, but each day she’d raise her boot and make new ones, looking right at me the whole time.
One morning, before she came in, I rubbed a thin layer of liquid hand soap over the spot on the wall where she’d rest her boot. I watched as she took her post and put her foot on the wall — then nearly fell on her butt when it slipped off.
I began writing her letters. I’d fold them tightly and hide them behind the spoon canister, and she would slip them into her pocket as she leaned against the wall. I had no business flirting with a guard, but I reasoned that my situation couldn’t get worse: I was already in prison.
Brenda didn’t write back, but I’d stop and talk to her for a minute or two every day. She told me about her failed attempts to become a state trooper, her boring town, the three children she supported on her own. What she didn’t mention was that she was already under investigation for getting involved with an inmate.
One day a sergeant saw me leave my note. I was handcuffed and taken to the Special Housing Unit — also known as “the box.” Brenda lost her job, and I spent three months in solitary discovering that my situation could indeed get worse.
Auburn, New York
I miss them already. It took all my willpower not to sneak into the backyard while my husband, Warren, was sleeping last night and rescue them: my precious memories, relegated to the garbage bin.
Now they are truly gone, for today is trash day. Glancing around the suddenly spacious garage, Warren smugly remarks that he doesn’t need sentimental objects; his memories won’t fit in a cardboard box.
Yeah? Neither will mine. Apparently they take up eleven cardboard boxes. At least, they did before the garbage truck stopped at our house. Now I’m down to five.
“Don’t you feel better now that you’ve gotten rid of the extraneous stuff?” Warren asks.
“Not really,” I reply. I keep waiting to experience the much-hyped catharsis that supposedly comes with purging unnecessary belongings. I suspect that I won’t be feeling it anytime soon.
Extraneous, according to Merriam-Webster, means “having no relevance.” Everything in those boxes was relevant to me at some point in my life. How could I possibly determine which mementos will become unimportant in the days to come and which will be of vital importance to my children? Take the “jewelry box” I gave my mother for Mother’s Day when I was three: an egg carton painted some god-awful shade of green and affixed with gold-spray-painted macaroni. I cannot recall my mother’s reaction to this gift, but I do remember discovering it, minus some of the macaroni, on the upper shelf of her walk-in closet when I was seventeen: physical proof that my mom loved me.
“Why do you need things in order to remember?” Warren asks. “I have my memories. They don’t require keepsakes.”
That might be true for him, but having spent the better part of three days sorting through mementos, I have realized how much I enjoy having tangible reminders. Am I able to recall the stories without the artifacts? Certainly. But there is power in the physical object. The danger in weeding out the so-called nonessential items is that I have no way of knowing which memories might be permanently lost once the physical evidence no longer remains.
Rebecca Einstein Schorr
When I visit my parents for lunch, my father is almost unrecognizable. His usually lean face is swollen and flaccid, his body stooped and slouched. He gets frustrated when he speaks, because the words that come aren’t the ones he meant to say. My mother pushes him in a wheelchair.
How can this be the same man who cast such a fearful shadow over my childhood — and adulthood? Ours was never an easy relationship, yet it hurts me to see him like this.
Absurdly, his frailty reminds me of a cat I once had named Mishka, the first pet my husband and I adopted. She was a tabby the color of tea with cream, her stripes so pale as to be almost invisible. She looked beautiful, particularly when she would sit in the kitchen window above the sink to watch the birds. She filled my lap, draped my shoulders, and warmed my feet at night for sixteen years.
But when Mishka reached the end of those sixteen years, she took to curling her bent and bony body into a cardboard box. I folded the box’s flaps inward and placed a towel in the bottom to make her comfortable, and I carried Mishka, box and all, outside each day and placed her in a sunny patch of clover near the side steps and talked to her while I gardened and the sun spilled down. When she would no longer eat hard food, I sat in the grass beside her and let her lick goat cheese from my fingertips.
I wanted so badly for her to go quietly in her sleep. I didn’t have the heart to make the final decision until she stopped eating entirely. Then I cried over her in the vet’s office as the doctor administered the shot. A week later I received Mishka’s ashes in a little wooden box with a brass latch.
My father has some days when his hands don’t shake so much, and he can stay more or less awake through lunch. Sometimes I can even get him to laugh. But he is shrinking, receding into his own box, and all I can do is watch.
Carrie J. Schnitzler
Boonton, New Jersey
As my classes meet for the final two weeks of the year, my room is full of boxes. Students must either slide them out of the way or sit on them. We are in the process of moving to a temporary campus.
There is no lesson plan for the last days of a sixty-five-year-old high school. In three weeks my classroom, along with the rest of the building, will be rubble. My emotions are mixed, at best. How do I put my entire professional life in boxes?
When the final class ends, the last boxes join one of two piles. The first pile will reappear in a temporary classroom on a campus the students have already nicknamed “Guantánamo High.” No hallways, no cafeteria, no gym, no grass quad, no history. The boxes in the second pile will be crushed in the largest dumpster I have ever seen, bigger than the studio apartment I rented thirty-five years ago when I began teaching. They contain broken staplers, crippled desks, dried-up markers, crayon nubs, miscellaneous plastic chess pieces, abandoned notebooks, and worn-out clothing.
The boxes I will keep contain mostly books: novels, dictionaries, biographies, poetry, psychology textbooks, and a classroom library of three hundred titles carefully built up over four decades. (Like most teachers I know, I subsidize my classroom.) Two boxes contain what could never be replaced: A small ceramic plant from Emily, a refugee from an Asian girl gang, who wanted me to know that I’d given her something to think about. Korean wall hangings from Park, who struggled to learn English and worked eight hours a day at a video-rental store to pay rent after his father had given him a one-way plane ticket to the U.S. A recipe for tamales from the Gutierrez twins. A coffee cup with MR. GREENE carved in it, from the student whose father snapped one day and killed his mother and sister before surrendering his own life to a SWAT team. Prom pictures of happy couples, awkward couples, improbable couples — including the transsexual prom queen wearing half a tux and half a gown.
As I lock the door, I have with me one last box, in which I have placed the needless documents produced by burgeoning attempts to privatize public education. Here are the forced assessments, the skewed data idolized by misinformed politicians, the teacher-bashing “research” of the uninitiated. This box I place in the oversized dumpster. Rain begins to fall as I bury this cardboard coffin deep in the pile. A love of learning must be carefully cultivated and can’t be assessed with standardized tests. Education cannot be put in a box.
One cold Saturday morning in December, my five-year-old son was peppering me with questions about his grandfather, who’d been buried the previous May: “Is Poppy in the ground? If we talk loud enough, can he hear us?” My wife’s parents had lived with us for nearly two years before her father succumbed to the heart condition that plagued him. We hadn’t brought our youngest son to the wake or to the funeral, reasoning he was not ready. He was left to wonder. That December day, I decided to take him to the cemetery to see for himself.
We drove along the narrow cemetery road to a rose-colored headstone in the back, the only one in a new row. We parked nearby, and he challenged me to a race. Standing in front of the headstone, he asked what it said. I read him his grandfather’s full name, date of birth, and date of death.
“Is he standing up?” he asked.
I explained how he was lying down with his head under the stone. My son placed his hand on the granite’s rough, unpolished top and gently patted it, the same way he’d once patted his grandfather’s scraggly beard. “I miss him,” he said plainly, a statement of fact. His face turned slightly upward, eyes scrunched and nose wrinkled, the boy pondered the unknowable. I wept at the sight of it. I put my face down so that he could not see, and I said that I missed him, too.
My son dashed off to explore the cemetery, me reading the grave markers to him and pointing out the flowers and mementos left behind. I suggested he might like to place a rock on Poppy’s headstone. He selected one from the side of the road and returned to his grandfather’s grave. He draped himself over the headstone, arms and shoulders dangling along the back, toes lifting off the ground, and balanced for a moment. He stepped back and put the small rock on top of the marker, moving it around until he found the right spot. We stood there, him shivering and teeth chattering. I asked if he was ready for hot chocolate.
“I hope Poppy isn’t cold,” he said.
I told him I thought he was fine.
“Because he’s under the dirt and in the box?” he asked. “He’s warm in the box?”
I said that Poppy was warm in the box.
Satisfied, my son challenged me to a race back to the car, and we were off for hot chocolate and more questions for which I had no real answers.