Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The weight of things and people past

Contrary to all the advice to leave most of our belongings behind when we moved to Mexico, a semi-trailer nearly full of furniture, books, kitchen utensils and china, garden tools, pictures and unidentified "stuff" followed us down here. It wasn't even an act of conscious hoarding: Stew and I became so frustrated and enraged trying to pick through thirty-five years' worth of accumulated things that we finally told the movers to just pack and ship whatever was left.

We outta here. We skedaddled out of Chicago in our 2003 VW Passat station wagon with junk packed everywhere including a roof carrier, and with an old dog and two meowing cats, to start a new phase of our lives in Mexico. One of the cats, Paco, is still with us and occasionally lets out disconsolate howls at night as if he's never quite recovered from the experience.

Seven years after that, just as we'd been warned, a good eighty percent of the stuff we brought down is gone, given away, sold, tossed. Yet some awaits final disposition in sealed boxes.

Svend Hammer, a furniture-maker of some renown
 in Stavanger, Norway,
who was Stew's
 great-grandfather. Stew's middle name is Svend.
So during the past couple of weeks we've launched a final offensive to pare down what we have left. Some of the decommissioning has been easy, especially books we never read and some that we did but shouldn't have bothered with. The only exempt genres were gardening and photography. A number of books about Jesus and spirituality—forgive me Jesus—didn't make the cut though family Bibles and paperbacks about Buddhism and meditation stayed. Novels we thought were particularly enjoyable, by Graham Greene, Jhumpa Lahiri and others, are still on our bookshelf.

But just like when we attempted to pick through our belongings in Chicago, the selection process accelerated and became less discriminating as we realized how much junk still chokes our lives. Impatience peppered with a bit of anger reappeared.

Then we waded into boxes of family pictures and memorabilia and the noisy tossing of junk suddenly slowed to a solemn pace, mired in a swamp of sentimentality, memories and frequent pauses. We reverently caressed the ancient family pictures and newspaper clippings, some featuring Stew's great-grandparents in Norway in the late 1800s, as if they were priceless icons.

There are shots of relatives with patriarchal beards or waxed handlebar mustaches. Or bulky women so corseted into shape they look as if they're about to asphyxiate. Most of these people we never met, or have long since died. And entre nous, some of those we knew we didn't particularly like even when they were around.

So why is it so difficult to toss that family stuff and instead we continue to burrow through it, talk about it and re-stuff it in envelopes to postpone a final reckoning? Why and for whom are we saving all this stuff? At which point does one let go of the past?

Indeed, so far none of this family memorabilia has made that fateful leap from our hands into the trash can.

We thought we had a computer-age solution and started to scan all the pictures and place the digitized facsimiles in e-books. That would facilitate review—and maybe some oohing and aahing by remaining family members and a few curious strangers—but that idea is really too facile, a cop-out.

A book of souvenir postcards of Stavanger. Photos by Jakob Dreyer.


Postcard showing Stavanger's Boknafjord

How can an ancient book of postcards from Stavanger, Norway, where Stew's paternal relatives came from—a memento so fragile and frayed that we had placed it in a plastic bag—be replaced by a digitized image on a computer screen?

Or the corny, handwritten poems my paternal granddad Emilio used to give me on my birthday? Their value is not in reading the words on a monitor—he was no Robert Frost—but in my being able to hold the yellowing, blue-lined pages and almost feel the sentiments expressed through his meticulous, fountain-pen calligraphy, with no cross-outs or erasures. He must have loved me a lot to go through all that work every year, yet I remember very little about him or even what he looked like. (I saw a picture, though, and I recognize his jowls in the mirror as I get older.)

Scanning and digitizing in fact has compounded the problem: Reducing all these images to an e-book is a lot of work that so far has not reduced the amount of physical stuff cramming one of our closets.

The dilemma continues. These are not objets d'art of any intrinsic artistic, decorative or pecuniary value. We're talking photos of unremarkable people in goofy bathing suits by the shore of a Midwestern lake, not Impressionist masterpieces of Parisian picnickers one would hang on the wall to wait for their resale value to multiply.

There are no heirs to whom we could bequeath these supposed heirlooms, assuming they would even be interested in accepting them. We remember the final garage sale at the home of Stew's father in Marshfield, Wisc. before that gentle old man, who had lost his marbles and could no longer be trusted to live alone, was moved to a nursing home. It was not a scene awash in sentiment, but of folks foraging through the modest remains of the Hammer household, haggling over the price of one tchotchke or another. No one expressed any interest in the boxes of family pictures, which is how they ended up in Stew's hands and eventually in our house in Mexico.

Perhaps all this memento-gathering is just one more attempt to beat the rap of one's own mortality by pretending that someone, years from now, will care or take interest in our own passage just as we respectfully preserved the images of predecessors we didn't even know. Hey, we're important, we say. Lookee here, we didn't really die. We still live, albeit in shoe-boxes filled with photographs in or in a fancy e-book of digitized images buried in a shelf.

But the enterprise of preserving memories need not be that gloomy or cynical. During the forty-two years Stew and I have been together we have kept taking pictures, of each other, of places we visited, of the homes we laboriously remodeled, of our endless parade of cats and dogs. Even before our relationship received legal recognition last year, or explicit recognition from our relatives along the way, the photos kept coming, recording the highlights of our life. If we didn't record our own relationship, who would?

There are hundreds, probably thousands of photos. That's what happens when someone in a family pretends to be a photographer but is incapable of tossing any of his work.

Just yesterday Stew discovered a box of color slides which was as much of a surprise as finding a mummy under the bed. The slide projector, a Bell & Howell relic that weighs about five pounds is a sure candidate for the trash.

But the pictures are definitely worth sorting through, curating in some way and preserving in a collection of e-books. They will mean a lot to us as we celebrate our life together. I'm sure we'll go back and review them time and again as more years go by.

If anyone who comes after us wants to look through them and giggle at our bell-bottom pants, our aboriginal haircuts and hubcap-size eyeglasses, good for them. We will have done them the favor of neatly placing the images in e-books. At least they won't be burdened by boxes of otherwise meaningless photographs.

Still pending is the question of what we will do with the photos and relics left by our forebears. For now, they remain in bulging envelopes awaiting the completion of the tedious process of editing, scanning and placing them carefully and respectfully in the e-book taking shape inside my computer.

We'll see.

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