Posts Tagged ‘memories’

Outside the Boxes

I’m moving.

To be honest, I’ve been promising/threatening to move out of my townhouse for eight or nine years; but this is the year I intend to set my intention into motion.  Perhaps it’s the tenth anniversary of my husband’s death or the fact that I’ve lived alone in the house we bought together for nearly as long as we shared the space. Maybe it’s the crack in the ceiling or the bumps in the wall; the peeling paint in the garage or the rising property taxes. Most likely it’s the fact that several of my closest friends have put their houses on the market and are dealing, painfully, with closings and contractors, agents and buyers, finishes and new beginnings. Whatever it is, I’m ready to go.

I haven’t settled on the “where” quite yet, although I’ve narrowed it down. I fanaticize about a perfectly designed free-standing, one-story, one-person house, energy-efficient, well-appointed; unique in its design and its aspirations. I’m inclined to use an architect because I’ve worked with designers for much of my work life and because I want to create something special: not just a model home but a template for other singletons; neither too small nor too large but just right…assuming we singletons have made peace with living alone.

To get ready, I’ve begun to tackle the “stuff”, all those objects one unthinkingly accumulates over years of staying in one place. I don’t hoard and I’m not above sweeping a drawer full of items into the trash from time to time. Still, I’ve lived in this house nineteen years, half that time with another person. In the finished basement I scarcely visit, there are boxes on shelves built by my former roommate, aka my late husband.

(Is there an expiration date, I wonder, for terming him “late”, as if he’d simply stayed extra hours at the office?)
I sit on the floor and open the boxes. Some are empty, which I take to be  a good sign. Others contain records, mostly albums, but also a few 78s. I open one filled with sheet music and “fake books.” These are the staples of any piano bar crooner, which I was for at least a dozen years (Billy Joe put in half that much time, but he got a hit single and a career out of it). I catch the faint scent of Scotch and cigarettes and flash back to evenings in the company of a tip jar and a group of mostly sad, tired people. The song I wrote was far more downbeat and jazzy than Joel’s, I think but in its own way, just as evocative:

Life at a bar begins around five
The cocktail crowd brings the place alive
Talk turns to business, baseball, and broads
One for the road turns to two

(©1982 Nikki Stern & Owen Vance)

Next to that box is another filled with lyric pages, vocal scores and charts from my years as a theater and pop composer, a memorable but highly unprofitable career I abandoned more than two decades ago. No one writes music by hand now; music software “listens” to what you’re playing and translates it fairly accurately into notes on staffs. I’m not even sure who reads music anymore.  I look at the scribbles–the notes, the fading pencil marks, mixed in with a couple of photos taken with a Polaroid at a recording session. Who was that person? What did she expect would happen?

There is a box of trinkets—there’s no other word for them—that I clearly valued at one time. They should be my madeleine, my gateway to a long-ago world but when I touch them, nothing happens—no sharply recalled moments visit me in the cold basement.

The bulk of the photos are in albums stretching back more than forty years: My senior prom, my college roommates, my mutton-chopped boyfriend; images of our family, Mom and Dad looking predictably vibrant; programs, diplomas, yearbooks, newspaper clippings (Nixon resigns!)—they’re all here. The thirteen years’ covered by the images of my husband remind me how much time we spent together–and how little time I really had to become adept at navigating a lifetime relationship. There is a box of his with items from his early years. It’s logical that he would bring his cherished mementoes into the house and the life we were supposed to inhabit together for longer than his time with his parents.

I sit among images and belongings of dead loved ones and missing friends, of younger selves with ambitious dreams and untainted hopes and I prepare to feel the predictable flood of emotions: a cocktail of grief and longing, sorrow and not a little rage at what was not achieved, not finished, not retained, lost forever, goddamn it.

The wave never comes, only a little sigh escapes me, as if I were finally exhaling. This flotsam and jetsam is the tangible evidence that I’ve lived my life up to now. The memories are stored in the dusty closets of my mind; I can get to them as needed. I will one day need them. Old people go back as their future closes in on them. I’ve already had a glimpse of the hemmed-in existence that awaits me.

But in this moment, I have to live, I want to live outside these boxes. I still want what’s new: new experiences, new places, new patterns; new connections. So I consolidate everything into one box; whatever doesn’t fit goes into a trash bag and out to the garage. It’s time to get moving.

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