It weighs more than I expect and the tape I tug from the top feels brittle. It’s been a long time since it’s been opened, but I know how it will smell. Old paper. Hand-developed photographs. Nostalgia.
I fan the contents out on the floor: yearbooks filled with bad pictures, journals filled with dated slang and adorned with song lyrics. Passed notes, ancient cards, love letters.
I read about stealing and smoking my first cigarette in eighth grade. About how self-conscious and alone I felt in ninth grade after kissing a boy who then ignored me. About sneaking out and taking acid in tenth; about losing my virginity in eleventh. About how lost and out-of-control I was as senior preparing to leave everything I knew behind. There are logbooks through college detailing the exhilarating melancholy of random hookups, copious drinking, and semesters abroad.
I page through my past lives, my handwriting changing like a flip book, both amazed and disgusted at the person I once was.
A wannabe poetic journal entry I wrote in High School, so petrified of being in love for the first time that I ruined it by cheating with his best friend (“He lights my cigarette and we kiss, fire and ash…and now we are kissing for real.”)
A typed last plea from a grieving ex-boyfriend (“I feel like you left me behind in the old house, like you dyed over me when you changed your hair.”)
The meanest note I have ever gotten – and deserved (“He’s inconsequential – means nothing to me. I thought you were different. I was wrong…”) It still stings.
Few things have accompanied me so far in this life. A minimalist by nature, a gypsy by choice, I have little room for material possessions in my brain or in my suitcase. And yet I cling to this box – or it clings to me – like a burr, prickly and somewhat painful but reluctant to let go. I have thought countless times about throwing it out – happily married, much of it feels suspiciously like contraband – yet somehow it always finds a place in our moving truck, a home in the back of my closet.
Needing to clear my head, I roam the house and end up in front of Dashiell’s (my oldest) “special shelf” where he keeps all his treasures and things that he doesn’t want Finn (his little brother) to touch. A pin from a play we saw in Chicago. Icelandic and Turkish money. A flat grey rock. Some tiny handmade books filled with his artwork. What do these things say about my son?
That night, I ask him about it.
“Your special shelf,” I say, my hand skimming his warm back, “how do you know what to save for it?”
“I don’t know…I just keep the things I’m going to want to look at again.” He says it like it’s the most obvious answer in the world.
“So that funny flat rock. What made you want to keep that?” I ask.
“Nana gave me that,” he answers, his voice thick with sleep. “And I love Nana.”
I think about this for a moment.
“What if you didn’t love her anymore? Would you still keep it?”
But he is already asleep.
I worry about what will happen if I die before Sean. I imagine him, old and frail, spreading my past lives on a table in front of him like tarot cards.
Who was my wife, before she was my wife?
Will he really want to know?
I imagine my children, grown and so beautiful it pinches, laughing as they read old journals aloud. Absorbing the stories I forgot – or was too embarrassed – to tell.
My own mother didn’t keep such things. After retrieving the footlocker that housed her keepsakes from her parent’s attic around the time I was born, she systematically disposed of everything it contained. Notebooks and photo albums were dumped on the curb with the trash; poems tossed one by one into the wood stove that heated our house.
When I ask her why she got rid of it all her answer is simple: “I guess I wanted to grow up.”
It’s tempting to erase the parts of our life that are hard to look at; to curate a version of the past that doesn’t include the messy and beautiful relics of our path to adulthood. Thankfully, I am no longer the girl who gravitates toward destructive relationships or uses “mad” as a descriptor. I am no longer the girl who drinks too much or gets in cars with strangers or routinely messes life up, epically.
I don’t want to be those girls anymore. But I also don’t want to forget them.
So for now the box will stay where it has always been, tucked away in my closet, a thorny reminder of all the people I used to love – or more importantly, all the people I used to be.