This weekend my mother-in-law visited and brought with her several tattered cardboard boxes filled with all sorts of odds and ends from my husband's childhood years--the missing years, as we have called them, because while a quick trip upstairs to my parents' attic will open up a time capsule to my childhood, Scott thought for a long, long time that all those boxes were lost--thrown out by a renter who had once used their family's garage and taken it upon himself to do some housecleaning.
But there they were, surfacing like sunken treasure after all these years: boxes of old records, bags containing his eraser collection, school papers, a stamp collection, a coin collection, report cards, science projects, rusty old matchbox cars, some old Redskins football cards, a Scottish Tam O'Shanter, a wooden boomerang, and stacks of family pictures. The kids enjoyed looking through the boxes just as much as Scott did, but finding those things again, after all these years, clearly meant a great deal to my husband.
You could certainly argue that things are just things, after all. Even though I often fantasize about being someone who doesn't care at all for inanimate objects, I do care about them. Not the frivolous, expendable, replaceable things like nice television sets, or my iPod, or a kitchen appliance, but the relics from my past--the things that bind me physically to my childhood. I could see the magic happening to my husband, as he sat on an over-turned crate in the garage, carefully pulling out relic after relic from the box, raising the stuff of his childhood years back into the land of the living again.
When my father was a boy his house burned down. He still remembers being rushed through the dark, thrown over his mother's shoulder as she ran from the smoking house. He glimpsed a cloth draped over her sewing machine and grabbed it as they ran past, in a desperate attempt, I think, to retrieve something physical for comfort. Even as a child he had some sense that the tangible world of objects around him--the things young children come to define as their sense of safety in the world, as vanishing--literally, disappearing in a cloud of smoke. I remember being very taken with that story, to the point where I would like awake, terribly worried my own house would go up in flames and I'd lose my things. What would I take if I had the chance? What would I lose? It seemed unbearable to me.
My husband's childhood years didn't vanish as dramatically as that, of course; instead the relics disappeared from view, quietly, almost gradually, like something being swallowed by a horizon: one minute it's there, the next gone. I'm not sure he even remembered half of what had been in those boxes--remembered them enough to mourn their loss. But relics like the ones brought home this weekend are funny things; when we do weigh them in our hands again we find ourselves giddy with the memories, our eyes glaze over and we are children once more. We remember bizarre details, long forgotten, like what we wore on one day, or what the weather was like, or what shape the parameters of our lives took when we were six, or ten, or twelve. Our kids marvel that we were once like them--that we collected strange things, struggled in school, ran toy cars up and down in the dirt, smiled gap-toothed in school pictures.
My husband is still sorting through the boxes, little by little. But we've taken a few things out and set them up, here and there. I can imagine what it must feel like for him to look up from his work, or to walk into a room, and catch sight of a once-loved, once familiar, once gloriously taken-for-granted part of his life and find it in front of him again.
Things might only be just things in the end, but we need them desperately--these tangible reminders of who we were, and what we filled our world with long ago, when we were children, and life was so much simpler. We reach out for these long-forgotten treasures, our hand outstretched behind us to the past, grabbing at something--anything--we can take with us, we can carry along with us through the years.