Saturday, May 10, 2008

Domestic paleontology

I'm at the home of a friend's mother, cleaning. The mom is a wonderful woman who, in her later years, has filled her house with everything she could possibly want - something I can certainly understand, we all want what we want. She has built the life she always craved, is able to be whoever she wants and has all the accoutrement she needs to be that person. The problem arose when she truly filled the house and it became a place with narrow passageways, canyons with walls built of boxes filled with her treasures.

Not too long ago it became clear she needed to live somewhere else, someplace where she could get help if she needed it. Living alone into your 80s is a wonderful and risky thing. The ads we all mock ("I've fallen, and I can't get up") are a frightening reality for older people. While she was loathe to give up her independence, it was apparent that she needed greater care than her family could provide as they had dispersed to different parts of the country. So now she's living safely with her daughter. Which leaves the house.

I'm helping my friend sort through years of accumulation and treasures, strata of a life. Each time we clear something - a pile of old newspapers that hides a box full of old letters, for example - there is something else to be found - a drawer full of china they used when my friend was a child, in the back are old photos, receipts, mismatched kid gloves and the odd pair of baby shoes. And all of this comes with stories attached.

Some are stories my friend can tell. "Wow! When I was kid we used this when we...." So I listen. Honestly, I think that's a big part of why I'm here, to act as witness. But many of the stories are only implied, hinted at by the physical objects, but lost. Who was Maisie and why did she write a letter to my friend's long dead great-great aunt? The letter is just a friendly social missive, but it's an intimate note, gossiping about people no one in the family now knows.

It's these lost stories that get my mind whirling. I will never know the details, but I can and do imagine them. Endlessly.

It's hard to do the work we have to do when we keep finding treasures like that. Of course, there are still the piles and piles of magazines, styrofoam plates, old shoes and more to sort through. But I don't know what I'll find next, what will lead me to the next suggested story.

It's work that is at once heartbreaking, exhausting and endlessly fascinating, a deep reminder of the interconnectedness and fragility of all our lives; these lost family stories could be mine, the photos could be my lost relatives, the letters could have been written to me or to you. Each story may be lost, but it leaves a trace, a fossil footprint just waiting to be found. This is paleontology of the spirit.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

p.s. My friend read this story and said it was okay to publish. So there.
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  1. William Blake discerned the world in a grain of sand.

    Laura Packer recapitulates humankind in a receipt for a pair of baby's socks long long ago returned to the earth.

  2. beautiful! i love the idea of strata of life. i imagine all the different colours and ages and grades of preciousness ...


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