“Awwww,” colleagues say when they ask me what I am doing on my vacation. I tell them I’ll be cleaning my neglected, cluttered house, and they look sad.
I compose my face in lines of resignation and nod, slowly. Ah yes: what a martyr I am!
They squeeze my shoulder.
Then, on Friday evening, I pack up my desk, gleeful. My sparkling little secret is that, when time and energy are in confluence, I LOVE cleaning. I love the feeling of creating order, of restoring things dulled by time and dust to their original glow.
I go home, and the boys and I grill dinner; we watch four episodes of Dinners, Drive-Ins, and Dives together, and then I grab my book and trundle off to bed. The next morning, I wake up in full cleaning mode.
Years ago, recently moved and in between jobs, I worked for a professional cleaning company, and I learned the technique of cleaning from the top down. So I arm up with my Swiffer duster, new dust-catcher in place. I shoulder my bag of cleaning supplies, and I attack the ceilings in the rooms that have floors which can be mopped. By noon, I have worked my way from cobwebs and furzy fan blades to cluttered countertops to splattered cupboard doors, and I’m wet-jetting the vacuumed tiled floors.
In the afternoon, I run errands. On Sunday, we take a family outing. But Monday morning, I’m back at it–the carpeted rooms fall one by one to my cleaning blasts. James catches the spirit.
“Just tell me what I can do to help!” he proposes, and I am not one to let an offer like that go unanswered. He runs up and down stairs with bags of trash and papers to recycle. He moves misplaced items to their proper niches. He makes big piles of dirty linens disappear and returns with crisply folded clean ones.
In the afternoons, I treat him to a frappucino and a toasted stuffed pretzel at the coffee shop, where he sets up his MacBook and I open my hardcover with a blissful sigh, knowing that clear, gleaming spaces await me at home.
By Thursday we are almost done. I am upstairs; I have flung open windows, and a fresh, cool breeze blows through. The guest room is cleared and tucked and gleaming; Jim is putting finishing touches on his own newly organized spaces. The master is vacuumed and tidied. The bed is made, pillows plumped, a soft, coordinated, sweet-smelling blankie folded neatly at its foot against the new November chills. I am putzing with the duster, clearing off horizontal surfaces of dressers and bedside tables. I pull open the drawer of the little table on my side of the bed and find unexpected treasure: a two inch stack of photographs with a couple of cards and a program or two thrown in.
I lift out this little stack and I look at the clock–it is 11 AM, and, for all intents and purposes, my work here is DONE. So I close the drawer and I take the little pile of memories and I go downstairs to the dining room table. And I plunge.
There is a black-and-white photo from 1989 on top; seven school-aged cousins cluster on the lefthand side–photographer off kilter here, for sure. Meg and Jessica bookend the standing boys; they both have curled bangs and big, long, permed hair. Jessica holds a fat gray and white cat (Well, hmmm: it could be orange and white for all I know, come to think of it; in this picture, everything is gray and white.) Matt, to Jessica’s left, holds up bunny ears behind her head. Jason leans an elbow on Meg’s shoulder; Meg looks as though she is muttering under her breath. Behind them, Ben, the tallest nephew, avoids eye contact with the camera.
In front, Tommy, signature bowl-cut intact, hugs a big old fuzzy black dog. Zack is on the other side, buzzed hair, grinning. Zack is straddling a basketball.
They’re in a field of sorts; it is bounded by scrub trees and tall grasses, and I realize the photo must have been taken at a family picnic at my brother Dennis’s rented house in Machias, New York, when he was assistant principal at a middle school, a centralized rural school that had a name like Liberty or Freedom. It seems to me that someone decided to be family photographer that day; they grouped all the kids together. (Where, I wonder, were Brian and Shayne? College? Working? Out with friends? Had Brian already moved to Chicago then?)
That unknown photographer also grouped the siblings together, and somewhere, probably neatly taped or glued into a photo album, I have a special artifact from that picnic–the last photo, I think, taken of the five of us together. The next time all the siblings gathered in one place it would be for Dennis’s funeral. We would take pictures then, too, but there would only be four of us clustered, solemn and bereft.
We have pictures, too, of all the long-suffering people who’d married a sibling. They smile in the photo, looking relaxed. Probably best they don’t know, in that July of 1989, about all the interesting times ahead.
I have drawers and cupboards full of photo albums and memory caches. As a young girl, I loved preserving artifacts, so I have books packed with photographs, invitations, newspaper clippings, restaurant match books, and dried flowers–things gathered in my teens and early twenties. I have books devoted to trips I took and books that detail family adventures.
We have scrapbooks that chronicle our moves–several from Whallon Street, with Matt growing up, from bowl cut to aviator glasses, from trendy teen to sailor to shaven-head daddy; Jim appears in there and grows from infant to tumbling toddler to serious-faced kid.
We have a book that shows our year in the old inn–circa 1820’s–we rented: a gracious and spacious place with a scary cistern in the basement. It was nestled in a vineyard that made Mark and Jim sneeze and wheeze for at least six months of that one year.
We have chronicles of our life on Orchard Street, in that house that embraced us, with those wonderful friends just houses away. There, Jim learned to ride a two-wheeler, proud moment captured. There, Mark launched into law school.
I have books from the law school years, photos that show the transformation of the house trailer we bought, an adventure in down-sizing we enjoyed and don’t want to ever do again. There are shots of Mark’s grinning classmates and their families–a wonderful, serendipitous mix of personalities that met and merged and then were flung apart after three years of intense, bonded study.
I have picture books from Mount Vernon, showing wonderful friends, amazing church adventures, a raccoon on the roof of the house on Pleasant.
So why was this jumble of pictures and mementoes stuck in a drawer? Why this random mix of shots and moments from all different ages and places? What was I doing with this pile of memories in my bedside table?
After the black and white shot of cousins, I find:
–a baptismal shot of Meg’s Mia, 2012, looking angelic in a frothy white christening gown, eyes sparkling as her head rests on a white satin pillow and she reaches for someone from the depths of a white wicker bassinet.
–a little stack of photos from my twelve-month foray (1993, maybe?) into home day care on Whallon Street. What I remember from that year–Jim was three, I think,–is being exhausted. The pictures show picnics and parties, art projects and outings. The kids are smiling and laughing, running and hugging. I might not remember much, but we must have had fun.
—formal class pictures, with shiny faced students’ head shots stuck into little squares. There is one, too, of me and my colleagues from the Catholic school staff in all our eighties glory. I linger there, remembering many who are gone.
—Miss Maddie, Shayne’s youngest, on her second birthday, hugging a blue balloon.
There are shots of workplaces, of a young Jim sitting at a vintage keyboard, of a winter scavenger hunt with a find by a railroad crossing sign–kids in knit caps and scarves forage in blowing snow. There are Christmas shots. There’s a letter from Wendy, and a description of a an autumn hike in western New York. There’s a program for the Picasso Effect, an exhibition of artists influenced by Pablo; that was from not so long ago in Columbus. I went to remember seeing the Picasso exhibit in Chicago with Brian.
There’s a cozy shot of Shayne, looking glamorous and snug, grinning as she curls up in an overstuffed chair, dangling one high-heeled foot over the edge. There is a photo Christmas card of Sean’s kids,–not arrived yet in that black and white shot from 1989–Sarah and Seamus and Liam, dressed as characters from Lord of the Rings, standing in front of some sort of a cave.
There are shots of our granddaughters, lovely Alyssa and kinetic Kaelyn. There is Alexander. Mark’s brother’s kids grin at the camera during a Zanghi family Christmas. There are snaps of grand-nieces and grand-nephews as they grow, year by year–Gabby, Pat, Maddie; Kirsten, Ryan, Mia; Quincie and Brennen. There is Zack’s grinning little mini-him.
My mother kept, for a long, long time, a great big trunk full of photographs. Once in a very great while, on an occasion as special and rare as the annual airing of the Wizard of Oz, she would pull out the trunk, and we would be allowed to look through the pictures.
We would carefully mull over black and white photos of unknown aunts and uncles, grandparents dead before we were born, people in quaint and antiquated clothes–photos that represented the mysteries of our past. There were dashing young men; there were pretty women in flowered house-dresses or suits with high padded shoulders and spectator pumps. We knew some names and faces; but we never knew the actual people who sported the high lace-up boots, the skinny ties and voluminous sleeves.
Other kids had grandparents who visited. Other kids had huge family celebrations, and other kids got cards and gifts from all their enormous extended Catholic families full of relatives.
Why didn’t we? I wondered. Why didn’t we ever meet our long-lost aunts and uncles, our battalions of cousins?
Be careful what you wish for, muttered my father, alluding to mysterious conflicts, to long-buried events we could only imagine. My mother said nothing. Also in the pictures was a chronicle of the 18 month-long life of my sister Sharon, Mom’s firstborn, who died of encephalitis when my father was away in the Philippines during World War Two.
Later, when her kids grew up, and when things slowed down, my mother would put the photos in albums. She would create collections and boxes for each of us children, which we would carry with us and augment and treasure.
But the mystery and allure of those unknown relatives stayed with me. Perhaps that’s why I am pushed to chronicle every episode and adventure, ensuring new generations will have the facts they need.
I set the photos aside to make some lunch for Jim and me, and afterwards, he has an appointment. I need to get packages to the post office; we have a little bit of shopping to do. The car needs gas. I want to be back in time to simmer a pot of beef paprika. I put the photos on a shelf.
The weekend dawns; we have recycling to do and people with whom we need to connect.
It is Tuesday–and I am back to work–before I get back to the photos. That evening, I examine a picture of baby Grace, my wonderful friend Teri’s baby girl. I slide it next to the computer screen. Teenaged Grace, on Facebook, holds a baby just about the same age she was in the photo–her brand new nephew. Look at that–same gentle smile, fifteen years later.
I stack the photo pile, lining up edges on one side, and put it next to my computer. I don’t know why I had gathered this particular clutch of memories–probably, they were squirreled away over months and years, with a vague, “I’ll get to these” self-promise as I slid the drawer closed and forgot them. But here they are, whyever.
I will bow to the times, and scan photos to share with the folks who grace them, or who fondly remember their subjects. I will post some on my FaceBook page and enjoy the groans of young, respectable adults who might rather forget their big hair days, or their infant drool. I’ll attach some to emails and connect direct. Some, I’ll even use on my blog.
And then I’ll make a book. I have card stock and a binder that needs a purpose. I’ll attach each item, label it as best I can–there are some photos without dates, with names missing (Who WAS that neighbor boy? I’m hoping Mark might know…) and I will place them all together, the treasures from my drawer, into a handmade book.
I think I’ll sketch a cover to decoupage onto the binder; I’m thinking of what, exactly, I can call it. Something, maybe, from Jim Croce’s lovely old song, “Photographs and Memories,”–words that show the loss, the gratitude in this month of thanksgiving, the depth of wonder, at the people and places I’ve been blessed to know. Who knows–this random, seemingly meaningless jumble of mementoes may become my go-to memory resource.
“Photographs and memories,” sang Croce, “Christmas cards you sent to me…” and I heard the loss palpable in his voice. “All that I have are these, to remember you…”
I have these, and I have more; we all do–our memories, our continued relationships, the evidence, in grown up children, of love and conflict, supporting hands and wings grown strong enough to fly. I have webs of connections that encompass long-lived bonds and draw in new ones. I have living memories of wonderful people passed now to another realm. I have much to be thankful for, and much to which I look forward.
Croce was right: we sure did have a good time way back when.
And we’ll have more good times in the days–and, God willing, the years–to come. I sort my photo treasure stack–some to scan and some to save, and some to mail away. House cleaned, I have my gratitude project to begin.