The Box, Left Open

In the White Sky

by William Stafford

Many things in the world have
already happened. You can
go back and tell about them.
They are part of what we
own as we speed along
through the white sky.

But many things in the world,
haven’t yet happened. You help
them by thinking and writing and acting.
Where they begin, you greet them
or stop them. You come along
and sustain the new things.

Once in the white sky there was
a beginning, and I happened to notice
and almost glimpsed what to do.
But now I have come far
to here, and it is away back there.
Some days, I think about it.

–found on The Writer’s Almanac, 9/3/21

***********************

It is Monday night, a home-night after a weekend away, and I am doing something I have not done for 30 years or more. I am looking through the high school yearbook from my senior year.

This weekend we went to see Terri’s family in Findlay. Her younger sister Julie was there, visiting from Florida, and two of Julie’s dearest friends from our hometown came to meet her.

I am looking them up now—looking in the index to find Susie and Mary Beth and Julie. I flip to their photos…they are freshmen, cheerleaders, athletes, part of the 1972 Marauders’ homecoming court. Their faces are ridiculously, impossibly young.

And yet. All of that was there, in the faces I saw this weekend, almost fifty years later—youth and hope and laughter and mischief.

I do not read the inked notes that line the pages of the yearbook. I do not turn to the senior section to look at my classmates’ cherished faces. I close the book and slide it back on the shelf in the living room, under the three other bound chronicles of my high school years.

Off kilter memories riffle… not the big things; not the most glorious, or the saddest, or the times that made me grip my sides with unexpressed, impotent anger. Just the simple ones. Hallway conversations. Crisp fall air at roaring football games. Laughter in the locker room after gym class.

The little things, the everyday times: they’re stacked there, waiting.

*********************

We went to the Lavender Hour, Terri’s daughters’ yoga studio and store, on Saturday. Julie was there, and we hugged and talked, and then she pointed me toward her long-life friends.

I went over and introduced myself.

“I know who you are,” said Mary Beth, and she startled me. “I recognized your voice.”

**********************

Memories can be like rock foundations. Some are pulverized, and some are pea gravel, and some—the big ones—are boulders. If those boulders have been sitting in the sun, they warm my bare feet when I step, tentatively, onto their smooth, flat surface.

But if they’ve been in the cold shadow: then, my. Those rocks will burn my soles like ice.

***********************

It was a memory weekend. We stayed in Ada, on the ONU campus, at the university where Mark did his law degree. We stayed in an inn that hadn’t been there when Mark was a student. We had a lovely, two-bedroom suite with a spacious living area. The beds were crisply dressed and comfy. Each room had a big screen TV. There were reading chairs and writing desks, and a fireplace that we didn’t, on that warm weekend, much need. But it was a lovely facet.

I remembered the first weekend we visited the campus. We drove from western New York, and, because it was January, we were concerned about weather and driving.

Mark’s admissions counselor, Grant, laughed.

“You’re thinking BUFFALO snow,” he said. “It doesn’t snow like that in ADA.”

But, of course, it did: that weekend Ada suffered an unprecedented blizzard.

That weekend, we could have used that fireplace in the inn.

**************************

On Saturday night, back from the Lavender Hour,—from seeing Julie, Mary Beth, and Susie, from talking with sweet Kate, Terri’s daughter, and with Ott, Terri’s husband,—Mark and I went out for a walk after dinner. James was settled in with his laptop and a movie, so we laced up our sneakers and walked across campus, over to the law school.

We had walked these paths before. For three intense years, Mark walked them every day, and James and I walked them many times a week. The scenery scrolled past us like the predictable, repetitive background scroll of an old-fashioned movie.

Back then, we’d have said, the pathways, the surroundings, had imprinted on our consciousnesses.

“We could,” we might have said, “walk this walk, eyes closed.”

Now, we found much to be familiar and much to be foreign. The law school building is there, of course, but a new statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., stands in front of the rock displaying a plaque in Reverend King’s honor. The ONU campus was the last college campus where Reverend King spoke.

And were the services offices, IT and Maintenance and Security—were they always in those long low structures? I think I remember those buildings. Mark thinks he does not.

We walk to Lincoln Street to see the apartment building where Mark lived during his first year.

But we aren’t sure we can find it. Buildings have been sided; buildings have slid softly into decay.

Is it the brown one? (It doesn’t look big enough!) Is it the ramshackle white one next to it?

We can’t decide. Unsettled, we head back to the inn.

***************************************************

Memories are like forests. They seem firmly planted, permanent. But seasons sprout new leaves, thicken trunks, and tug those leaves off branches. There’s a dormant season, when the memories don’t seem to live at all.

******************************************************

The next day, we drive past Ada’s one little supermarket. Now, it is the Community Market; then, it was Dave’s.

And there is a memory we share, all three of us. The first time we went to Dave’s, slowly wandering the aisles, picking out our purchases, learning the lay, the menu, of that grocery store, we pushed a cart bulging with supplies to the checkout. The cashier, ample and motherly, hon-ed us, asked if we were new in town, clucked when she learned that a gent of Mark’s age was in law school.

“That’s wonderful,” she said. “Hon, good for you!” And as she took my plastic payment, a young man came from nowhere, grabbed our cart full of groceries, and pushed it quickly away.

“Holy…” said Mark, and he squirmed around me to chase the young man down.

“NO!” said the cashier, reaching out a restraining hand. “It’s okay! He’s taking the cart to your CAR.”

We looked at her in shock, grabbed the receipt, and hurried outside. The stock boy was waiting at our turquoise Escort wagon, the only car in the lot with New York State plates. When we unlocked the hatch, he stowed all our groceries inside and, horrified, refused a tip. All part of the job, he said, and wished us a good night.

Looking back, I have thought many times, that that was the first firm step on our journey to becoming Ohioans.

****************************************************

On Sunday, we meet Ott for lunch. We wait in the restaurant, and we see him walk, jaunty, across the parking lot.

He brings two CD’s for Jim, our music aficionado, and as we wait for the food, Ott tells us stories connected with the recordings.

Ott is a storyteller as well as a musician. He has us all laughing and rolling our eyes—he tells about times he and Terri avoiding Traveling With Ferrets, for instance, and the story of the cover shoot, and how he and Terri dodged the increasing drunkenness of the rest of the band by staying in a different hotel.

“That made an interesting album,” he says. “You’ll see.”

We eat and we talk and, as lunch is winding down, I ask about Miss Sadie, the little black rescue dog that walked with Terri on her last journey, that drew Ott out of the house for walks after Terri was gone.

Ott’s face changes.

“Sadie died last month,” he says. “Her heart gave out.”

He says that the vets could never agree on just how old Sadie was. One of them thought maybe she’d lived 18 years.

“She did her job, though,” says Ott.

Jim looks up from his phone and says, “Sadie’s with Terri now.”

We pick the conversation up, put it back on the track, but somehow, little Sadie’s death is the thing that stays with me.

******************************************************

And Mark drives us all the way home, all three and a half hours, and we groan ourselves out of the car, stretching and complaining, and we drag our bags back in to resume whatever everyday life means in these different times.

********************************************************

And on Monday, I pull out the yearbook.

*****************************************************

In the dark wee hours of that night, I wake up, assailed. Memories are flying at me, furious fast. And I am wide awake.

What should I do? I think, and I contemplate taking my book and heading down to the reading chair, reading away the torrent.

But then I rest my head back on my piled pillows, and I let the torrent flow. And there are a few memories that fly like rocks, that hurt when they land, but most are gentle, and some are wondrous.

I let them wash by, and I realize that, firmly grounded in now, the memories have power only to provoke a kind of marveling. They do not, any longer, have the depth and breadth and immediacy to wound.

Memories of lost ones make me smile, and make me yearn, and make me wish, but in this dark night, I feel a kind of creeping acceptance, a sense that we are here now.

And I thank God for all the ones that walked our paths and all the things that brought us here.

********************************************************

Memory, I think, is like a stone box. The lid is heavy; it scrapes and screeches a little when I finally pull it off.

Inside, there are piles of paper—onion skin; card stock; cheap, thin loose-leaf. I reach in to grab the top sheet, but the breeze is faster than I am. It lifts those memories; it lifts them and shakes them and sends them spinning.

One lands smack on my face and I peel it off to read it.

Others settle on my lap or gentle down around my feet.

And some are whipped by what is now a gale force wind, borne on strong currents. They are flying away, and I could chase them, but I know it would be futile.

And I’d be leaving behind the ones that gather ’round where I sit.

******************************************************

It was a memory weekend, a gateway weekend that opened the door to things forgotten.

Memory may be a white sky, tumbled rocks, a forest. Memory may be a box that’s difficult to open, and one that’s difficult to cover up again once that lid is lifted.

Whatever. Memory is a powerful place to visit; it can be a comfort and a goad. It can bring laughter and it can provoke tears.

I am blessed this weekend to have visited memories–from high school, from law school, from great days of friendship and aching days of loss.

I will visit, I know, again, but the past is not a place that lets me stay.

23 thoughts on “The Box, Left Open

  1. Patty Roker

    Your blog left me very nostalgic and a bit sad. Living so far away, an ocean and a world away, I never get the chance to stroll old streets and meet old dreams and, sometimes, nightmares, as you were fortunate enough to do. Old friends and classmates are found only on Facebook or other social media; obituaries, when they come as they do more frequently now, are beyond my world unless someone shares them online; I never have the thrill – and it would be for me – to see an old friend unexpectedly in the mall or walking down the street. Old friends and cherished places of my youth are over a thousand miles away. I am envious of your weekend – just getting in the car and driving to meet some old memories and friends. How nice it would be to be able to do that but, for me, a trip like that would involve more than one plane and crowded airports, something I disliked before the pandemic and now avoid like the plague that inhabits those places. You really brought some old memories back, though, and they are – or have to be – almost as good as the real thing. Thank you for another lovely Saturday morning interlude.

    1. Thank you, Patty; another awareness moment where gratitude comes pouring in. We are lucky to have the proximity you mention! I hope the memories that came back are rich and sustaining ones in this very different world we inhabit!

  2. Kim Allen

    I am sorry again for the loss of your friend Terri, and felt the next layer of sadness with the loss of Sadie. Experience brings empathy to people one does t even now. Your blog today spoke so well of how memories can jostle one, spilling out randomly in ways that remind you that happenings in the past are still alive in you. Music often does that for me, but actually seeing people or going places are even more powerful. Recently, I saw an article in the alumni and college newsletter sent out by my alma mater. It took me a moment, but then I realized the person was someone I had a crush on all through my junior year, but was never bold enough to introduce myself to. There was a flood of memories and feelings, mostly regret and wistfulness for a few days before things thankfully reintegrated. The power of those things cannot be understated. Thank you for a thoughtful piece of a travel inward, a journey none like any other.

  3. Excellent memoir, Pam. It is good when memories return at the sound of a song, or photo, or a spoken word that brings back flashes of scenes of life. It reminds me of those old “this is your life” sequences in the old movies, where bits and bites of life returns. great post! 🙂

  4. I love the analogy of the open box, with memories escaping and taking to the wind…especially vivid is the one that flew back and clung to your face. It is interesting how some memories live in our brain, and come back at given moments like recurring film footage.

    1. I always wonder: what provoked that memory now? (When I’m visiting someplace connected, that makes sense, but for a memory to just land, unbidden…is it a scent? A voice? Some meaning connected to now? It’s kind of puzzling and fascinating..)

      1. Great question, really set my brain to work digging through the intricate file system in my brain. 🙂 My Akashic Record? Now, that really opens up my flood gates…but then one of the advantages to a writer is the vast store of blog topics. Life is divided into segments: joy, wonder, sadness, fear, shame… endless.

        All this high level contemplation crashes slightly when I remember that I have to get the garage cleared out enough to get my car in for the winter… and clear off that table , etc.

      2. Wow…I got a combination punch in the gut and rude awakening when I took several boxes of books to HalfPriceBooks… titles I “knew” would have at least a limited value. Guess what…they offered me $2.61…. I almost cried…they asked if I wanted them to get rid of the rejects. NO and NO. I’d rather give them to the Goodwill and let someone else potentially profit from them.
        Talk about rude awakenings… I literally was stunned. So much for literary pursuits! 😦

      3. I am still smarting from that experience with HPB. There was a 1st edition Fear of Flying, Erica Jung…and some other books that I was sure they would buy. It is obvious that the chain is interested in quick profit, not in being a source for book collectors. I spot-checked a few when I got un-shocked and in almost all cases these will sell on eBay.

        I am about finished with Amazon, too… my issue is that my books happen to be older and out of print, and I don’t get many browzing sales because customers order a specific book.

        I wish I hadn’t accepted their paltry offer, but I was so disappointed I was ready to cry, and I wasn’t thinking clearly.

      4. Oh, my gosh. The Fear of Flying itself should bring a hefty price. Don’t beat yourself up; this was a terrible situation. It’s awful you had to deal with this; I feel so badly!

      5. Yes, I expect it will bring a nice price. Actually I included The Fear of Flying in the HPB lot, thinking naively that they would offer a low but respectable price for it.

        The thing that really upset me so badly standing in the store with my rejected books is that although I have not expected to make a lot of money on my inventory, I realized in a flash that what I considered my investment was really not.

        I really need to write about this—

      6. It took me two days to get over my anguish over the HalfPriceBooks fiasco. I cannot remember anything ever that upset me so much.

        My daughter said while they were packing up the books to bring back home the guy was not pleased…that really made me mad. I suspect that he/they get dibs on the “donated rejects.” When he asked me if I wanted to “donate” I said NO…they’re going to the Goodwill.
        I guess I’m silly, but so what.

      7. Nope, you are NOT silly. I get very attached to my books, and I can’t stand it when people don’t treat them with respect! Books have value and they are worth something, no matter what HPB’s algorithm says. Too bad he was annoyed! Shame on him!!!

      8. Their offer to dispose of books they won’t buy is not set in charity. I actually did take a load of books to the Goodwill, where they were appreciated. Our brand new store is looking for donations, and are very happy to get good books.

  5. I dare not take out one memory and look at it too long. It pulls. I push it back under the stack. I’ll go again sometime but I dare not look too long. I saw on FB that the last of my classmates at least the ones I know about passed. I quickly left the page. I will contact his wife from the class two years younger. A senior/sophomore thing of storybook endings. I’m glad for them but I don’t dare spend time in those days. I will find things I don’t want uncovered. Why? I think it is because my grandchildren will never know those days. Those photograph years of black and white.

    1. Some memories based on incidents that were unique back in the day rightfully remain in the box. Every life has its secrets, not necessarily shameful or beautiful, but memories that remain behind the walls. Some of those memories provide places to go to when we need them to. What a lovely thought!

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