“Jen,” my brother says to me on the phone. “I want you to look through all the stuff I cleaned out of your closet. Let me know what you want to keep.”
My brother played the garbage game in the closet of his bedroom, which for a time was my bedroom after it stopped being my dad’s bedroom. When I moved my belongings into my first apartment, I left some things behind – my white Adidas shell tops from the summer I worked at Kennywood, one blue and silver pom-pom from middle school cheerleading (what had happened to the white one, I wondered?), a flat soccer ball, and some other high-school related paperwork.
I’d come to a recent revelation. I don’t know if it can be applied to my family, because when it comes down to it, all revelations are personal. I decided I want to get rid of all the junk, all the relics of my past, the physical manifestations of memories I already have filed away in the corners of my brain. I don’t want to take two truckloads and two carloads of stuff with me when I move out of my apartment on Neville Street in August.
But I find myself struggling – which memories had lost their importance only intermittently? Which ones, in thirty years, would I wish I could stumble upon that seemed irrelevant right now? Do I need ticket stubs from every concert I’d ever been to – did I need a ticket to remind me that I went to see the Foo Fighters one July with a man, the 28-year-old nuclear physicist friend of a girl I was working with at Kennywood at the time? Do I need folders full of notes from every class I’ve taken at college – if I need to know about the myelin sheath, can’t I google it instead of digging through a notebook from Intro to Psych? Do I need this closet full of sweaters, old soccer t-shirts, pairs of jeans I never wear? When I snap out of this need for catharsis, the need to feel free of this clutter (which I inevitably will), what will I miss? I want to know what matters – who we are, or what we remember?
So, I start digging through this pile of junk my brother has set aside. Underneath some of the inconsequential (according to my recent decision) things was the cardboard wine box – the picture box. I am halted. This box never ceases to captivate me for hours, each time I see it, despite having looked at every picture tens and hundreds of times. On top were letter-sized envelopes with clear plastic windows – school pictures from every year since third grade. I notice the progression of my hairstyle – short curls in second grade, a frizzy triangle in third grade, long, combed-out curls in eighth grade, a poor attempt at straight hair in ninth grade. Always bad. The box itself is full of all the stages of my childhood, stacked upon each other like singles on a roof. I sift through the pictures – the time I dressed as a ghost for Halloween, a hole cut out in a Tivoli’s tablecloth for my painted-white face. A picture of my brother and I bundled up for winter like the kids in the movie A Christmas Story. A picture of my mom, dad and newborn me on the patterned couch in the apartment on Ross Avenue, surrounded by the seven kittens born a few weeks after me in July of 1984. This box is my childhood – memories exist like pictures, thrown in a box.
But the physical memories begin to blend with the ones tucked away in my head. I can remember things there are no pictures of: my mom and dad sitting next to each other on the piano stool in our living room, her fingers laced over his, teaching him to play a song. I remember the time I picked a green bean the length of my forearm from our garden – I was wearing a white t-shirt and a red and black plaid skirt. I remember the time I picked all the still-green tomatoes from their vines. I put them in a red plastic bowl and proudly handed them to my mom. I remember going to the Cogos across the street from our house in Wilkinsburg; I’d always ask my mom to buy me Sixlets.
My lockbox is an orange Fossil watch tin. Inside are the things that will never fall victim to my own garbage game – a phone number scrawled on a piece of Blockbuster receipt tape, stale sticks of Juicy Fruit from soccer camp. Some other things I snatched away that don’t have much meaning, except they belonged to my dad – the elephant necklace, an Allegheny Refrigeration keychain (shaped like the ice cubes from the machines he sold). I’ll never throw these things away, and as I go along I find ways to stuff more things into this tiny tin, which someday might expand a shoebox and then maybe a Rubbermaid bin or an empty wine box. These things I will never get rid of, but I also know that I haven’t stopped collecting.
“Can I inherit the picture box?” I say to my mom. She and my brother were in the room as I was picking through the pile of closet stuff awaiting the fate of the garbage game. My mom folds my laundry onto the dining room table as my brother is watching television on the couch.
“Do you think it’ll be safe with you?” she asked. “Or do you think I should inherit it?”
“No, I want it,” I answer. “It’ll be fine.”