I grew up on 18.6 acres of land in rural Gray Court, SC. The story of the land and how it ended up like it did and further on how I ended up owning 6.2 acres outright would be a whole ‘nother long, long post. For now, all you really need to know is a buddy of mine is renovating the old farmhouse on the land I own and when he gets it finished, I’m going to sell it to him.
So here’s the deal. My maternal grandmother lived in the old farmhouse as caretaker for my paternal great-uncle. Believe me, it’s complicated beyond belief so I’m just hitting the high points. Ima took care of Uncle Carrol for a number of years and even continued living in the house for a few years after he moved to a nursing home. Over the course of those intervening years, Mama used some of the closets out there to store some boxes. The boxes were forgotten to history for thirty years.
Here begins our tale.
My buddy found these forgotten boxes with my name on them as he was working on converting a bedroom to a bathroom and was in the closet doing some plumbing. He told me about the boxes and I told him to bring them by the house when he got a chance and I’d go through them. He brought them and I went through them.
Here’s where our tale gets interesting, well, at least for me.
Dana was out for the evening with friends when Carlos stopped by with this load of past for me. We brought the boxes into my office, sat them in the floor, and proceeded to get all Indiana Jones on them. I was half a layer into the first box when I realized I should have told Carlos to take them by the dump and save me the slap in the face from the memories wafting out of those boxes along with the rancid smell of mouse pee and poop.
The four boxes spanned my entire pre-postsecondary academic career from the tin can pencil holder I made Mama in kindergarten to some papers from my first year of college. A lot of items came out of those boxes heavy with memories, memories in more than one case I didn’t want.
Mama kept every certificate of achievement I ever got from K-12. She kept every newspaper clipping from the Laurens Advertiser with me in it somewhere. They were all still here, right beside pounds of notes and cards from two ex-girlfriends I did wrong. My plaque for being on my junior high school’s championship academic team rested beneath the jumping fish trophy I received from my wrestling teammates after my freshman year. I was the “flopping fish” of the year and the trophy reminded me of a dismal 0-16 record.
One box had a box within it containing loads of memorabilia from Camp Broadstone, the summer camp where I spent two weeks each during my seventh and eighth grade summers. It was full of letters from friends made those four glorious weeks when I was happier than I’d ever been before and than I’ve ever been since. We made crude “yearbooks” and signed them with our undying friendship pledged over and over. Each letter, each rustic “craft” was a dagger in my soul because we didn’t keep up with each other and now those four weeks are getting hazy over thirty-five years later. Tears came to my eyes as I handed the entire box to Carlos and asked him to dump them outside in the trash.
I threw away nearly everything I came across. Ribbons from high school football games. Awards for the best essay in the county on water conservation. In some instances the mice had saved me by destroying things I didn’t want to deal with. I wasn’t ready for this kind of nostalgia. These boxes contained proof I once had a bright future with the chance to be and do whatever I could put my mind to.
They were from before the anxiety attacks. Before the crippling depression. Before I lost one career doing what I thought was right and another because I couldn’t get over losing the first. Before I started down this dark, dismal road.
It hurt to remember. I would have broken down in sobs, but Carlos was with me and I’m still a man with a man’s pride and its accompanying refusal to show weakness in front of another man. So I forged on through the boxes; I beat on, a boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. Little from the boxes remained. Carlos filled up the big black rolling trashcan outside with memories I could barely tolerate.
Now only one small box remains and I’m going to have Budge go through it ruthlessly and throw away as much as she can of the things my heart couldn’t bear to let go. She is nowhere near as sentimental as me so she can purge the house of these past haunted relics.
You would think the night could get no worse than meticulously poking around in the scar tissue of my soul. Surely this is as low as it could get? Sadly, you would be wrong.
I hadn’t opened the fourth box.
The fourth box was more Mama’s box than mine. I should have tossed the box then and there and let a dead dog decompose in peace, but I was already in what we southerners call “a state” as it was so I was in no position to stop this plane from full throttling into yon craggy mountain of memory.
I wish I’d been stronger.
You must understand something vitally important to know. Mama married at 16. She had me at 18. She was single again by 25. Also, and this is crucial, Mama was not a plain, homely woman. The fourth box contained proof of that. Years worth of Valentine’s cards and love notes lay in a neat pile. I recognized some of the names; some I didn’t. Two in particular caused me to almost vomit because of the anguish they had put Mama through. I spat on one’s grinning face and shattered the frame of the other. They both had the good sense to die before I ever crossed paths with either of them so my true vengeance was spoilt, but dead they are and no torment is too much for them.
I have an image of Mama that has withstood all life has thrown at it. Her pedestal is not so high as it once was because I know things now I didn’t know then, but I was not so big a fool as to read what other men thought about my mother. I can take a lot, but too much is too much. I gathered up all the cards and letters and gave them to Carlos and into the big black trashcan they went. I still remember Mama as my mama, not as a woman and I don’t think my heart will ever bear to change that.
Now again, you’d think the night was over and it was time to lick my wounds, take a Xanax, and try to recover, but the night still had one trick left to play and it lay in the bottom of the box.
Right at the bottom of the box — the godforsaken box — was another, smaller box. This box, when opened, proved to be full of letters as well, but these were different. They were all in red, white, and blue envelopes. Some were crisp and clean even after fifty years. Some were stained with mud — the mud from the hills of Vietnam. Lying in front of me was a treasure beyond measure. I picked the package up and held in my hand every letter Daddy wrote Mama during his military service. Fifty years on and she had kept them all.
Everything else of Mama’s from the boxes is gone, but the letters sit in a pile on my desk. I don’t know what to do with them. Here is proof positive that once upon a time Daddy actually did love Mama. The pile has a few cards scattered through it too. I’ve read a Father’s Day card I don’t remember signing. Someone got Mama a Mother’s Day card from me as well. It’s all here. The brief moment when my parents had a chance to be together forever . . . before the dark times when love proved to not be enough.
So I have these letters. They are my birthright. They are indelibly connected to my past, but the question is, do I read them? Do I want to see what I would see? On the one hand, maybe I would finally catch a glimpse of young man Mama loved, and loved until the day she died, all others be damned. The young man who never came home the same. The young man Mama told me stories about, but who I never had a chance to meet. Do I want to meet him? Would I even recognize him?
On the other hand, the young man belongs to Mama, just as he did for too brief a time all those decades ago. Should I intrude on their privacy? I barely have any memories of the two of them together and the ones I do are not always pleasant. Would these change years of pain and animosity between Daddy and me? Do I want to know? Can my heart take the answers I might find?
I don’t know what to do.
Love y’all and keep your feet clean.