The Boxes Under the Stairs

This weekend found me sitting in my mother’s basement, sorting through a gaggle of boxes that had sat undisturbed for almost twenty years in a tiny room under the stairs. My mother is thinking of moving and so it was finally time for my sister and I, on a trip home for a family event, to sift through the paraphernalia we’d successfully avoided until last Sunday. Let me say first that I am not big on “stuff”. Every time I move (which has averaged out to once every two years since the age of eighteen) I get rid of a little bit more. I like my living space uncluttered and my boxes light. So when my Mom first proposed that I sort through everything, I assumed I would take a quick look and leave it all, still neatly packed, on the curb, ready for the dump. I thought it would take me about an hour.

As I have aged, the past has become something to let go of, to overcome. Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad writes, “Childhood is a knife stuck in the throat. It cannot be easily removed”. I find this to be a little extreme (he was writing about war-torn Lebanon, I grew up in a quiet middle-class suburb) and yet, I understand the sentiment. In my thirties I have found that moving forward really involves going back to heal the past; gently cleaning and bandaging old sores that have festered, and then moving on. I had started to see the past as a murky no-man’s land full of potential dangers; lessons to be un-learned, pain to be released. Simply leaving the boxes on the curb seemed like the best thing to do. I’ve spent so much time getting over everything that happened,why not just dump it all?

And yet, after literally blowing the dust off the first box and opening the flap, I found some unexpected surprises. There was jewelery my grandmother had made. Letters from a pen-pal I never met spanning grades five to the early years of university; her concerns revolving first around a beloved guinea pig, then a lack of boyfriends, then her new life at Oxford. Report cards that looked so much better now than they did when I received them. And of course, the inevitable diaries where superficial adolescent concerns mingled with deeper ones in entries like, “I had the worst week ever. Here’s what happened: 1. I dislocated my knee on the ice, 2. Gabby likes Herald, 3. Herald doesn’t like Gabby, 4. No one likes me.” Treasures that had patiently sat waiting for me to re-discover them. Mementos of kindness and love, and artifacts showing evidence of a shining inner self, still unaffected by the world, that is still with me.

And so, instead of brutally culling, I began sifting, slowly separating the gems from the junk (because there was junk), carefully choosing what to bring with me, and what to leave behind. Six hours after I began, I emerged with two boxes that will follow me to Vancouver. Nestled in amongst the Chinese-dragon book-ends, photos and old letters are my youthful romanticism and passion for life, optimism, and a new appreciation of the love between friends and family that transcends time, distance and drama. The rest went out with the trash.

38 thoughts on “The Boxes Under the Stairs

  1. Wow. Really, BH, I’m not sure if you’ve caught me on a particularly emotional day or what, but I am entirely choked up! First, this is gorgeously and precisely written. Second, I can’t get over a few of your lines.

    “I have found that moving forward really involves going back to heal the past; gently cleaning and bandaging old sores that have festered, and then moving on.” Yes, these days, this is exactly how I feel about the past — something only to be looked at out of necessity, in order to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. And, I’ve found, this is a rather difficult sentiment to sit with at great length. I have always been, until quite recently, an intensely sentimental person. For 10 years I kept a yellow plastic bottle shaped like a lion that my best girlfriend and I drank lemonade out of during our school’s carnival in 8th grade… for no other reason than it reminded me of drinking lemonade with my best friend on a particularly wonderful day in 8th grade. And I don’t mean I kept it in a box in the attic; it was proudly displayed in my bedroom (in my parents’ house) on a shelf along with many other mementos of similar value. But recently, as I’ve tried to shed my self-imposed responsibility to ‘be good’ and faced some difficult truths about my upbringing, my past has suddenly become something to move on from. I feel the need to purge. One weekend visiting my parents, I threw away that yellow lion bottle.

    Which brings me, BH, to the second line that I can’t get over: “artifacts showing evidence of a shining inner self, still unaffected by the world, that is still with me.” I am going to repeat this to myself daily: It’s not all bad back there. There is that little girl having an unforgettable day with her best friend, both wearing matching buns in their hair that they had discussed over the phone the previous evening, eating sugary malasadas and Hawaiian plate lunch, drinking lemonade, riding The Zipper a million times, feeling like she had reached the pinnacle of life’s good times. There is still that, and she is still there.

    • Thank you so much for those kind words! And I’m glad if this touched you. And yes, yes, that lemonade-drinker with the buns is still there and always will be, no matter what else she had to deal with on other days. And I don’t know you, but the image of you with your hair in 2 buns with your best friend warms my heart. πŸ™‚

  2. The Friday before you culled your boxes, you and I sat in a coffee shop (much like we would have as teenagers) and you talked about how you longed to escape your family after high school. But as you point out here, it’s not that easy to escape and maybe we all find, to one extent or another, that we don’t really want to escape every piece of childhood and family life. Maybe at some point we all come back, even if for only small pieces of the past.

    I have claimed my past in a big way. I have nothing to escape, no pain to process. My boxes have travelled with me over the years. I have often revisited them – rediscovered the young FP. I have no need to discard the past. I did leave my family after university, both physically and figuratively. I ‘cut the apron strings’ so to speak. I moved to another city. Then, having children brought the weight of my own childhood firmly to light. After my second child, I came home. Now, I live minutes from where I grew up. I spend hours with my mother and sister every week. My children go to the same playgroups, schools and lessons that I went to as a child. These things transcend the mementos of youth. They give me a sense of identity that not only defines my entire life but connects me to several generations of my family.

    On another note, like you, I rediscovered my old diaries not too long ago. You figure prominently in them. It could be a great laugh to have a diary reading one night.

    • Yes – we have to do a diary reading one night! You figure prominently in mine too. I found some great old pictures too.

      It did strike me that we have been visiting that particular coffee shop for a long, long time. πŸ™‚

      I love that you have such a strong connection to your family, your past and that you’ve grown into being an adult with your roots firmly planted – growing from the past instead of feeling the need to escape it. I can see how that could give someone a strong sense of identity, as you say. It is a different experience than mine, but I think that sense of being grounded in one’s life must be very satisfying.

  3. I loved the two lines that LZ picked out to share here. They were the two that stood out for me also. There are always wounds in the past and things that haven’t really healed. But I’m realizing that my ability to live a full and joyful life now is contingent upon my being able to have actually digested those experiences rather than having figuratively left them under the stairs in a box. (Kudos to you for getting through them and leaving at peace with what you kept and what you let go!)

    But I also really identify with your statement about your “shining inner self”. I went through a similar exercise a few years ago where I found things in my boxes that brought back a sense of self I’d left behind a long time ago. And what surprised me oddly was that even after 30 years… that self still felt totally authentic. That “me” was still there dreaming the same dreams, being inspired by the same things, hoping the same hopes, wearing the same mystery, albeit buried under years of new experiences and expectations. I kept a few of those trinkets precisely because they reminded me of who I believed I was back then and threw away the ones that reminded me of who others hoped I’d be.

    Thank you for sharing this one, BH. It’s a comfort to know I’m not the only one whose found myself throwing away parts of the past and holding on to others.

    • It’s so nice to hear that you have been through similar experiences! And I’m glad that you re-discovered that dreaming part of yourself and that you found ways to remind yourself of that part of you too. Hugs πŸ™‚

  4. It’s 5am here, and I am so in love with this post and all the comments that follow. Like, every one. Is it the early morning or am I just totally in love with all of you here?

    I am a nostalgia whore. I can spend hours, literally, hours reminiscing. I’m kind of like an elephant with a ridiculous memory. And i’m like a bulldog in that i tend to hold on very tightly to those people I value (you all being living proof). It’s like my imaginary boxes are always with me. This said, the painful stuff, which for me, basically comprises humiliating things, shameful things, mostly things I somehow allowed myself to be subject to, also hangs around a lot. It’s all very much a part of who I am and I’m always aware of it, even when I’d rather not be. Does that mean that i’ve dealt with it, or that it’s still a crutch? I don’t know. I know I’m good at repressing what I feel in that moment, and horrible at repressing it once it’s gone. A blessing and a curse.

    I have exactly 10 boxes stashed in my father’s basement, things I had sorted back in 2001 when my mother moved house. I have one lost box from university that is supposed to be at my cousin’s, but which he says is not there. i have boxes from a move to london still hiding in my in lawas guest bedroom (which they’d really like me to deal with), boxes from bahrain in my basement. And a trunk of journals that i’ve kept since 1996 follows me wherever I go, which would mean 5 different countries now. I know that when I open them, I won’t be able to cull. Good, bad, ugly. Junk. It all comes with me. I like the mess. But equally, I’m happy to stick it all back in a box and put it away for another time.

    So, I guess I’m a hybrid here. I escaped home, I’m as far away from my past as I can be. But it defines me, all ugly nooks and crannies.

    I had one other thought: i’m getting old enough to have a couple of pasts now. i think i have like 5 stages of past, all so defining and different and meaningful. probably that number roughly corresponds to the box count i offered above!

  5. This was such a timely post for me to read.

    Healing the past is a time intensive practice – because the present just keeps happening, and the past just keeps getting added to, like a messy millefuielle (or less elegantly, a big pile of laundry that just gets bigger and smellier and more ugh-worthy the more you let it grow).

    I am going through a particularly emotionally difficult/exhausting time right now, and I am so grateful to know that the hard work of healing the past is something I’m not the only one still doing. It’s comforting to know that I’m not alone. Thank you.

  6. I really love the sentiments in this post BH. And I haven’t thought of my pen-pal for years until I read about yours. If only I had kept all those letters! I do remember that she lived in Scotland and that she was always in love with this bloke or that bloke. We wrote until she got married I believe, to hopefully her final bloke in the series πŸ™‚ I like to think that I was in a small way a part in helping her along in her journey to finding what was important to her – maybe a little like this blog site.

    I have had the same kind of gypsy existence as you have had – until I bought a place and now the prohibitive cost of selling and moving keeps me tethered. I must admit it has only been four years and I am getting a little antsy. I always found moving rather exhilarating – a fresh start and all of that. Getting rid of “things” was always part of that process and perhaps it was because it was a process of letting go, and deciding what really was important to me, as opposed to what had somehow accumulated in my life as part of the process of living. Even now that I live in an apartment the size of a postage stamp I still seem to do an intensive “spring clean” each year and get rid of more things – and as you so eloquently put it – perhaps it serves not only to clean but also to bandage some of those old wounds that may have been slightly scuffed in the process of the past year and need some re-bandaging. Lovely post my friend.

    • Thank you! So interesting that you had a Scottish pen-pal. I actually tried to hunt mine down on Facebook at one point, with no luck…

      I can understand how you’d feel antsy after four years in the same place after moving around so much. And I think once I’m settled in one place for a while, I’ll be doing a spring clean every year too. Though maybe I’ll be so drunk on the giddiness of not having to move that I’ll squirrel things away in closets indefinitely. πŸ™‚

  7. I really enjoyed reading this post. I guess we all have boxes somewhere full of memories, waiting to be sorted out. Boxes allow us to leave our past behind for a while and come back to it later to trash the junk or cherish the gems we find in them πŸ™‚

  8. I just found you via Truth and have I missed you up til now? This is a beautiful post! My father turns 92 this summer and he still lives in the home where I grew up. My mother passed many years ago, but all the memories are still there, tucked away in boxes my brother and I will find. Someday, we will have to sit and sort through all of them and cull the treasures from the trash. The rest lives on in my heart. Thanks so much. Bonnie

    • Hi Bonnie,
      Thanks very much for your comment and for reading! My grandmother lived in the same house that my mother grew up in – well into her nineties. That house was chock-full of memories, and I’m sure your father’s must be the same. And yes – all of these things live principally in our hearts, don’t they?

  9. I linked via Truth and Cake too! In an old oak chest, I have one small box now that holds my teenage diaries, letters, a few ornaments, a couple of high school projects and some creative writing I did that was (I thought!) spectacularly good for a teenager. Every couple of years I look at them; sometimes I even whittle an article or two out. But I hope to never get rid of them fully. And I’m not going to get started on the memory boxes I’ve created for my children which have certificates, school reports, the clothes they came home from the hospital in, and other sundry items.

    Lovely post! Thanks for letting me stop by.

    • Thanks very much for your comments and for coming by! Oh, how lovely that you have an old oak chest to put everything in! It sounds like your memories are cherished and so lovingly preserved.

      • My old oak chest is one that my grandmother found in 1945 in a chicken coop holding feed for the chickens! It turns out it was made in the early 1600s, so is absolutely an antique. It is nice to have the link and a special place to store memories.

  10. I found you through Truth and Cake, too. I used to be extremely sentimental and saved just everything. A random example of learning how to determine what to save and what to let go was realizing how I heartbroken I was when a wallet was stolen that had a handwritten note in it from my dad that said “I love you.” I realized I could actually go have lunch with my healthy father and spend time with the man I love- the memory of which would be far more valuable than the paper I had clung to. I haven’t learned to sort photos yet though. I save them all.
    Thanks for writing!

  11. I recently had to move in my parents and now all my life is in boxes in their garage. I think I’m organized, then I look at a box and wonder what treasure is in there. I also become concerned I’m a a pack rat. Then, I go through my box of keepsakes (that’s been growing into larger and larger boxes) and see childhood journals, birthday cards, and other memories that are fun.
    Thanks for this thoughtful, insightful post.

    • Thanks so much for reading and commenting! I know that feeling – of having your whole life in boxes. About three years ago I moved across the country with about 5 boxes and three suitcases. An odd feeling to have everything in such a small space. Sounds like you’ve definitely got a lot of treasures in those boxes, but it’s hard to find a balance, isn’t it? Take care! πŸ™‚

  12. Beautifully written, I felt like I was right there beside you. So many of us have gone though this ourselves, and the rest know it’s going to hit us one day soon. Looking forward to reading more of your blog!

  13. Lovely post. I am in the process of moving out of my house and just recently starting boxing things up. I’ve only started and already I find myself remembering the past and sifting through not just my material items but my memories, regrets, and dreams as well. I found you on Truth & Cake. Glad she set up the Freshly Press Yourself idea. Kudos to you and this blogsite. I love it.

    • Hi, thanks very much for reading and commenting! I’m so grateful for the Truth & Cake Freshly Press Yourself idea as well. It’s so great to meet new bloggers! Best of luck with the move! πŸ™‚

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