You are emptying the house your parents lived in for sixty years. You are deciding the fate of every item, from a blue-and-white Delftware tile on the wall to the blond-wood Acrosonic piano you practiced on as a teen. You do not have the problem of siblings squabbling over who gets what. You wish your sister were here to squabble, but she has died, your father has died, and your mother is in a care facility, content to inhabit an earlier time and to ask you, whenever she sees you, “What was your name again?”
You do have the problem of what to keep and what to give away and what to throw away. Although throwing away has taken an unexpected turn. You’ve discovered you cannot easily bear sights such as a loved-one’s mattress going over the rim of the concrete pit at the city dump, like a coffin pushed off the deck of a ship.
Then there are the things you would simply like to fix. Wouldn’t you feel better, you ask yourself, if you sat down now amid the pressure cookers, coin purses, Christmas cards, stamp albums, and slide carousels to mend every sock in this pillowcase full of to-be-mended socks? You push on.
“These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” ––T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland
Sentimentality comes from the Latin root sentire meaning to feel, to realize. A sentiment is a thought prompted by a feeling or emotion. To be sentimental is to be governed by feeling, sensibility or emotional idealism.
While you were growing up, emotions weren’t allowed. Now, by some Jungian-projection-transmogrification process, the missing emotions have entered the objects. Now the objects hold the unspoken, the unfelt, the unexpressed. Now the objects hold joy and sorrow, love and hate, bliss, anger, ecstasy, jealousy, sadness, pain, longing. A grinning snowman on a Christmas tag circa 1953––To Debbie from Santa––is a living thing, a glimpse, a clue, a talisman, a warning, a wormhole, a parallel universe, a virtual kiss, an awaited caress. And you can say the same for the Philco radio, the Sunbeam Mixmaster, the Monopoly set, the Louis L’Amour paperbacks, the Nat King Cole 78’s, the license plates, the windbreakers, the Samsonite briefcases, the Ball jars, the four large boxes of stick-on bows. Or are you concocting an overwrought exegesis on nostalgia?
Things you will never need to buy again: rubber bands, paper clips, twist ties, emery boards, Post-it notes.
The literal Greek sense of nostalgia is: the pain of not being able to return to one’s home. It is a formulation of the Homeric word nóstos meaning homecoming and the Greek root álgos meaning pain or ache. You need a new word––something like stuffalgia––for the pain of returning to old objects.
Friends say, “You could sell that on eBay,” meaning the collectors’ items, such as the rarely-used service for twelve of Rosenthal “Emperor” china from Germany, its creamy gold-rimmed surfaces painted with dogwood blossoms and translucent leaves; such as the Lionel electric train set your father received as a boy in 1925, which includes a No. 253 reversible locomotive, illuminated Pullman and observation cars, and a complete oval track set; such as your mother’s coffee-brown fur coat, “sheared lamb,” perfect condition, tossed over your mother’s shoulders in a snapshot from 1952 that also features your father in a red wool jacket and you and Debbie in hats with white bunny-tail toppers. But you have never bought or sold anything on eBay. Something about eBay terrifies you. The worldwide conjoining of people’s stuff through cyberspace feels apocalyptic.
Bobby pins, safety pins, clothespins, straight pins, pincushions, needles, thread.
A new idea dawns: have you been holding aside room in your brain (precious room that could have been used for General Relativity or Shakespeare’s sonnets) where you might reconstruct your childhood in rosy hues? And here is the stuff of that childhood! Here are the building blocks! You need these things. You cannot take your idealized childhood to the concrete pit at the city dump. You’ve had enough grief. And the concrete pit is, after all, where the apocalypse will begin. There the Divine Bulldozer will scrape our scrofulous human existence from the globe amid the skull-splitting roar of grinding metal, the mephitic stench of lost lives, and a raining down of lawn chairs and floor lamps, swirling drainward into the Pit of Hell.
But I’ve been turning over in my mind the question of nostalgia, and whether I suffer from it. I certainly don’t get soggy at the memory of some childhood knickknack; nor do I want to deceive myself sentimentally about something that wasn’t even true at the time––love of the old school and so on. But if nostalgia means the powerful recollection of strong emotions––and a regret that such feelings are no longer present in our lives––then I plead guilty.
––Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending
Grief is from an Old French word meaning heavy, grave; presumably from the older Latin root grevis or gravis (heavy, weighty, serious, important). You need another new word, one that combines sentimentality and grief, sentire and gravis. Maybe sentigrave or gravisent. Something to capture the feeling you have while stuffing twenty pairs of flannel pajamas into a black trash bag.
St. John the Divine in The Book of Revelation, Chapter 9, Verse 2: “And he opened the bottomless pit; and there arose a smoke out of the pit, as the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air were darkened by reason of the smoke of the pit.”
Playing cards, flashlights, pencils, penknives, ballpoints, tea towels, tablecloths.
The sight of sweatshirted men bopping to the muffled beat of their earbuds while lobbing boxes of your mother’s clothes into an ARC truck zaps you with something so fleeting––regret? relief?––you cannot grasp it, nor do you want to, unless it would somehow explain how members of a family can remain strangers for so long.
Apocalypse comes from a Greek word meaning “lifting of the veil” or “revelation.” Originally referring to whatever-it-was God would reveal at the end of the world, it has of course come to mean The End, period.
You remind yourself that the object you are holding––a figurine of a cat, say, or an 8-track cartridge of Marty Robbins songs––is a blob of resinous material, the by-products of which have probably reached the water table in some faraway land, hastening the end of the world; yet you are pretty sure the cat or the cartridge holds some molecules of your childhood or the sadness of your father or the ultimate explanation of the universe. You are pretty sure the object’s feelings will be hurt if you drop it into the apocalyptic pit of the city dump.
Combustion is the hidden principle behind every artifact we create. The making of a fishhook, manufacture of a china cup, or production of a television programme, all depend on the same process of combustion. … From the earliest times, human civilization has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away.
––W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn (translated by Michael Hulse)
A friend, hoping to console you, explains how wonderful the ARC Thrift Shop is. “Women who need jobs will be able to buy those clothes.” You try to picture a young woman going to work wearing one of your mother’s copper-brown belted dresses.
“It isn’t necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice. There are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia.” ––Frank Zappa
Bank statements, paid bills, tax returns, cancelled checks, catalogues, back issues of something called “Reminisce – The magazine that brings back the good times.”
“Remembrance restores possibility to the past, making what happened incomplete and completing what never was. Remembrance is neither what happened nor what did not happen but, rather, their potentialization, their becoming possible once again.”
–– Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy
A friend helps you load a “pod”––a 10x10x10-foot metal cube that, with a forklift, goes on and off a flatbed truck with an alacrity that belies all your agony. The pod will reappear––an alien egg holding your past––in the driveway of your other home 1800 miles away, the home you thought you were downsizing. For now, the piano doesn’t make it nor does the Lionel train set. The sheared lamb coat is still in the closet where you found it. And what about the cedar chest? The IBM Selectric typewriter? Your father’s desk? Even the blue-and-white Delftware tile is back up on the wall because, when you took it down, the pale square of paint behind it broke your heart.
“Shored Against My Ruins” first appeared in The Southeast Review, Volume 31, No. 1.