E.B. White at his boathouse in Maine, 1976. Photo by Jill Krementz.
Last week my brother sent me an e-mail. He was cleaning his basement, and he wondered if I would mind picking up the boxes I had stored down there.
He had offered his basement for temporary storage when I moved from my house in Duluth to a small, shared apartment in St. Paul. That was 17 years ago. Yes, I think it's time I picked up those boxes.
So I met him for lunch on his front porch, and we sat and chatted and then he hauled the boxes out to my car. Yesterday, I sat on my own porch and went through them. It's amazing how some of the items I recognized instantly, as though I had packed them away just last week. And other items--not a glimmer of recognition. Not at all. This was mine? I saved this? Why?
You could tell, looking through the stuff, that I had moved in a hurry. I left Duluth in June of 1994. I had meant to be gone just for the summer--I was headed to a three-month fellowship at the James Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio--but right before I left town I accepted a job at Minnesota Monthly magazine in the Twin Cities. The job would start right after the fellowship ended, the day after Labor Day. There would be no time in between to properly empty my house.
So instead, over a long hectic weekend that June, I invited friends over and gave away everything I thought I wouldn't need, or could replace--my TV (no problem), my typewriter (mistake), my violin (mistake), my Nikkormat camera (huge mistake), lots of furniture (no problem). Everything else I threw sort of randomly into boxes, which I hauled to a storage unit on the outskirts of town. Eventually, I moved the boxes down to the Cities. Five or six of them ended up in Tommy's basement, where they have been resting unmolested ever since.
I opened them with great interest. They smelled musty. One heavy box fell apart when I lifted it, the contents sliding across my porch floor. That one contained nothing but old newspaper sections and tear sheets from my first couple of years of reporting, and I stuffed them all into the recycling bin without a pang--without a pang of loss, that is. There were plenty of pangs of embarrassment as I riffled through my egregious melodramatic overwrought early prose.
One box was full of books, musty smelling, dotted with mildew. I'm not sure they can be salvaged, but I'll give them a better look today.
The other boxes contained a weird assortment of odd things and it's no wonder that I had left them in his basement all those years; there was nothing particularly necessary in any of them, and no particular theme. There would never be a moment when I would have said, over the last 17 years, "Oh, I need to get my box of ---- out of Tommy's basement," because there was no ----. Just stuff. Random stuff.
I found: two boxes of crayons; a collection of old Arthur Rackham illustrations that had been cut out of withdrawn library books and mounted on cardboard; the photograph of E.B. White that I had pinned up at my work desk for more than 10 years; a lot of fabric from my short-lived long-ago quilt-making days; a pair of mittens that I bought in Russia (and instantly recognized, and remembered immediately that one of the mittens had a hole; as I pulled them on my fingers automatically sought out the familiar place where the yarn had pulled apart); two wool berets, one red, one black, neither of which would go over my big hair; a collection of paper bookmarks; two illustrated letters from children, thanking me for a story I had written.
How cute! I wonder who the children were? What the story was? How I helped save the rain forest? (But yay, me.) (And, aha!)
One of the boxes contained a fat manila envelope of letters. Most of them had been sent to me when I had my fellowship at Duke University in 1991; they are addressed to the Campus Arms Motel Apartments, and I had not remembered that was the name of the place where I spent such a happy, fruitful month.
But some of the letters are much older, and some are from people now dead. Letters from my dad! That's gold. His letters are always written on some kind of letterhead: The College of St. Scholastica. The National Endowment for the Humanities. North American Review. He liked status.
A long, sweet letter from my sister Kristin. A short note from Mrs. McCorison, who I worked with at the public library and who I always considered to be my second mom. In her note she urges me to start writing down my stories now for a book that will happen later; oh how wise she was and what faith she had in me. She never saw my book, but she is among the three people it's dedicated to.
Most of the letters, of course, are from people still living and still in my life. One from my friend Rick, sent from Germany in the late 1970s, typed on that thin airmail paper we used to use. Cards from PMiller, crowded with tiny tiny printing so as to fit in all the gossip. Funny postcards from Joey.
There are also letters from people who I have to confess are absolute complete and utter strangers to me. Who is Sara in Tucson? Who is "your best friend, Joan"? Yikes.
Since I picked up the boxes, Tommy has e-mailed me again: He found another box. Next week, I'll pick it up. He says it appears to be more letters. I can hardly wait.