By Heidi Fisher,
My parents’ house is bigger than mine. It is cleaner, better organized, certainly quieter. Retired, my mom has no shortage of time to sort, tidy, and redecorate, which results in me being dragged upstairs to an extra closet to reclaim old prom dresses, to the garage to receive packets of seeds and used garden tools, or to the basement, which was where I found myself recently, faced with three large plastic tubs, one for each of her children. The one on the far right, I was told, was mine. And then she made her way back upstairs to finish dinner and sneak her grandchildren tastes of pie dough.
My initial reaction: I don’t have the space. My life is boxes upon boxes of broken and forgotten relics tucked away in the corner of the basement, hidden behind dusty toys and poorly sorted clothes that my youngest will one day wear if I can just remember to retrieve them. And yet I crack the lid.
The tub was mostly empty, a promising start. Old papers lined the bottom, covered in bright drawings and the careful loops of a school girl’s cursive. I burned the edges of a paper bag with my dad for the cover of my Wagon’s West journal. I sketched antigoglin eyes with over-sharpened colored pencil on my mummy’s cardboard tomb. I created so much more than the hard plastic contained. Should I be upset that this is all that followed me to adulthood, or grateful? Because I knew it was expected of me, I summoned my four children. See, Mommy was once young. And briefly their attention was captured, but just as quickly it was lost, and they scampered back upstairs to their grandparents’ world where rules are as malleable as Memaw’s cinnamon scented playdough. I ignored the shrieks.
Shuffling through the papers, I knew there was no place in my home for these impractical mementos. In each partnership, I suspect, there is a hoarder and an anti-hoarder. I grew up regularly hearing my father gripe at my mother for prematurely tossing the daily paper in the recycling. He was no stranger to dumpster dives to recover cherished items, sneaked away and discarded. Theirs was an ongoing battle for dining room table real estate, one half a cluttered professor’s office, the other the pristine center of our family’s nightly sustenance ritual. I am no different than my mother, I freely admit, and as I questioned the fate of the mess before me, I envisioned the crate as one of many stacked on a box of my husband’s old t-shirts that had somehow found its way back to the storage room from the donation pile time and time again. No. I had no physical or mental space left. I turned my back and headed up to the chaos above.
My mom didn’t argue with me, but nonetheless, I found myself with ziplock bags of leftovers in one hand (I am not to be trusted with her tupperware) and a canvas bag full of papers in the other. Once the sleepy kids had been lugged upstairs, kissed, tucked in, I remembered the bag, carried in and placed next to my side of the bed by my husband. Nestled into billowy mounds of comforter, sounds of ESPN wafting over from across the room, I reached down into my past.
Apparently, my mom thought high school English was too important to discard, but not important enough to continue storing. I wasn’t quite sure how Frankenstein and the monster were doppelgängers, or even what a doppelgänger was. I was confident that Lady Macbeth’s ambitions were responsible for Macbeth’s downfall. I thought a few rhymes were all that was needed to write a Canterbury Tale of my own. Expected. Mediocre. But the last paper, I had forgotten about that. A personal narrative. My brother Sam.
It’s a weekend afternoon. A teenage girl is spending time with her family in the kitchen: her mother, her little brother. They cook, they chat, the little boy tells knock knock jokes. The older brother emerges from the basement, wobbly, slurring, silly and uncertain. He offers to take the little boy to play tennis. To drive him to play tennis. She thinks about her two brothers getting in the car, driving away, never returning. She doesn’t want Sam to get in trouble. She doesn’t want Jake to know. She doesn’t want anyone to get hurt. She doesn’t know what to do.
There was a hidden corner of my mind, one I rarely visited, where this memory lurked with frayed edges and yellowed stains of time. I frequented the brighter, well lit corridors of Sam: Sam, the scholar, reciting lines of Shakespeare while mixing concretes at the local custard stand. Sam, the protective older brother, shouting at the boy who tried to grab my chest. Sam, the experienced traveler, my eyes on him, his eyes on his journal, a fog as delicate and swirling as a rainbow slick of oil on pavement flowing over the expanse of Lake Como below. Threads of myth wove these moments into the tapestry of a happy childhood, now strained by the dusty plastic tub intended for the dumpster. Once the memory is there, I can change the exposure, crop, adjust the tone, but I can’t clear it out. It will find its way back from the donation pile, it will be freed from the dumpster, and it will slink back to the corner of the basement behind the children’s clothes. If it’s unneeded, unwanted, it’s far better to never allow it into the house in the first place.
My brother, Sam, died when I was 18. He returned from a year abroad on my last day of high school, and I called, begging him to join us in our celebrations. “Come out with us! It’ll be fun!” He declined, citing a long travel day, jet lag. So I flitted from house party to house party without him, ready to experience adulthood, a forecast of college life. Arriving home at three in the morning, I wonder now if he was already dead on the basement couch as I stumbled up the stairs to my room. I slept through the commotion that morning, and I don’t remember who woke me, who told me what was happening, but I can reconstruct the hospital waiting room in great detail. Jake and I sat together, dazed as my eyes traced the green vines on the wallpaper, the tiny, curled leaves. They looped up and over, snakelike, circling back and twisting around one another.
It was my cousin, not my parents, who came to ask if we wanted to say goodbye. Jake agreed. I declined. The memory of his welcome home became the final knot, the cast off. His voice, tired and muffled; mine, high and excited. It is one of many, tucked away or showcased with a bow. A face frozen in death isn’t on the menu, competing for space and attention.
I returned the past assignment to the canvas bag and pushed it aside, but it was too late. Something inside me had stirred, and, confronted with dust and cobwebs, the need to spring clean peeked out from behind a corner. A small cough reverberated down the hall. The laundry buzzer went off. The cat knocked over the trash can. Later.
Heidi Fisher teaches math and science at Thomas Jefferson School and runs a tutoring company. She has a BA in art history from Saint Louis University, a Masters of Bioethics from the University of Pennsylvania, and an MA in Health Care Ethics from Saint Louis University. Her work has been published by Harpur Palate, Sonder Midwest, and Literary Mama. She is interested in exploring the lived experiences of women and their relationships in her work.