Five-minute memoir: the box of delights


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The Independent Online

The day after my father died, my aunt came to me and said, "You're an orphan now". It didn't matter that I was in my early forties, or that my mother had passed away years before – the fact remained, my dad was gone. My brothers, my sister and I were on our own, lost without the rudder that had once steered the family ship.

Fast on the heels of the funeral came the business of dismantling my parents' house. My sister could barely bring herself to walk across the threshold. My two brothers looked on, helpless and sad, as I sat at the kitchen table and cried.

Nearly 50 years of accumulation filled every corner of the place. "It's like a freakin' episode of Hoarders," my brother-in-law announced after inspecting the garage with crass, unsentimental eyes.

"Our memories are tied to that so-called mess," I countered. "When life's good, you don't want to let go of any part of it." No matter what troubles had occurred in my life, my childhood and my parents' marriage had been solid, as good as it gets.

When I offered to stay on to help sort through the rooms, my eldest brother kindly said, "Go home. I've got this".

It's 1,200 miles as the crow flies from my hometown in Indiana to my current home in Nova Scotia. I'd made a new life in Canada with my husband and children, filling the drawers and closets of a seaside farmhouse with the stuff of our memories. It'd been difficult to be away from them, but harder still to say goodbye to my childhood home.

It was a good thing I left when I did. Forty-eight hours after my plane touched down in Halifax, my 18-year-old son went into hospital for an emergency appendectomy. Texts and phone calls flew back and forth between my siblings and me.

"Is the kid going to be OK?"

"It was touch and go, but he's fine now."

"What do you want from the house?" my brother finally asked.

"I don't know. It's too soon."

"Think about it. Make a list. Let me know."

There was a tea set that my father had sent from Japan when he was stationed there as a flight mechanic in the US Navy. It'd seemed wonderfully exotic to me, delicate and sophisticated, a part of my parents' world that I hadn't shared with them. I put it on my list.

"Anything else you'd like?"

"I'd like dad's photographs and picture albums."

"All of them?" my brother asked with fair bit of scepticism. "There's more here than you might think."

"If you're willing to pack them, I'll pay for the shipping."

The boxes arrived en masse, the scent of my parents' attic infused in every inch of cardboard, every book binding, every paper sleeve and photo-shop envelope. It was almost more than I could bear.

As the youngest in the family, I'd spent many hours with a box of photographs dated 1954-1968, the years between my parents' wedding and the date of my birth. I'd loved going through the pictures of their first trip to the Smoky Mountains, their first house in Indianapolis. I'd count the family dogs I never knew, the pencil skirts my mother wore à la Elizabeth Taylor, the freckles on my sister's nose the year she lost her first tooth.

My siblings teased me whenever they caught me gazing at their past. "You wouldn't remember that," was their collective refrain. "That was before you were born." I didn't mind their light-hearted cruelty. The enchantment I felt from looking at the photos far outweighed their words. Like Alice through the looking glass, I had travelled to a magical world, one that was mine alone.

A few weeks later a final box arrived at my door. The note read: 'Open me'.

The box was filled with slides, images I was sure I'd never seen. The massive shoulders of The Great Buddha of Kamakura. Aerial photographs taken from high above Mt Fuji. Images of a skinny young man, dressed in Navy whites – a boy from a small town in Michigan who'd gone from building model aeroplanes to learning to fly a Navy plane. A young man who looked strikingly like my son.

I placed each slide, one by one, into the hand-held portable viewer my brother had included in the package. My son and I huddled together on the couch, peering at the small screen, amazed by what we saw.

"When were these taken?" he asked, his voice filled with wonder.

I looked at the date that had been written on one of the slides. June, 1952.

"Before your grandparents got married." I answered with a smile. "Before any of us were born."

'The Virgin Cure' by Ami McKay is out now in paperback by Orion