I visited my basement storage room not long ago. It is crammed with boxes, furniture, half-finished crappy crafting projects, pictures, and piles of long forgotten whatnots. It’s a mess that might scare the heartiest of dumpster divers.
I lifted the lid off a certain cardboard box to find A Brief History of High School. Inside were triangular and square folded notes, all so very high-schooley with loopy cursive and secret abbreviations. “Long live Frank ‘n Furter,” read one. (A few of us were obsessed with Rocky Horror Picture Show.) There were my pom poms and cheerleading outfit. I picked up the skirt that sadly now only fits on my big toe. There was my overstuffed senior year scrapbook with funny messages from friends signed, “Friends 4ever” and “Stay cool.” As I flipped through it, a sappy entry from my then-boyfriend caught my eye. It was about how we’d be married one day. I chuckled. Remember how convinced we all were that our first loves would be our only loves? There was a worn copy of The Iliad that reminded me of Mr. Mendenhall, the teacher who taught me to love mythology and literature, taught me how to write, and whose gentle, constant encouragement has kept me putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. Memories and people rose from the box like ghosts, one after another. I smiled and wanted to hug their apparitions.
We all have these spaces: tucked-away rooms where stuffed animals languish, where letters and book pages yellow, where the clothes that used to fit mock us, where dusty photo albums await page turning, and where outdated furniture bides its time until the inevitable trip to the dump or college dorm room. People call them junk rooms, but they aren’t. They are little museums of us, and much of that stuff is important artifact. (Well, maybe not that hideous leopard print bean bag over there in the corner.)
As I maneuvered through that crowded room, I accidentally toppled a box full of notebooks. I’ve kept journals since I was a teenager, but in the darkest years of my marriage I wrote more words than I will probably write for the rest of my life. One notebook fell open to a tear-stained page that contained furiously scrawled words like lonely, confused, and what the hell am I going to do? I had forgotten it was there. I turned the crinkled pages and was reminded of fights big and small, rage, sadness, and comments my then-little girls had made like “Why are you crying, mommy?” But there were also long, overwrought entries about the meaning of love and life, and moments of joy. There was an embarrassing amount of truly awful “poetry” that will never see the light of day. (You’re welcome.) I was by turns grateful and horrified to be reminded of my past scribblings. I’d been writing a spiral-bound memoir of marriage without knowing it at the time. But it was a little too much to bear, so I crammed the notebooks back in their box to await the time that I can read them without cringing (which may be never).
The next box gave me a start for it contained the first note to me left by my soon-to-be ex-husband after we’d been dating only a couple of weeks. “I miss you. Wish you were here,” had been scribbled on a bank deposit envelope, evidence of urgency. It was left on the landing of my apartment building with a rose atop it. I had been on a trip abroad and, bleary-eyed from travel, stepped on it before I saw it upon my return. I had giggled and looked around to see if he were still there, smelled the rose, ran my fingers over the indentations, and regretted my footprint on it. I read it over and over hoping that it meant a future with him. I entered my apartment and tucked it (and the rose) away to keep forever.
It’s not often that you have physical evidence of something that changed you, but there it was: the moment I began to fall in love with him. When things go wrong in a relationship, it’s the wrongness that dominates our minds. We forget the purity of beginnings. The beauty of them and all the wonderful moments that follow become smothered in the smog of the present. I was grateful to be reminded of the beginning our story. We were quite happy once. That note was a salve that tempered the wound of the previous box.
Then there were the photo albums. The wedding. We got married near Halloween and had a medieval costume ball reception. We decorated the banquet room of a hotel in Philly to look like a castle. Our friends were lords and ladies clad in elaborate velvet costumes. We were the king and queen of that castle, if not our future. Thinner versions of all of us laughed and lifted champagne flutes, mugging for the camera. It was a fantastic wedding. I stared at that young, unknowing couple. A lump formed in my throat. A great wedding does not a great marriage make. I had to close the album.
Childhoods, those of my children, appeared then. Happy faces smeared with paint and birthday cake icing. First days of school. Christmases. Family vacations. My own chubby just-given-birth face staring back at me wearing an expression of pure delight as I held my eldest daughter for the first time. There was her dad peering at her sweet, tiny face and I remembered that he kept whispering through tears She’s perfect, she’s perfect. The pictures came to life like an old home movie, monumental and ordinary moments alike flickering before my eyes. Wisps of happiness and sorrow swirled together in my head.
My mission in visiting this room was to prepare for eventually moving out of this house – our home. This is a painful yet necessary step of divorce. I was there to jettison the junk and separate our belongings so we can separate ourselves. Yet so many of the items weren’t junk at all. Object after object meant something to me and, put together, they are evidence of my life. They are also evidence of a life I no longer live.
They are evidence of a life I no longer live. This thought punched me in the stomach. I was surrounded by what was, not what is. It’s not dissimilar to friends who at this moment are going through loved ones’ belongings observing fragments of someone else’s life. It feels like that, in a way – like all these things belonged to someone else, so far away they are from the present me.
For awhile in that room, knee deep in the past, I was solemn and forlorn. The items, words, and photos that were of coupledom and family life made me grieve all over again for what’s been lost. But then, as I willed my heart to stomp thumping so hard, I realized that they are gifts. They are a road map through my past indicating the moments that gave me joy and made me me.
It’s a universal truth that all the moments of our lives – the joys and triumphs as well as the mistakes and challenges – bring us to where we are and who we are. I’ve often wondered what I would change in my life if I got a do-over. Would I have said some stupid, hurtful thing to a friend? No. Would I have been a shrieking shrew in a silly fight over laundry? Of course not. Would I have attended so many keg parties in college? Well, yes…those parties were friggin’ awesome. But would I change the Big Mistakes, the ones that would have drastically altered my path? Not at all. That may be surprising. Why suffer a certain choice, or set of choices, if you had the chance not to? Because of what you learn and become in the process. A meaningful life is not one in which you never make mistakes, it’s one in which your mistakes make you better. Show me a person who’s never made a wrong turn and I’ll show you someone who’s never properly lived.
This is certainly true of my marriage. As those photos, boxes of trinkets and souvenirs, and furniture (even that damn leopard print bean bag) reminded me, my marriage gave me love, a life, a home, and, most astoundingly important, my children – the loves of my life.
Mistakes, heartbreak, and disillusionment gave me something, too. The rocky times in my marriage strengthened me, even if it sometimes felt like they might destroy me. When I was wallowing and unsure about what to do, I decided to feed my wanderlust instead. I began exploring the world again and that helped me discover things about myself I never would have known otherwise (like I can eat a meal alone in a foreign country and not drop dead from fear). When things seemed dire and I worried for my financial future, I got a job – the one that now sustains and rewards me. I found an outlet for my creativity. I found a network of friends, a community. In my work, travels, motherhood, and even in my struggles, I found myself. I wouldn’t change a second of it. Oftentimes I think hardship teaches us more than joy anyway. It certainly shows us what we’re made of, revealing at turns our ugly underbelly and our capacity for strength and change.
As I put lids back on boxes, closed photo albums, and wiped away a couple of tears, I felt a deep calm wash over me. There in my musty basement not-junk room were the artifacts of my everything, my flaws, my happenings for a reason, my museum of me. And I was glad for all of it.
What’s in your museum of you?