Spring Cleaning

The problem with the past is that it’s not even past. It usually lives in the closet.

I’ve spent the past few Sundays at my parents’ place, helping them clean out the basement storage room. So far, progress has been slow, and on any given week our game plan changes. My father gets called to the hospital to admit a patient. Mom needs a nap. Golf is on.

Last week, I was carrying out a box of old plastic jars that once held things like Skippy peanut butter and Folgers coffee, when my mom stopped me.

“Where are those going?”

“I thought I would recycle them,” I said.

“Those are good,” she countered. “You can put things in those.”

“Like what?”

“Like pasta.” She pulled out a tall jar that had once contained caramel corn. “This is perfect for spaghetti.”

“But it’s been in the basement,” I said. “You didn’t even know it was down there.”

Just then, my dad walked into the kitchen and pulled another jar from the box. “I could put golf balls in this one,” he said.

I gave up on the jars and went back to the storage room.

My parents are pile-makers—newspapers and magazines stacked on the dining room table, medical journals strewn over every desk. I knew they were hoarders of information, but plastic jars? Clearly, this was not going to be easy.

I found the Christmas decorations. (Keep.) I found scuba masks and fins, a plastic recorder, a Fisher-Price house with a doorbell that still rang—all big hits with my nieces and nephews. (Keep.) I found old braided rag rugs, made out of clothing scraps by my mother’s great aunts, preserved in dry-cleaning bags. They were literal pieces of our family history. (Keep.)

Finally, I located expendables: old cans of house paint and turpentine, destined for the hazardous-waste disposal site. But then I wondered if my parents would discover some use for those as well, in the way that they seemed to imagine unlimited possibilities for all the plastic containers.

Overwhelmed, I headed upstairs to what seemed like a more manageable project: cleaning out my old bedroom closet. I found yearbooks and high-school English assignments. I was reminded that I once knew how to diagram sentences.

I found the electric typewriter that I took to college in 1989, on which I’d tapped out my first short stories. I remembered the hum of it, the way it made the whole desk vibrate.

I found my portfolio from a college painting class; I got an A. The professor encouraged me to develop my skills in art. I never did.

I found an old calculus test. Another A. The instructor had written a note suggesting I take more math classes, given my talents. I had forgotten that I was good at math, that I loved the clarity of it, the way a formula could be applied to a problem, the way solutions took shape.

I came across French papers covered in red ink. My major. “Your problem is you think in English,” the teaching assistant had written, and given me a C. Why did I major in a subject I wasn’t good at? Why didn’t I ever take another math class? I could have been a painter!

I collected my old papers and my art portfolio, the typewriter, and class handouts, including an old biology paper titled “Mechanisms of Inheritance.” The phrase made me laugh. Obviously, the need to hang on to artifacts is genetic and powerful.

Yet I wasn’t any more ready to let go of these objects from my past than my parents were ready to part with their plastic jars. The papers and portfolio represented potential; they spoke of the former selves I had abandoned along the way. Wasn’t there still time to retrieve them? To put them back to use?

I set the items aside. Later I would put them in the trunk of my car, take them home, and sort through them. And maybe, in the end, I would throw away the French papers. Or not.