Parents Talk Back

The last time I visited my parents’ home, my father kindly suggested that I consider taking back my childhood junk that had been sitting in their garage for more than two decades.

In fact, he had done me the great favor of sorting through a half-dozen boxes of sentimental scraps, pulling together the stuff he deemed most worthy of saving into two sturdy Home Depot boxes, and sealing them shut with what appeared to be a significant amount of packing tape.

Never let it be said that I can’t take a hint.

Since we were traveling by plane, I figured it made sense to mail the boxes back from Texas to Missouri. We loaded the boxes, which were filled with papers, books and photos, into the car and headed to the nearest post office. When we hoisted the box on the weight scale, I realized this would a pricey trip down memory lane. I asked the clerk if the boxes could be sent through the cheaper rate of media mail, which I had used before to ship books. It cut my shipping costs by more than half.

When she asked if I wanted to insure the items, I smiled and said no. What kind of value could I put on the complete set of school yearbooks from kindergarten through college? Or personal letters I’d saved from college or journals I’d kept while traveling through Egypt and Turkey when I studied abroad? The value of our life memorabilia doesn’t translate well to dollars.

I left the post office proud of the money I’d saved on this final act of adulting -- no longer using my parents’ garage as a storage facility. I was also more than a little curious about what I’d find when I opened those boxes and sifted through my dad’s collection of my elementary school report cards, artwork and school reports.

You can see where this is headed, can’t you?

Eight days later, an unfamiliar package arrived at my doorstep. It was much smaller than the box I had mailed, but the mailing address from the old box had been cut out and retaped on this one. Inside, there were some of my elementary school and college yearbooks and nothing else, except a letter from the United States Postal Service.

“During the processing of your package, the contents became unsecured and required rewrapping in order to forward it to its destination,” it said. If anything was missing, it suggested I send “an accurate and detailed description of each item” to the Atlanta Mail Recovery Center.

My heart sank. I wasn’t going to see any of that stuff again.

It wasn’t the first time I had lost a stash of cherished mementos. Lightning struck our home when I was in high school, and part of our home caught on fire. Letters I had saved from my grandfather and notes and cards and diaries from grade school and middle school turned to ash.

This time, more than the physical items, I mourned the loss of never knowing how my father had curated those memories, what he had saved for decades in hopes of passing on to me. I dreaded calling him with the news.

“I have some bad news,” I said. He took it worse than I did.

“It’s all your life work ... they threw it away?” he asked, incredulous. “This is unbelievable.”

He told me I needed to write to the postmaster general. Tell him your dad had saved everything from your elementary school drawings to the research you did in college, he said. “Things I felt like were important. ... It was so much stuff. I cannot imagine this.”

I told him not to be so upset. “Tell them you will gladly go into a warehouse in that center in Atlanta,” he told me. He wanted me to dig through whatever was stored there until I recovered my lost papers.

I wasn’t going to go to Atlanta.

Of course, then he started blaming himself.

“I shouldn’t have asked you to take it,” he said.

“It’s going to be all right, Dad. It’s OK,” I said.

“No, it’s not all right, and it’s not OK,” he said.

Sometimes it’s hard for parents to let go of their kids’ memories.

For a week, I kept that stack of surviving yearbooks on the kitchen counter, feeling a pinch in my heart when I thought about things I didn’t even know I would miss, until my husband moved them to the basement.

Two weeks later, Hurricane Harvey hit Texas. I watched my hometown sink under water.

Friends’ homes destroyed. My old high school flooded. Family members evacuated and rescued. Then Irma, Jose and Maria. Puerto Rico, where the vast majority of the residents still lack power and many have resorted to drinking contaminated water to survive.

Then the fires in Northern California. So much destruction, all it once, it seemed.

I kept coming back one of my favorite quotes: “All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on,” Henry Havelock Ellis wrote.

I was glad my husband had moved those old yearbooks.

Letting go.

Holding on.

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