Monday, August 11, 2008

Cleaning Memories

So the big move is underway.

Since I'm not allowed to pick anything up these days, my job is to pack the valuables and unpack them later. First day of valuables--books. Yeah, like that involved not picking anything up. I lifted a book on Restoration authors and literally cursed the name of the author. That book was HEAVY--not to mention the Norton Anthologies. Then I took it back, of course.

Yesterday's valuables? Family things. It's always sad for me to pack them away, even if it's just for a trip to the next county like this move is. I was somewhat astounded this morning to realize that sometimes it's even sadder to unpack them.

My mother's nationalization flag. It's a small flag, from 1958--all fifty stars and thirteen stripes still bright although the gold paint on the little golden finial is faded. As I unpacked it and put it in its normal place over my desk, I wondered what my mother would say if she saw how cheaply that citizenship is held today. Chiding myself for my obsession with politics, I pulled the next item out of the box.

A crystal Vernus de Milo given to me by my grandmother--my French grandmother. The first time my mother took us (my brother and me) to France, we met our grandmother for the first time. Jeanne Herink was a woman who'd led a colorful life. Her husband, my grandfather Jean Herink, was a cafe' owner in Paris during WWII. When the Nazis marched into Paris, he opened his cafe' and its access to the cellars to the frantic flight of those leaving the city. He operated successfully in the French Underground until the Nazis evacuated just ahead of the Allied invasion. Apparently, he was suspected because the Nazis dragged him from his cafe' and executed him in the street before they left. His widow, my grandmother Jeanne, began an affair with a British officer--a lord,or so I was told. My mother hated that and resented her for it until the day she married my father. The day after, the two quarrelled over some teacups my mom wanted to bring to America and didn't speak for twenty years. Almost like us, in a way--that extended bitterness. The Venus de Milo, a little statuette that stands about 8" tall, was the first gift I ever received from her in her little apartment just across the river from the Eiffel Tower.

My grandfather's traveling clock. A small but heavy clock set into a heavy red leather case. I was told he'd brought it with him from Czechoslovakia as his family hurried west after the Bolshevik revolution in his native Russia. My mother was born there, in some town with an unpronouncable name that I only know from the turn of the century paperweight enscribed with its name. Both of them together, as they've always been, on the shelf with my Shakespeares.

A 19th century hand-sized Sonnets of the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barret Browning. She's my favorite poet from the Romantic era and this little book was the first thing I ever kept from my store inventory. It's faded and aged brown, although the little painted nosegay on the front still glows with light pastels, and I'm afraid to open it. It's in perfect condition, a time capsule from the 1890s and the ultimate temptation: it holds what I want, but I'm afraid to go get it.

The more I went through these things, the more I hung handles on them: Mom's things, Grandmere's things, Grandpere's things--rarely our things or my things. I've moved these things all over the country since my mother's death, revering them--almost sanctifying them because they were hers, or my family's--links back to people I can never see or touch again. These things I treasure, perhaps because they represent relationships or feelings or memories that I don't want to give up. A whole side of my family, and my daughters' heritage, lost save for the trinkets I preserve in my china cabinets and curios.

I think I'll write my family's story down for my kids. Then, one by one, I'll write the story of each little thing and pack it away with its history.

For them to find.