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This winter, my mother told my sisters and me we had to spend a day over the holidays cleaning out the basement crawl space.
Though it’s been several years since my sisters and I had lived in the family home, the crawl space has been a convenient spot to toss stuff we didn’t want, or didn’t want to get rid of.
My mother was tired of going downstairs to fetch something useful – a cooler, say, or the patio furniture – and tripping over boxes of stuffed animals, textbooks and old Halloween costumes.
Naturally, we were reluctant. When you are an adult child, visits to the family home are times to regress to the years you lived there. They are for lounging around in pyjamas, waiting for meals to be served, squabbling with siblings over who has to take the garbage out, and being incredibly unforthcoming about evening plans (when asked “Where are you going?” you answer “Just out!”).
They are times for reverting to teenage sloth, not schlepping heavy boxes up stairs.
However, starting around September, my mother had sent regular reminders that by 8 a.m. on the appointed day, we were expected to be underground sifting through boxes of what was referred to as either “your old treasures” or “your old junk,” depending on her mood.
My sisters and I dutifully – if somewhat resentfully – reported for crawl-space duty.
Exploring the collapsing cardboard boxes, I discovered an array of treasures. Three enormous boxes held what seemed to be my entire academic output from ages 12 to 24. I’d obviously been naively optimistic that a day would come when I’d have a hankering to peruse old CanLit essays (sample line: “Quebecois novels are filled with snow and incest.”).
I stumbled on a pile of cardboard. At the top: a life-sized cut-out of George W. Bush that two friends had seat-belted into their car during a road trip to visit me. Underneath that was an enormous whiteboard my university roommates and I had covered with then-hilarious, now-indecipherable “funny quotes,” most of which had bled into small puddles of spilled beer. And at the bottom was the poster board from my Grade 7 science fair project, when I’d soaked teeth in cola (the photos are a vivid reminder of the importance of dental hygiene).
In a dark corner were two massive and possibly freon-leaking air-conditioning units I had thought it thrifty to stash in the basement. Balanced on top of them was a stack of newspapers issued on the most pivotal days of my adolescence – my birthday, the first day of the millennium, the day Titanic won all its Oscars. A tangled pair of Tamagotchi pets, long since passed on to the electronic afterlife, topped the pile.
We found a dead mouse, perfectly intact. The crawl space had, apparently, become a mausoleum for mice as well as memories. “How did it die?” we mused. Nibbled on petrified rose remains from a long-forgotten first date? Knocked on the head by a falling pile of cassette tapes? Scared to death by an old playbill for Cats?
What surprised me most wasn’t what I found, but the emotional response it still elicited. I felt an embarrassing surge of pride at seeing the 20 out of 20 I earned on a Grade 10 Latin quiz (“Laudationes tibi, Iulia? Optimum!”).
Looking at high-school photos, I felt a familiar twinge of teenage awkwardness (coupled with alarm at what I had chosen to wear in public – those were the crop-top years).
I could barely look at a cookie tin full of “Participant” ribbons from elementary school track meets. They were a painful reminder of how unsuccessful I had been at the triple jump.
It struck me that I had kept all these boxes so that one day – this day, the day we cleaned out the crawl space – an older me could look through them and be reminded of who I had been. The boxes held examples of what I had valued and thought important enough to keep. They were signifiers of phases of my life, souvenirs from years past.
And I was quite moved by my younger self: her overestimation of my future interest in our high school essays; her brave commitment, but ultimate failure, to master the triple jump’s hop-skip-jump; the care she had taken in gluing all those photos of decaying teeth.
But then, of course, memories are unreliable, and we look at the past with the benefit of hindsight and experience. I can afford to look kindly upon my younger self and smile at her little anxieties because I have grown from her, learned from her, and moved on to a whole new set of trials and aspirations.
And, no doubt, one day I will smile ruefully at the memory of myself as I am now, shake my head and think: “Was I ever really like that?”
In the end, we threw out and recycled most of what was in the basement. But I did keep a small collection of things – a few essays, the university whiteboard, a “Participant” ribbon, all watched over by George W. Bush – for the next time we clean out the crawl space.
Julia Macleod lives in Toronto.
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