The Box

When we moved out of our old house, we did so in a hurry. It wasn't a lengthy, well thought-out process involving movers and special crates and lots of careful packing. Our belongings were thrown into a hodgepodge of cardboard boxes and then into the backs of various cars driven by a throng of helpful friends. Most of my furniture bears scars from the hasty exodus: chips and dents and scratches, a large spot of motor oil on my quilted box spring cover. That's what happens when a desperate woman flees a house so far underwater it may have well been a submarine.

Now, five years later, we are home. The kids say that this is our real house because "all of our good memories" are here. I think they're downplaying just how much of our old house still lives in us, and maybe that's a good thing. Maybe they're keeping the good stuff from that house somewhere safe for now. Maybe five years isn't long enough to forget how difficult it is to be uprooted.

Since my physical in January, the one where I found out I'm remarkably healthy but also a little fat, I've been enjoying daily walks with the dog. Through snow and slush and now mud and sun, every day Walter and I head out. We go between 3 1/2 and 6 miles at a stretch, depending on how much time I have and how long the sun stays up. 

Lately, we've been meandering down around our old neighborhood. Not through it, no...but skirting it. Walter strains at the leash when we get close. He pulls me towards our former street, like he has urgent business ahead. But something stops me, just shy of the sidewalk that would take us straight there, right up to the yard I used to tend. I can't even look, I avert my eyes as if the neighborhood is an old lover I left on bad terms. 

"No, Walter" I say to him, as he plants his paws stubbornly into the path. "Not yet. I can't." He looks at me and I swear to God his eyes are judging. If he could talk he'd tell me what a psycho I am. He'd tell me to get over it, to grow a set for Christ's sake. But I can't. And so we turn left instead of right, and walk away. 


William has claimed what was once my office as his bedroom. It's a funky little room, with 50's style wood paneling covering the walls and the ceiling. There's a built in dresser and cabinet, and a small closet. Back when we first moved in, the closet became a catch-all place for things I knew I had to keep, but didn't want to see. So there are old art projects from the kids, eBay inventory I never got around to selling, some old photography equipment of mine. And, there's a box. 

The box was one of dozens given to me by a neighbor all those years ago, a neighbor who worked in a grocery store. She supplied me with large, cardboard produce boxes, which were perfectly suited for my "stuff 'em and run" moving method. Nice and roomy, but not too big, they had handles on the sides and were sturdy. 

William is entering that magical adolescent period of time known as The Great Awakening, when teenage boys begin showering, applying product to their hair and caring about what they're wearing. He had some new clothes and since this was The Great Awakening, he decided the new clothes deserved to be hung up instead of piled haphazardly in eternally-open drawers or worse, piled on the floor. So, he was cleaning out the closet one night, and carried this particular box out into the living room. "Where should I put this?" he asked, holding it by the handles and using one knee to balance it. 

The box was red. There was a cartoonish apple on the side, along with the brand name, Superfresh Growers. I eyed the box, and noting the binders and notebooks, decided it was probably full of old tax paperwork and other miscellaneous office flotsam I'd been unsure about throwing away five years ago. Although I dreaded the idea of poring through ancient financial history, the thought of my teenager giving enough of a shit about something that he was cleaning moved me to say, "Put it down here, on the coffee table. I'll take care of it." I moved the remotes and the laptop out of the way, and the red box was placed in front of me. The apple was shiny. Superfresh.


Our brains are funny things. They are basically gray, mushy blobs which enable us to see and think and breathe and move. But they are also museums. Only not the kind of museum you have to walk through slowly and quietly, being very careful to not touch anything or get caught with a look on your face which might reveal that you think some of what you're seeing could have been created by a toddler armed with a paintbrush and a sugar high.

The museum in my brain is crowded with sounds and sights and smells. There are dark hallways and trapdoors and rooms without windows. I try to avoid those places because I'm the kind of person who will get lost in them, who will sit down among the cobwebs and the dust and let the darkness swallow me whole. I wasn't even thinking about my brain or museums as I sat down in front of the box. And then, as I began sifting through the vinyl binders and the crinkled manila envelopes, it started. The door to the museum creaked open and I wandered in.

This wasn't just a box. It was a portal, my own personal TARDIS that took me back, five years and before that. There, in that envelope? The papers in there represented a home equity line of credit. Dated just a year before my husband left me, with our signatures nestled snugly next to each other, together at the bottom. Oh, the things we were going to do with that windfall! The new kitchen, the new patio! The potential for so much newness was practically jumping off the pages. I didn't know it back then, but that line of credit was going to finance my husband's new life. And also, a shopping spree at the Coach store for his girlfriend.

Oh, and in that binder there? The blue one? Our original mortgage. The OG of our debt. I thumbed through the stack inside and felt the bony hands of the past pulling at me. Claws digging into my arms, dragging me down into the cellar of my museum. 

The box had more to show me. I found our second mortgage, and underneath that, two battered notebooks. I flipped open one of the notebooks and saw my handwriting, columns of scrawled numbers and words. Ahh. It came back to me, then. After he left, this was how I kept track of money and bills. Row after row of pluses and (mostly) minuses:

Charlie- lunch money  -$40.00
Molly- lunch money     -$40.00
Target                         -$56.00
Visa                            -$135.00
Countrywide Mort.    -$1,150.00

The words were scribbled and written in all sorts of shades of blue and red and even green. Some of it was written with colored pencils. I noticed then: even my handwriting looked terrified.

This box in front of me was a collection of milestones. Not sweet milestones, the kind you look back upon and smile fondly...no, these were awful milestones, shitty ones: past due notices, bills, a foreclosure notice. It was a box of sadness. A box chock full of betrayal and intentional fuckery.

I was deep in the bowels of the museum now, the living room around me had faded away and I was back in the old house. Hunched over the notebook, trying to figure out how I was going to stretch that $500 dollars out for another week. Trying to decide what I could cancel or cut or disconnect....

Apparently five years isn't long enough to erase the memories, to scrub the walls of the museum clean. I felt it that night, sitting there in front of the box. I touched the pages of the notebook and strands of worry wound up and encircled my fingers. My breath became shorter and goddammit, tears threatened. I started to get mad again, mad at that man and what he did and sad for me and so, so sorry for what the kids went through. And then, I turned the page and saw this:

"I love my mom" it says. There, amidst the wreckage of an old life, something beautiful. A child had picked up a pencil and then drew a picture. "I love my mom".

I smiled. Faint shafts of light appeared on the museum walls, and as I studied the drawing I found myself back in our living room. The bad feelings were scurrying away, back to the murky recesses they'd crawled out from. All of the other papers were tucked away, out of sight and out of mind, sheathed in their binders and folders and envelopes.

Back into the box.



The Landslide of Forgetting

It dawned on me in the toddler toilet-training aisle at Target, of all places. I was looking for a baby shower gift and was wandering through the baby section with a somewhat-annoyed 14 year old boy walking a safe distance behind me. He was mumbling something about "when can we go" and "you promised you wouldn't do this" and "you owe me Taco Bell now" (oh how I love when they tell me what I owe them. Someday I might type up a bill for services rendered and hand it over).

It was there in the sea of grinning cartoon characters and ohmygod so much chevron. A little section of those padded mini toilet seats you stick over the regular one. I pulled one down off of the display hook and held it for a second (really the only time it's okay to do so without rubber gloves and a surgical mask). I expected a flood of memories to wash over me, and was kind of disappointed when all I got was some fuzzy snapshots of little legs dangling from the big potty, and a muffled clip of hands clapping while a young mommy voice cheered "GOOD JOB".

The teenager was beside me then, the mumbling ceased momentarily. "Do you remember, William?" I asked him. "We had a seat just like this for all of you to use when you were little." He regarded the seat, and a small smile inchwormed across his face. "Yeah" he said, clear as a bell. "It was soft. I totally remember that." We sat there for a second, and if anyone had glanced over they would have seen an unusual sight: middle aged-mother and tall, gangly teen son, smiling at a toilet seat.

"I can't remember what ours looked like." I finally said. "All I can recall are bright colors and cartoony faces. What did ours look like?" William pursed his lips, thought about it and then replied, "I don't know." I put the miniature seat back on its hook and as we continued on down the aisle it began to bug me.

That seat had a spot, front and center, in the bathroom of our home for a good seven years. Four tiny tushies did their business on it countless times. God only knows how much time I spent cleaning it.

And here I was, well over a decade later, wracking my brain to remember. The teenager offered up a few suggestions: "Maybe it was Disney characters" he offered. "No!" I replied, because I remembered one thing for certain and that was I abhorred Disney characters on my kid's things. Don't even get me started on the cloyingly pastel baby versions of Mickey, Goofy, et al. Gah.

As we made our way to the infant-wear section, we batted ideas back and forth. Barney? Dear Lord. No. William suggested that maybe there weren't characters on it at all. Maybe just colorful shapes? Nah. There were forms, not human, but figures with heads and eyes and I think, limbs. Dammit.

Why was this bugging me so much? Gnawing at my brain, pinching my mind. "I know!" I announced, standing there in the middle of racks adorned with soft footed sleepers and eensy weensy outfits. "I'll call Molly." Molly is 19 and is a freshman in college. She possesses a keen recollection of days gone by, and also, millions more brain cells than me.

So there we stood, in Target, the again-restless boy shifting his weight from one foot to another while his mother called a girl in a dorm room 300 miles away.

Molly answered, and when I asked her what was hands down the most inane question, ever, she answered immediately:

"Sesame Street."

Boom. Yes. I saw it again, those maniacally happy heads of Big Bird, Elmo, Cookie Monster floating on a vinyl sea of white. There had been a removable plastic shield to catch the spray from the little boys (and hello, any way we can invent a giant spray-catcher for older boys??). I could see it there in our old little bathroom in our old little house, leaning up against the vanity waiting for the next toddler-sized offering, the next round of applause from a long ago version of me.

I thanked Molly and we laughed about potty seats and olden days. William and I finished up our shopping trip (gift card for the expectant mommy, because sensory overload for me). Our brief trip down memory lane ended and life continued on as usual.

Sometime later, maybe that evening, maybe the next day, I thought about all the other bits and pieces of the past I've forgotten. How many toddler outfits I'd loved, with their matching hats and socks, that are now obliterated from my memory banks. What was the book Henry had begged me to read at beditme for months on end? What truck did Charlie absolutely lose his shit over when we left it at the park that time? Toddler Molly used to have a collection of pacifiers, but only one would lull her to sleep. What did it look like??

My children are getting older, and to quote Stevie Nicks, I'm getting older too. The minutiae of our day to day life, those old timey days when I was so busy with four little kids who were constantly challenging me and a house that always seemed just a bit too small and a bit too messy...those things I thought I'd never be able to forget are now forgotten. Like the Diaper Genie and the booster seats and adorably adorable wee backpacks they'd proudly donned for those first days of kindergarten, they served their purposes and then faded into oblivion.

For a while there I was unsure whether or not I'd be able to handle all of it, the changes that were happening at a breakneck pace. The round faces giving way to cheekbones and whiskers, the hormones and the new friends and the late nights no longer spent wishing they'd go to sleep but wishing they'd get home. Graduations, proms and FAFSA forms and shopping for dorm bedding. It hit me, hard, exactly like a landslide and I didn't know if I'd survive. I mean, the kid who once had me crying with worry because he pushed a little girl over with his chubby three-year-old hands in the sandbox is now a junior in college who can stop at the liquor store to pick up a bottle of wine for me before he comes home to visit. (note: the sandbox incident did not result in a future bully and/or a life of crime)

But the thing is: just as the children have grown, so have I. After the initial shock of it all, that moment when I could no longer deny the seasons of my life were changing? It became painfully, beautifully clear.

I can handle it. And I remember just enough.


Happy Hair: Stream of Consciousness Sunday

The third grader regarded me, her head tilted, eyes squinted.

"You look different today, Miss Jenny" she said. I raised an eyebrow and asked her: "How so?"

Again with the tilted head and squinted eyes. She looked at me, hard. Trying to figure out what wasn't sitting right.

Finally, she spoke:

"It's your hair. That's what's wrong."

Gah. My hair. My Michelle Duggar/Hagrid love-child mop that sits on my head. It is, on the best of days, wavy and curly and soft. On the other 363 days of the year, it is a frizzy mess, several (but not fifty) shades of gray. And dark brown. And red. And Bozo the Clown orange.

My hair is almost always what's wrong.

I didn't say any of this to the child. She's young and doesn't need to know the stream of crazy that floats through my head all the live-long day. Instead, I smiled at her and asked:

"What's wrong with it?"

She was now facing her friends at the lunch table, focusing more on her sandwich than me. She turned and looked at me and said:

"Normally your hair looks happy. Today it looks kind of sad."

Happy hair! Oh how I loved hearing that. And that smart little girl. She was right. My hair has been looking sad as of late. I'm way overdue for a date with a box of dark brown hair color. Like, OMG my hair is freaking WHITE overdue. It's almost turned into a little experiment. How long can I go without coloring it, I wonder? Before people start asking me if I'm going to let it just go gray? Before the kids at school stop gasping and asking me if I'm aware that there is white hair on my head?

I have friends who eschewed the dyeing thing a long time ago. My best pal, Danielle, has a halo of pewter that is absolutely breathtaking. Sometimes I pretend there's something in her hair just so I can have an excuse to feel it. I'm always shocked that it isn't warm to the touch, like molten silver.

Another friend of mine, Maggie, has what she refers to as "tinsel" framing her face. It's perfect in placement, like someone actually took a brush dipped in sparkling silver paint and delicately dabbed the strands surrounding her beautiful mug. Her killer eyelashes and huuuuge brown eyes are highlighted by the tinsel.

There's a mom at school, who is much younger than me who has a head full of deep silver/gray hair. It's straight and absolutely perfect. I always want to compliment her on it, ask how long it took her to get it all that singular, swingy color. But I don't want to be that one creepy employee at her kid's school. You know the one...She Who Watches The Parents. And then talks to them.

I tried taking a selfie last night, so I could see what my own burgeoning crown of white looked like from a perspective that's different from my bathroom mirror. To my horror I discovered that it kind of makes me look like I'm going bald. Also, I might need bangs.

Today is Sunday. I have a million things I need to do: Go to the Home and Garden Show, pick a kid up and drop another one off, meet with two friends to plan a baby shower (yes, a baby shower, can you handle that??). Plus it's Walking Dead night. But I'm going to set aside a half hour or so, and spend some quality time with Loreal's Deep Soft Mahogany Brown. And maybe take a look at my checking account to see if there's room for a haircut in there.

Because if the hair isn't happy, nobody's happy.

Still reading? Thank you. This is my second stab at "Stream of Consciousness Sunday", hosted by blogger extraordinaire Fadra Nally. Five minutes of writing, no editing allowed! Check it out!
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