“Why can’t you wait until I’m dead?” my father asks in a plaintive tone that can reroute rivers.
“Because you’re not dead yet,” I reply, “but I still have to get this done.”
My father and I are sorting through years of papers, books and who-knows-what.
Actually I’m organizing while he’s sitting on the edge of his bed, scowling. A musty smell saturates the room. My eyes water. My nose tickles. And though I’ve been diligent about my allergy meds, our conversation is often punctuated by sneezes and sniffles.
This isn’t a pleasant task, reducing nine-plus decades of a life to a 12-by-12-foot bedroom. Outside the sun is bright, the sky cloudless. Temptation beckons. I can think of a million other things I’d prefer to do, but I grab grim solace from the knowledge I’m not alone in this thankless effort.
My friends and I are at an age — in our 50s and 60s, at the ledge of our own mortality — when we’re forced to change roles with our parents. After a death, or a fall, or a particularly onerous health diagnosis, we have to figure out what to do with their prized possessions, those tchotchkes that colored the background of our childhood but that now, suddenly, turn superfluous. It’s a challenge, no matter how resolute you are, no matter how patient you vow to be.
Some of us end up rifling through our parents’ lives in the fog of mourning, when we inherit a houseful of old furniture and photo albums. One friend spent several evenings in her late mother’s house, picking through closets and drawers. She discovered not only unused items still in boxes but also a whole other level of grief, one fueled by the realization that her mother’s treasures held little value for the rest of the family. Nobody wanted her tacky collectibles. Finally, after almost a month, my friend threw up her hands and hired a professional.
My friend labored alone, but I have an audience of one. I’m nudged along by necessity. Until recently my father’s crowded bedroom down the hall was just an eyesore. But now that he has started to use a walker, the unpacked boxes have turned into an obstacle course, a danger. So…
Over the course of a few days, I spend hours on a job no one else in the family wants. I divide a life into categories — the keep, the toss, the giveaway — and of course grumble and grouse loudly while I’m doing it. In the process, I come across snippets of my own childhood: a report card, photos, crayoned greeting cards, a bracelet charm. But the most surprising find is a short stack of my family’s royal blue Republica de Cuba passports.
In quiet leisure I page through the stamps that date my early life as a refugee: departure from Cuba, entry and exit from Spain (my mother’s birthplace), and finally the graying imprint of our final destination. New York. November 17, 1961. Vague memories rush unbidden: the Miami house we shared with other relatives, our first Christmas, the unfamiliar school lunches, the struggle to learn English. For a few fleeting moments I’m no longer a grandmother but a frightened child trying to make her way in foreign surroundings. I have a clear view of the steepness of the climb.
I pocket my ancient passport and prop it on my desk, next to the computer monitor.
The next day the job is no less daunting, but I’m a bit less prickly, a little more patient. I pretend I’m an archeologist excavating fossils of personal history. A bone here, a tusk there, a smattering of preserved possessions everywhere. I remind myself that you never know when the most insignificant discovery will yield a peek into yesterday, a gentle reminder.