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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Some Things I Found that Day

Patti Callahan Henry


Last month I went crazy cleaning out closets and drawers in a house we’ve lived in for fifteen years with three wild children. Stuff. Lots of stuff. Of course I’ve cleaned out along the way, the crib, the stroller, stuff like that. But these were things I had labeled “storage” and were still in “storage”.


Some things I found that day: My Brownie uniform; my breakup letter to college boyfriend; journals from middle school; letter from a boy I met on a cruise; daughter’s baptism dress, Precious Moments cross-stitched wedding present; wedding veil; a dress I smocked for my daughter (YES, I sewed and smocked a Christmas dress she never wore). There were many, many other things, which all made me pause and remember the different phases and seasons of my life.

Until today I haven’t given much thought as to ‘why’ I save these things (some of which I’d forgotten I’d even saved), why every time I find them I save them again and again. I’m not preserving them for when I die and my kids must go through my boxes and decide what to keep or throw away. No, I’ve kept them for myself, but why?

The Brownie uniform is proof of a part of my life of which I have absolutely no memory of being a part of. The college boyfriend’s letter is proof of my broken heart, and then there is the memory of going on a cruise after college graduation, and then the days I had only one child and then she was baptized.

The journals are the best. For some reason I thought it was important to write down what I did each day. Roller skating. I hate Billy. Church. Washed car. I wrote these things like I was stapling myself to life, making sure my days didn’t get away from me. I needed to put something in each blank space as if proof I’d lived that day.

The one thing all this ‘stuff’ in storage have in common: I barely remember that part of my life. I will bet that if I could be that seven year old in the brownie uniform I’d feel an emotion that seems so, so important. I’d bet that at that moment I’d believed that what I felt and saw were the most important things in the world, nothing would ever be different and my problems were the only problems that mattered.

When I wrote that letter to my college boyfriend, I thought I’d never love like that again; I thought my heart was permanently and utterly broken. When I was on that cruise, I believed that nothing could ever be that fun again. When Meagan was baptized I thought I’d never again love that deeply.

I don’t know why this is the way it is, why we forget what we know, but we do. Sometimes I’ll read a paragraph in a book I wrote and I’ll have no recollection of ever having written those words in that order. I have a friend who was cleaning out files and found an entire novel she forgot she’d written – I hate her for that. That’s a much better find than a break-up letter.

So why do I save some of this memorabilia? I think I save them for many reasons.

* To remind myself that everything does pass: the good, the bad, the sad, the glorious, the awful. It all passes and another day comes and then another day. We change and grow and life’s pages turn, sometimes these days go too slowly, and sometimes too quickly.

*Time is relevant. The days after that break up letter moved much slower than the days during the cruise.

*There are parts of my life that I don’t remember at all, but they still make me who I am now. I want to always be able to see all the pieces of me that make me. I don’t necessarily need to remember that part of my life for it to have influence over my thoughts and actions. I like this reminder because it makes me aware of the fact that there are hidden things at work in my life. When I wore that brownie uniform I was still Patti, still me, and yet a me I don’t know at all. This is a mystery and I like to be reminded of that mystery.

Who I am now, she too will change. These feelings will pass. This day will pass. The sad will pass. The joy will pass. People will leave my life; new ones will enter. My kids will grow; I will become older; I’ll grieve; I’ll rejoice; I’ll weep; I’ll laugh.

I do know this: I also save all these things because there is this storyteller inside me and she likes to see the narrative arc of a story. She wants to look at all that has already happened and then ask, “Wow, I wonder what will happen next?”

Maybe that is why we as novelists write stories because not only do we wonder what will happen next but also because stories are permanent. Someone can read the book ten years from now and it will be the same story we wrote today. There is something about writing a novel or a story that has an intransience that not many things in this transient life have.

Once our life is lived, the story is told. There are many parts of our story that we don’t get to write – the beginning for example, but there are other parts we do get to write. And those parts, the ones we choose to write, do tell a story that is in many ways everlasting.

Maybe we save ‘stuff’ because we need to – every once in a while – stop in the middle of our story and look back, see where we’ve been, who we’ve been. These things, like chapters in a book, remind us of the pages we forgot we lived and help us live better now.

Once upon a time there was a girl named Patti Lynn Callahan; when she was seven years old, she was in Brownie Troup #345….






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