I’ve been semi-paralyzed for the past several days.
In the aftermath of trauma, it’s often that way.
When you’ve been in fight-or-flight stress for an extended period, there’s a feeling afterwards… when it finally stops… that reminds me of an antique rubber band that finally snaps. It just lies there, dead and flaccid, stretched beyond the point of elasticity or movement.
I ran across a good number of those broken bands last week.
They snapped as I picked up musty-smelling bundles of ancient letters. They snapped as I unrolled 19th century diplomas. They snapped as I rearranged stacks of black and white photographs of bomb-destroyed German towns. Every time a rubber band snapped, whatever had been held together spilled out into confusion and disorder.
I think I may have snapped, too.
My sister and I are experiencing a little PTSD.
The final dismantling of our childhood home was traumatic in every way: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Our backs are messed up and our minds are mixed up. Our emotions are roiling, and we’re trying to interpret what it all means on a spiritual level.
It make take a while.
The things that were uncovered.
Unlike her firstborn daughter, my mother always kept an immaculately clean, neat, beautiful house. So no guessed Family Secret No. 1:
My father was a hoarder.
Actually, he was the son of hoarders, the grandson and great-grandson of hoarders, the great-great nephew of a hoarder. He was from a long and distinguished line of World Class Hoarders.
The further we got into the clean-out process, the more we discovered. The house looked perfect on the surface, but oh, what lay underneath! Box after box after stinky, rotting box. In the attic. In the cavernous basement. In the multitudinous wide closets throughout the house. In the storage rooms off the garage. Even in the bomb shelter.*
*(The house had been built in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Back then, it was a status symbol to have your own personal bomb shelter in case the Commies got riled again and nuked America. Originally, it was stocked with bunk beds, some kind of alternate air supply, candles, jugs of water and canned goods. Over the years, it morphed into a haunted house for my little sister and me, a wine cellar, and, finally, a depository of the overflow from the brimming basement. But it always reminded me of death.)
As did the boxes we unearthed in the last few weeks.
It was dead people’s stuff.
I don’t think my powers of description are sufficient to explain it adequately.
This is what must have happened: The first hoarder in the family saved every picture, every postcard, every dance card, every calling card, and every single solitary letter she ever received. Every stock certificate and land warranty and play bill. Political paraphernalia. Books. Newspaper clippings. Even hair clippings. Whole braids. (This wasn’t considered unusual or macabre in the 19th century.)
When she died, her son came into possession of these souvenirs of her life. I suppose he meant to go through it all one day. But then I suppose he got too busy living life to do it. And then I suppose he died and the same thing went on with his stuff. The relatives emptied drawers into boxes to take home and “go through one day.” But their lives got busy, and then they died, and then….
life happened and then death happened.
My father thought he would be the one to make sense of it all. After his retirement from practicing medicine, he hired secretaries to help him. He got them to transcribe his letters from Germany during WWII. He researched genealogy, going back centuries. He started copying and organizing the antique pictures and articles.
But his health fell apart before he could finish. The result is that things were even worse when he died… because there was twice as much, and it was all in different places.
And it wasn’t just papers and pictures we were bequeathed. A Renaissance Man, our father was a major Collector: Art, artifacts, coins, stamps. Thousands of records. Books. Nazi paraphernalia he brought back after WWII. National Geographics and Life Magazines from the ‘40’s. And the china, crystal, silver, and bric-a-brac of at least three generations. Plus their diaries and crumbling scrapbooks.
Much of the stuff we had to process in record time was historically or monetarily significant. So even though we had two double-wide dumpsters, we couldn’t just throw everything away.
Towards the end, that is exactly what we longed to do. It all seemed extraordinarily meaningless. Even sickening.
Here’s the irony: I was a history major. There was a time in my life when I would have been fascinated by this stuff.
But there was just so much of it that any joy of discovering keys from the past was obliterated by the crushing volume of it all.
It reminded me of when God gave the grumbling Israelites so much bountiful meat that they vomited up the surfeit.
Too much is as bad as not enough. If not worse.
There was even too much information. We found out some things we wish we didn’t know.
In the aftermath of the last frantic days of organizing, shredding, packing, and emptying, we felt utterly drained, bruised, fragile, and sad.
Trying to make sense of it all.
The overwhelming question is why?
Why did my father’s family hold on to so many things? Save so many souvenirs?
Returning to my own house after a day of hard work, I began looking around at things in a new light. There’s too much stuff there, too. Too many pictures. Too many books. Too many papers. Too many meaningless objects. My kids will be just as mad at me one day if something doesn’t change.
I asked myself How did this happen?
A phrase emerged from the memory bank and challenged me:
Are you a tourist or a pilgrim?
I've been haunted by it ever since.
(to be continued.)