I’ve been cleaning my house all summer, which isn’t particularly memorable except for the fact that I really don’t clean if I can help it. But my housekeeping habits are not, thankfully, the subject of this post.
In the process of cleaning, I gave away a shirt my sister gave me. It was peach, light and cottony, drawstringed at the bottom. It had a hole, and it didn’t fit me anymore. I’m only now realizing how much I regret having given it away- and not just because my sister happened to see it and even though she has said a hundred times she doesn’t mind, I still feel bad about it.
I regret letting go of the visual memory in that shirt. I was living in a rented basement full of spiders that was never ever warmer than fifty degrees, I had a job and an internship, both of which I hated, and I was finishing graduate school on the weekends. Looking back, I’m relatively certain I was depressed because the three things I remember most are angry tears, trying to drag myself out of bed in the morning, and a sense of grief and isolation. My sister overnighted a package to me in the midst of all this darkness. It had a bottle of lavendar nail polish, a package of gummi worms, and the shirt. I cried for hours over how much hope those three things gave me when I thought I couldn’t find any.
It was a horrendous time in my life and to this day I cope with it by alternately joking and pretending it never happened. The shirt served it’s purpose- it gave me hope, uplifted me, reminded me that people loved me and would no matter how bad things got for me. It didn’t fit. It had a hole. It was right to give it away, and yet I regret it because in just a glance from the shadows of my closet or a touch of the soft fabric, I could remember all of these things.
There are other things in my life heavy with memories. The t-shirt I wore on the worst date of my life. The song I listened to on my drives home from overnight CNA shifts on a dementia unit. The orangey cinnamon perfume I wore my first year of college. The smell of spaghetti cooking on a cold winter evening. Bing Crosby singing White Christmas, which transports me home to the living room of age ten while my sister played piano and my dad sang as he did the dishes and I didn’t worry about anything of consequence. The strong sharp chai I drank doing homework at my childhood friend’s kitchen table. The lumpy stuffed lamb I’ve had all my life, part puppet and part stuffed animal. The coarse flannel of the blanket I was given after finishing my final performance in high school theatre. The feel of cold winter wind in my hair and thumping bass as I drove home from community theatre rehearsals my first year in a small town after college. The taste of a banana shake the day the neurologist confirmed I wasn’t dying. The smell of fresh hay and cut grass through the windows as I drove home ahead of a moving trailer when I finally left that terrible basement and horrible year behind.
The things that hold our memories aren’t always obvious until something happens. You turn on the radio and suddenly you’re fifteen and falling in love again. You sit down to dinner and suddenly you’re caught in a moment of pride and joy and celebration from ten years ago even though in this time it’s just another Tuesday night. You send a shirt out the door and realize it was holding a tiny piece of your heart. It’s like meeting yourself coming and going- encountering the ghosts of all the selves you’ve been, and maybe a few you aren’t just yet. Seeing yourself as a stranger, just for a moment.
This is good. The only way to know who you are is to see who you’ve been- all the good and all the bad, all the broken and all the whole- and acknowledge that pieces of all those past selves are still in you. But they’re also not you anymore. You are more than the sum of your experiences and moments. You are more than your triumphs, mistakes, broken hearts, angry words, shed tears, greatest achievements. You are a future in which all of those pieces have impact but not power. You are the accumulation of every one of those things plus something more. The person you’re becoming. Give your moments and memories their due. Look around you, touch, smell, listen. Then make it all mean something.