I think it started when my first grade teacher had us make memory boxes out of shoeboxes. I used the box from my father’s new size eleven New Balance sneakers. I covered it in blue tissue paper and gold paint and called it a treasure chest even when no one asked. It was my treasure chest.
Ms. Smith wore bright red lipstick and cotton blue dresses. She generally addressed the class in the same voice most people address toddlers in: a higher octave then her normal voice pronouncing each syllable slowly. Her voice reminded me of syrup the way it flowed from her lips through the room enveloping each student, making them all stop in their tracks and sit quietly to listen. It was sweet, inviting, and viscous.
“Now, a memento is an object that reminds you of a certain event in your life,” the words seeped from her lips as she explained what were supposed to use our boxes for. “A movie ticket stub can be a memento of a time you went to a movie with your family, or a sea shell for a time you went to the beach. The point is that you can put anything you want in the box as long as you think it is special.”
It had been years since I had looked at this box. It was bursting by the time I turned nine and started keeping journals. From then until college it rested on the top self of my closet gathering dust. I peaked inside it just before officially moving out of my parents’ house the first time and I laughed so much I decided to take it with me to gather dust on the top self of a closet in my new apartment.
I had forgotten it again, but this time it was different. Forgetting happens more often now. I felt like a lonely old housewife when I had to ponder: did I leave the stove on. I eventually gave up on the contraption all together realizing it was much easier keeping track of sandwich ingredients than the ingredients of my famous casseroles. Forgetting used to be ok. My sister would bring over the can of beans I forgot to pick up. My friends would bring cheese and crackers. My mother would inexplicably call me to explain the recipe again even though I assured her I remembered the last hundred times.
Now, however, my sister and her husband had moved south, my friends still had busy lives with work, and my mother was long gone.
I had taken up reading my journals in the past month. Each was filled with things I never dared to tell anyone. I liked to smell my best friend Patty who sat in front of me in class. I followed a boy for a week, partly out of boredom and partly because he was my first real crush. I let the same boy finger me in the stairwell when we were in high school.
The box was different though. I compiled its contents at a time when things were always a new discovery, and I liked to keep new discoveries to myself. I was a quiet child.
I sat down on my old couch, which creaked with my joints and placed the box on the coffee table before me. I took a deep breath and sighed before taking the lid off and gently placing it on the seat next to me.
I remember Ms. Smith saying that the mementos were supposed to help us always remember, but as I peered through the contents of the box I struggled to cling to those old memories. There was an old dried flower, which may have been a dandelion at some time, that I vaguely recalled someone in my class giving me. There were ticket stubs to movies I didn’t remember seeing; friendships bracelets I didn’t remember making; even pictures of people I barely recognized.
I read the names written in my own childish scrawl: Lindsay, Stanly, Becca—no, I still didn’t recognize them.
Before I knew it, I was surrounded by the contents of the box without relishing in the moment of even one complete memory. The idea settled in me; that with age and ill health I couldn’t even remember my own life. How could I expect anyone really remembering it after I was gone.
Dying is ok, sometimes. You can accept it as part of life when you know that you have at least lived a life.
I had to leave my job two years earlier when I started getting sick. I married once to only get divorced a mere two years after our vows. I was never one to stake the purpose of one’s life solely on creating a family, but it would have been a nice thing to fall back on as the rest of my life was being stripped away.
I tried to start cleaning up and putting the mementos back into the dusty old shoebox, but the tears started to come anyway.
Damn, Ms. Smith for telling me I would remember. Damn her for making collect all of these silly things just so that they could collect dust in my closet, just so I could look at them to not see how far I’ve come—how much I’ve lost.
I took a minute to wipe my tears. I couldn’t bring myself to throw the box out and so only placed it back on the top shelf I forgot it on in the first place. Someone else would have to throw it out for me.
I was tired and crawled into bed still wearing my robe lumbering with such newfound heaviness. I let myself collapse onto the soft mattress and snake my way under the covers. The afternoon light was soft, but my eyes were too heavy to look out the window. Part of me felt like moving, but I didn’t want to move. My body was saturated with sleep, relaxed on the softest bed; why would I want to move.
“What’s that big smile for?” my father asked me crouching down to meet my eye level. He had kind eyes with long crow’s feet.
“Nothing,” I beamed brightly, “Only I got something else to put in my treasure chest.”
“Oh why won’t you show me,” he pretended to beg. He was good at pretending and would even fool me of things well into my teens.
“Then that would ruin the secret,” I said selfishly.
I dreamed of a little girl. She was taking me somewhere, but I didn’t know yet. In my sleep I heard the phone ring. I would call them back later; I still didn’t want to move. I promised I would tell them if they promised to remember.
Emily Wierzbowski is earning her undergraduate degree in English Literature from the University at Albany. She grew up in one of those small neighborhoods that no one
knows of in Queens, NY.