Emptying the Cabinet of Angst

A few weeks ago, I decided it was time to tackle the under-the-basement-stairs cabinet, which had been filled for the last decade with all the letters of my life. By “all,” I mean, all the letters I had received from childhood up until my early 40s. (Letters from the last 15 years, since the rise of email, are scant and have a cushy home in my office.)

Most of the letters were still in their torn envelopes, tossed together in a sturdy, white apparel gift box from The Union Co.  (a long-defunct fancy department store).  Others were stashed in shoe boxes, along with buttons, ticket stubs, a sign from my seventh-grade “Tequila Sunrise”-themed canteen. I found my social security card in a moldy wallet.

I had been putting off this excavation for years. I know that the process, the long backward gaze at my life, has depressed me before. This wasn’t the first time I rediscovered the diary given to me in 1971 by one of my dad’s girlfriends, the diary with a mod design. Each rediscovery makes me ache. In between fifth-grade-me’s single-entry “yawn”s and complaints about annoying siblings are entries from bitter eighth-grade-me—all because my father had found and read my original eighth-grade diary, full of salacious detail, which I tore up in anger. The leap from 11 years old to 15 is frightening. The blocky handwriting next to the rebellious cursive, with its angular “y”s, is evidence of my downward spiral from innocence.

And then the letters. Dozens of letters, from friends I can barely remember during a time that I’ve spent half my  life trying to forget. Most were painfully myopic. Thirteen-year-olds don’t write about anything but boyfriends, cheerleading tryouts, and dropped friends. Ten-year-olds write about pets and summer vacations. Seventeen-year-olds write about the unknown future, which is a little more interesting. Letters from a friend who moved briefly to Tehran at the time of the Shah’s overthrow were full of action and terror and love.

I found several letters that I had written to my mother. They were in a briefcase where she had kept her insurance documents and stationary. In my boxes of received letters, I couldn’t find a single one from her. I know she wrote to me once in a while. I had memorized her handwriting — petite, strange as a foreign accent, an insistent cursive. My letters to her (I could only bring myself to read a few) apologized for not keeping in touch, not writing or calling more often. I literally begged her forgiveness.

I threw away most of the old letters from friends. Their hold on me had long since loosened. My shoulders relaxed as I filled the trash can.

But I could not empty my mother’s briefcase. The clippings of Norman Vincent Peale columns, the letters from my siblings (similarly begging forgiveness), the UNICEF stationary cards remain preserved. It’s been 26 years since she died and I carry around this briefcase as if it contains something more than guilt:  a secret document in which she explains everything.

 

18 Comments Emptying the Cabinet of Angst

  1. PryvateLisa November 3, 2015 at 4:14 am

    I can’t even imagine the resolve it took to even sit down and go through these things. It’s one of the saddest rituals of adulthood, I think, the going through of your parents’ belongings. I love your writing, Meg. You always, always touch me deeply.

    Reply
    1. MegMeg November 5, 2015 at 4:41 pm

      Thanks so much for your kind words. It is a hard thing to do, isn’t it? <3

      Reply
  2. michellelongo November 3, 2015 at 11:07 am

    Oh, Meg. I feel this. Your writing is exquisite as always.

    Reply
    1. MegMeg November 5, 2015 at 4:41 pm

      Thank you, sweetie. Mwah.

      Reply
  3. Stacie November 3, 2015 at 8:47 pm

    <3 Beautiful writing. I wish you could let the guilt go.

    Reply
    1. MegMeg November 5, 2015 at 4:42 pm

      Thanks so much, Stacie. I wish I could let it go too! It’s been a lifetime obsession.

      Reply
  4. Thain in Vain November 4, 2015 at 1:54 am

    Our relationships with our parents are so amazing and heartbreaking in so many ways. Sometimes those external things are so much part of who we are it’s impossible to let go. I really appreciated this post. I know I have a trunks full of my past that reflects my present. You may have inspired me to crack open that trunk. Post pending, perhaps! TiV

    Reply
    1. MegMeg November 5, 2015 at 4:44 pm

      Yes, these are the most complicated relationships, I think. So glad this resonated with you. <3

      Reply
  5. Chef's Last Diet November 4, 2015 at 5:13 pm

    What strong images, I can even smell the under the stairs closet.

    Reply
    1. MegMeg November 5, 2015 at 4:45 pm

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Nancy. Means a lot.

      Reply
  6. Jan Wilberg November 5, 2015 at 3:06 pm

    This was beautiful writing. I can see your mother’s letters. Reading this told me I need to work harder on my own writing.

    Reply
    1. MegMeg November 5, 2015 at 4:46 pm

      Jan, your writing is gorgeous. Thanks so much for stopping by — I’ve missed you.

      Reply
  7. Abby Boid November 5, 2015 at 6:36 pm

    Great writing -breath of fresh air- despite, like someone else has already said, been able to smell the smell of your under stairs cupboards. I can delete email no worries – getting rid of letter? Much harder. They have a hold.

    Reply
  8. Beeray November 6, 2015 at 1:07 am

    I never really kept stuff because me moved a lot when I was younger and stuff always got.lost along the transition. I am awed at how you managed to keep letters since you were a child.

    Reply
  9. wgr56 November 6, 2015 at 8:59 am

    Well, that’s pretty awesome. Love this post, but it reminds me that I haven’t got the courage to dive into that box of my own that I keep on the closet floor.

    Reply
  10. Cheney November 6, 2015 at 4:47 pm

    This is such a hard thing to do. I have a few boxes full of old things, pictures and letters and memorabilia from people who are no longer in my life due to death, breakups, etc. It’s so hard to keep the stuff, but obviously a little harder to let go. Love the beautiful way you put this into words.

    Reply
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