Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Dear Marie Kondo

Dear Marie Kondo,

I know that your book has helped many people pare down, and since a relocation has consumed me for much of 2017 – moving away from my Atlanta home of 9 years to begin a new life in Connecticut – I thought it might make sense to seek you out.

If I got it right, you tell people to ask -- as they inventory their things -- does it “spark joy”?

Except, Marie -- can I call you Marie? -- you don't understand how many things spark joy for me.

Or merely incite some kind of emotion inside.

Or, in the case of Elmo Peter Elson, represent a line in the sand. He’s my childhood teddy bear – and he’s dressed in my childhood clothes (a blue windbreaker with a faulty zipper and riotous 1970s toddler pants). I can’t throw him out now. (No, I don’t know why his name is Elmo Peter Elson.)

Elmo’s making the journey along with a cassette tape of U2’s “Boy” album that’s unspooled, and half-used notepads engraved with the name of my deceased uncle and a button for a failed political campaign where I volunteered 20 years ago, plus a vintage pin from Bayonne, N.J., my father’s hometown (because sometimes other people’s mementos, especially one’s parents, are even more potent than your own) and the pregnancy tester stick – positive! – that forget ‘changed my life’ – it gave me the life I didn’t know I was even craving. Also: bus, train and plane tickets, mainly to and from Italy, and a lot of Lira – Italy’s old currency -- that can no longer be used. But they’re like my bank statements from Cassa Di Risparmio di Firenze, which remind me that I was lucky enough to live long enough in the city of Dante to open up an account at the Florence Savings Bank. (I’ve also kept the Enrico Coveri scarf Melanie gave me and the plastic shopping bag she used to give it to me because while it is a relatively ordinary yellow and green plastic bag it is also instantly recognizable as a bag not produced in the US or used by a US retail establishment. Reason to keep it.)

Plus writing journals.

Lots and lots of journals, including ones from grammar school that I find unreadable (some thoughts should be kept inside, I’ve concluded.)

Lots of letters, too, including the one from a very dear friend that remains unopened and will likely stay in that virgin state until we die. You see, Marie, it’s a condolence card. Everything there was to know -- and everything we didn’t want to know -- is discernible on the outside of the card. Her careful handwriting, our names, the date stamp the week Mike’s father died -- without any need to open it. She is sorry and we are sorry and nothing can be done to erase the death that occasioned the card. To paraphrase the poet Donald Hall, the dead stay dead. So it’s still sealed but my God, Marie, how can I throw it out? Her kindness can’t be discarded.

I also still have Doug K.’s business card. In fact, I have two of them. I know what you're thinking -- who uses business cards anymore? Especially one for a man I last spoke to back in 2000. No, I don't need it. But you see, I do.

We named Doug Security Director of the Year in 2000, back when I was an editor on a trade pub that covered security systems and metal detectors and locks with audit trails.

He'd done such a bang-up job in his position as security director of -- wait for it -- the World Trade Center, that he won the annual contest that year. Security Director of the Year. In Doug’s case, it might as well have said ‘of the decade.’ His picture was on the cover and everything, with the two towers looming behind him. And then on Sept. 11 – you know the year -- I tried calling the number on the business card but I couldn't get through. You see what I mean, Marie? I've got to keep his business card. I need something to remember him by. Just like the page I ripped from an old calendar of New York. The last image I have of those Twin Towers. Where we went after we saw "Annie" on Broadway with Uncle Pat and Aunt Maureen, before they had children -- a thousand years ago, give or take.

Also the wooden house shoes I bought in the seaside town outside of Rome where I lived one summer; I wore them actually as sandals. Something I realized in retrospect few Italians would do (they aren’t really made to be worn anywhere outside the house or the beach). I never wear them; I save them to remember the shame I felt living with that noble family, so cold-hearted I found myself forgetting my beloved Italian while I stayed with them (the children, Romans all of them, attended English-language school and had to take remedial lessons in Italian – the parenting equivalent of a serious crime, in my book).

Why remember shame? Good question, Marie. Surely these shoes would be a prime example of something not bringing me joy and therefore should be headed for the trash can, right?

Yet they tell me how far I have come.

You could say the same for so many of my mementos. Take the photo of my mother holding my son for the first time.

It isn't even a good photo. In fact, it reminds me of those candid shots people took back before digital cameras proliferated where typically someone’s eyes are closed in the shot. But the promise in that photo – the challenge, the task at hand, the debt that needs repaying – well, I need to keep my eyes on all of that. Holding the camera shakily, a mere week into motherhood, I cut off half of my mother’s face – including one of her eyes! -- but not the part that shows her grinning from ear to ear as my infant son looks up at her. She’s turning toward me, in the photo, looking directly into the lens – with that one truly alive eye – and it’s as if she is saying, “This is it, Jeanne Marie, you did it, you made it, you joined the greatest club on earth, just like I always hoped you would -- even if I never told you as much.” Even if she never told me as much.

You see, Marie, she thought I wasn’t going to have a baby. She was so surprised when I told her I was pregnant that she said, and I quote, “What? What? What? What? What?” Yes, Marie, five whats. That’s Pat. She’s easily excitable (as, thankfully, many people born in Flatbush in the 1930s appear to be). And the photo? A one-work exhibit on the joy only motherhood can bring you.

There are also hundreds of notes passed surreptitiously during classes at St. Anthony’s High School on Long Island, now stored in vintage suitcases. Forget throwing them out Marie. I was just texting with four of the people whose notes are inside! Friendships like that, the ones that endure, well, Marie, they deserve a monument, not a date with the trash heap.

I should admit that I am also harboring someone else's potential mementos. My son’s footsy pajamas (just a few examples -- the tiger print ones, for example. Also a Miami Dolphins onesy that is heartbreakingly cute). The gorgeous baby blue Irish sweater Caroline made for him. His infant sleep logs and the bracelet he wore in the hospital when he was born (it sits on my night stand). Also, a post-it note featuring the first L he ever wrote. L for Leo (among other things).

(In fact, I wish I still had the blue-green velour – yes velour – sweater with images of moons and stars that Aunt Marianne gave me when I was 8 because it was so beautiful and homey and like every other gift she’s ever given, perfect for me, chosen for me).

Sure, I could do a stint on "Hoarders." I fully admit that. Please understand, I come from a long line of hoarders. Until very recently, the utility bills for my father’s childhood home in Bayonne, N.J., where my grandfather lived until his death and which remains in the family were in my great-grandfather’s name. I believe he died around 1940. Maybe 1950. Marie! Do you see what I am saying? Until recently, you opened a drawer in that house and out popped a bill from 1962. You probably don't understand that I see a kind of beauty in the bills being in the name of a deceased relative. Surely every time my grandfather or my uncles who have lived there paid a bill they paid a little respect, too. 

Maybe it’s why I keep a random letter from my sister, Trish, her handwriting as recognizable as her face. I’d pinned it to a cork bulletin board square hanging on the wall in the bedroom in Atlanta, in part because the addresses on both sides of the postal equation were what I wanted to see, rendered in her curly script that somehow mimics her friendly demeanor. She sent the letter from our grandfather’s house in Bayonne where she lived for a while after college – a house that looms so large in our collective memory, it has its own moniker (‘Ten East’, an approximation of the address) and she addressed it to my student apartment in Siena, Italy, where I spent a life-changing semester abroad.

Ditto the second grade photo of my sister, Liz, so pale her skin is blue. It’s as if she’s trembling. Talk about the things you find when you open a drawer. I found it -- long after she’d graduated from second grade -- in my father’s desk in the basement. The layers run deep. What is she thinking in the photo, and years later, what was he thinking when he looked at the photo?

I also still have the black and white scarf my sister Denise gave me one year for Christmas (which year? Well, it’s got an ‘8’ in it. And the ‘8’ ain’t on the end). I wore it as a scarf one night, the night I had my car accident. The nurse at the hospital – Michael Forster’s mom – somehow managed to act like it was totally normal that I had wrapped this scarf around my chubby torso. She stayed calm – so I could, too.

I started this letter months ago, and I've actually arrived in Connecticut, Marie. To be sure, I am somewhat cursing my hoarder tendency. Boxes of mementos lurk in the corners of every room. Even though the house is bigger, I am struggling to find the right places for my mementos. No spot seems right for my patchwork of cork bulletin board squares where I'd appended press passes from my journalism years and receipts and old post cards -- like the one from my Italian friend Floriano during a visit to Ireland where he wrote simply, "Il paese dei tuoi antenati e' stupendo." Your ancestors' country is amazing.

Over the years, I’ve read 1,000 wonderful moments into that one line -- how much I must have bragged about my Irish roots to my Florentine friend, how keenly and kindly he absorbed my pride, how lovely the Italian language is.

I know there are many people – including me – who have way too many things. Who need to pare down. Who need to do an inventory and part with the things that no longer fill them with joy or purpose or that quite simply are broken, battered, used up, out of fashion, insert reason here.

My house of mementos is a tiny bit like a memorial with names etched in the stone. My keepsakes allow me to etch into my memory in a physical way every important moment, every pivotal experience, every person who lit up something inside of me (and there are many).

Marie, I’ve come to believe we all deserve a museum to ourselves, even if only within the four walls of our homes. I'm building mine, memento by memento. Museums hold the old and the new, the good and the bad. If they're any good, they document everything -- not just the stuff people want documented. Not just the pretty memories.

Mine is going to document what I carried from childhood to college to Florence, Italy, to Atlanta and ultimately here to Connecticut (and wherever I go next). 

After all, Marie, what I carried in my hand tells you what I carry in my heart -- for better or for worse.

Thanks for listening.