Memories bubble wrapped, and stacked in cardboard boxes reach the ceiling of my 10×10 foot storage unit. Half a dozen previously mothered baby dolls lay naked head to foot in box number 55. Number 32 holds Mystic Force, SPD, and Jungle Fury Power Rangers; 4inch plastic people that magically captivate the mind of a 3-year-old.
I slice open the multilayered tape that contains the contents of box number 1. My grandmotherʼs purse that I gave her on her birthday the year she died, lays on top of souvenirs from the past. I pick up the bag and hold it close. The faint smell of jasmine still lingers on the black canvas. My heart skips a beat as I breathe in her ephemeral scent and continue to unearth tarnished rosary beads, kid leather gloves yellowed from age, and silk scarves brought back as gifts from Italyʼs, San Lorenzo Market. All things that she cherished and I carefully packed away 14 years ago when she died.
I find a brown, nondescript, 6×6 inch box within the box. I donʼt need to open it to know what it is, but like a moth drawn to a flame, I do. As I pull the top off and expose its contents hidden under tissue paper, are two, 12 inch, chestnut-brown braids of hair. The carefully braided strands are held together by rubber bands, meticulously replaced over the years.
They are the braids of a 16-year-old girl. They are the most prized possessions of my grandmother. They are the braids of her daughter who died from breast cancer at age 45. They are the braids of my mother.
I hold them in my hand. They are a past I didnʼt know, that was held onto, and never let go of. They are a trophy of my grandmotherʼs grief, a constant reminder that no mother should ever have to suffer the pain of burying her own child. The weight of their silky, soft coolness nestled in my palms feels too heavy for me to hold, so I return them to their box and set it aside.
Silent tears turn into sobs, as I am overcome with my own grief. I imagine how my mother would have marveled in the beauty, the absolute perfection of her grandchildren, if she hadnʼt died when I was only 10. I imagine her holding them tightly to her breast, her eyes transfixed on the tops of their smooth, perfectly round heads.
She sings her favorite Barry Manilow songs to them in her full alto voice. They wear sweaters she knit and jumpers she sewed. She sits at their dance recitals, front and center, smiling and giddy with pride. The show ends, they take their bows, run off the stage and into her arms. The arms that never scold or expect them to be anything more than who they are, her grand babies. Time doesnʼt allow her to hold them for long, because with each passing minute they grow. They grow taller than her, stronger than her, but they would always be her grandchildren.
Surrounded by 59 boxes, I realize I have entombed the childhood of my children. Like the braids, I have packed away things I thought were too precious to let go of, their awards for participation, ticket stubs from memorable outings: metro rides and movie stubs included. In my mind the ordinary is extraordinary and proof of our experiences deserved to be packed away and kept for eternity or at least until someone else has enough emotional detachment to part with them.
Every day my son Nic grows a smidgen taller and his voice deepens. He is almost 15 and no longer has time to sit in a sea of Lego, creating parallel universes; he has homework, dance team, and socializing.
The red roof wooden house, that Marlena, my almost 17-year-old high school senior, scripted her miniature dollies’ lives in, sits vacant. The family downsized to a shoebox.
Marlena, with her poise and calm, cool collectiveness seems more like a 20-year-old. She is also busy, living the life of a teenager with Snapchat, Instagram, AP classes, lifeguarding, swim, and college applications.
They are working towards a future, while I grapple with letting go of the past. I could swear it was just last night they were snuggled up next to me in bed, wide-eyed as I read aloud the The Magic Tree House Adventures of Jack and Annie. I never thought sleepless nights with helicopter arms and legs fighting for space, the tedium of buckling car seats with back rearing toddlers, or the communal bathroom trips would ever end. And I never would have imagined my missing it all so much.
I tuck the box with my motherʼs 68-year-old braids under my arm, lock the storage unit and make my way to the car one step at a time.
Tomorrow Iʼll be back for the dollhouse.