By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman
The box was always there — shoved to the far end of my closet, packed beneath layers of college class notes and old rent receipts, sliding ever farther back on the floor beneath my bed as slippers and magazines pushed it away. It was the sort of thing a person might just forget about, if not in the always-busy days of life with children, then surely in the chaos of relocation. Sometimes, I nearly did.
But that battered box wouldn’t go away on its own. It surfaced again during the latest move and snagged my attention like a sandbur on a shoestring, a minor, nagging discomfort.
What was inside, anyway? A run-of-the-mill record of teenage rebellion and grief: letters home, letters from the boyfriend who became my first husband, soda-splattered, green-tinged Polaroid pictures, journals. Memorabilia, which, oddly, rhymes with hemophilia, the disorder in which blood won’t clot and small wounds let your life leak out, literally. Diaries, carefully inked accounts of heartbreaking folly. Fatal stuff.
I extracted a random sheaf of paper, read a page or two. Stopped. Cried. Put it away again.
“Why don’t you just get rid of it?” my husband said. “Why do you want to keep stuff like that?”
Why do you keep a scar or a scab? Is it voluntary? I felt protective of the awful collection. It seemed to me that the box was a necessary record of a time in my life. When I read snatches of letters composed in purple magic marker and examining first love — what I thought was real love — it seemed my 15-year-old self, still nearly thin as a girl, full of juvenile optimism, terribly earnest, was right here with the 34-year-old one, huggable, help-able, able yet to be saved.
Just like my own daughters.
It’s hard to examine one’s secret suppositions. The fearsome truth was, that box was my own, personal reference section for understanding my girls when — if — they ever behaved as badly as I did so long ago. That would be, oh, about 10 years from today. No matter! I’d be ready with this secret weapon, the means by which, I realized, I planned to short-circuit rebellion and empathize with them so effectively, they would see their error and repent.
I knew what the worst could be. I wanted to be ready for it. And perhaps that is the most grievous of my self-inflicted wounds.
Mothers need to view our children with hope. We give birth to them, smooth their silk-feathered heads, soften their falls, tell them, “Come on, honey, you can do it! Take one more step! You can walk!” We anticipate a glorious future.
What place does fear have in that scheme? Where does an emergency response plan fit in? Do I want to parent with a heart filled with anxiety, or look to the future with confidence?
It was time for the shredder. I would, I determined, declare independence. For the sake of my own long-ago self. For the future young women I endeavor to raise.
I caught glimpses of the diaries as I dismembered them: the shredder can handle only five pages at one pass. Determined not bog down in guilt and sorrow, I ignored the words and ripped grimly. Five notebooks later, when I lifted the lid on the box, I was unexpectedly rewarded.
“Dear Rachel,” read the inside of the first card I opened, “whenever I pray for you, my heart is full of joy. Love, Mom.”
The next one: “Dear Rachel, Why don’t you ask your friend to come over after school while you do your work? I don’t mind you being friends with her, I just think you need to get your work done. I love you and wanted you to know I care about what’s important to you. Love, Dad.”
An envelope from my brother. “Happy Packet,” the outside declares in block lettering. “Deluxe Edition! To have a good day, open envelope and pour the contents upon your head.” Inside are tiny, hand-drawn smiley faces, carefully cut from yellow paper.
And so on for the first two inches of the dreaded collection. There were letters addressed to each of the first six places I occupied after I ran away from home. I found birthday cards. News of my brother’s school plays and his pet parakeet, my mother’s sewing projects. Accounts of potluck suppers and greetings from the church family. Not one angry question. No recriminations.
Further down, the records of wrongdoing seemed like something you might find beneath an overturned rock. Compared to the ties that bound me to goodness, it was easy, after all, to finish off the bad, along with my fearful version of the future. I have, after all, the perfect template for addressing anything that might befall my family.
The box I did away with. I don’t need it anymore. I’m not sure I could find a container large enough for what I uncovered during this clean-up mission: a record of family loyalty, my mother’s faith, my father’s love, my brother’s hopeful, cheery, kindred spirit. The God who sustained us all and brought beauty out of ashes.
The terrible days have come and gone. Those three, untarnished, durable, a refuge in time of trouble, remain.
EDITOR’S NOTE — This column originally ran in the Times in 2002. Eleven years later, the writer continues her fearless journey through the wilds of parenthood.