Some weeks ago, I was home. Or what used to be. My dad texted me to politely ask if—while I was in town—I would be willing to excise all traces of my childhood from his basement. His request was both reasonable and healthy given that I have not spent a night under that roof for two decades.
So over the course of a few days, whenever my wife and son retreated to simultaneous and well-deserved naps, I examined and weighed the emotional value of hundreds of artifacts that were stowed in a remote closet at my dad’s.
About ten years ago, I had carried out a similar purge, mostly to remove any incriminating relics of my adolescence. That time around, I had disposed of an extensive collection of empty chewing tobacco cans, pages torn from magazines I had acquired before reaching the legal age to purchase them myself, and the bones of a dead animal I’m pretty sure was a cat.
(I had no hand in the cat’s demise, but its skeleton fascinated me and freaked me out when I was twelve or so and discovered it during an independent excursion in the woods. It stayed in a shoebox for years because at least then you don’t have to explain to a disbelieving audience why there is a dead cat in the garbage can, or your backpack, or your car, or wherever you happen to be when someone confronts you about your attempt to dispose of a dead cat.)
But this time around, sifting the remaining items in the basement was a more complex reckoning with emotion.
I took the time to handle valentines signed by my third-grade classmates and wondered what theme I had selected to summarize my affinity for those friends. Transformers? He-Man? Maybe Garfield.
I found an un-cashed birthday check from my grandfather and experienced fleeting guilt, then enduring amusement, that I’d sent him into the afterlife with his finances slightly awry.
I revisited a painting of myself and considered how long the painter must have regarded a photo of me with tender honesty in order to produce such a work.
I smashed down everything I just mentioned into the garbage moments after caressing each item for the last time. It was not pleasant. I simply had to make some difficult decisions, and I did, and some of them felt cathartic, and some of them didn’t.
What I deemed worthy of preservation fit into two yellowing cardboard apple boxes. I transported the boxes to a nearby UPS store and paid to have them shipped to an address in another state where I currently live with my pregnant wife and two-year-old son.
One of the boxes contained cassette recordings of bands I played in. Baseball cards and comic books I will divide among any of my progeny who wants a stake. A lot of letters I perused one by one as unconscious and abstract impressions solidified into concrete assertions such as:
- my brother is a strong contender for best man alive on this planet
- if the Comfort boys approach you, pick scabs off their elbows, and offer to become your blood brother, that isn’t just some bullshit
- no matter what my mom writes on a piece of paper, she is telling you she loves you
- you want PFC Daniel P. Quinn with you in a foxhole
- every ex-girlfriend was necessary practice for finally meeting the woman who has the patience and understanding and courage it takes to become the wife of someone who secreted the remains of a dead cat in his closet for a good twenty years
(I googled “dead cat meaning” after writing that last part, and now I wish I’d been brave enough to just leave it in without googling it. It also occurs to me that I have another, even more bizarre and detailed story about a deceased cat whose gruesome and improbable end I did not witness but whose disposal became my personal cross to bear. Until now I had never connected those dots in my life.)
Anyway, the first box actually made it here. It’s sitting in the foyer. I haven’t yet decided where I’ll store it.
But the second box.
In addition to a childhood teddy bear with which I associate resentment, a framed print depicting a rag-doll clown holding a newspaper with my birth date on it, and some other flotsam I should have thrown out to begin with, that second box contained the bulk of what I imagined would someday be the touring and posthumous J.P. Kelleher exhibit at prestigious museums. After I had enjoyed several decades of financial success and personal contentment as an author.
Maybe the loss I lament most is my 2nd grade “Story-writing” notebook, where I produced short responses and illustrations based on prompts our teacher wrote on the chalkboard. A typical page contained something like, “If I were a pencil, I would be a missel and I would kill people.” The accompanying drawing portrayed the human form impaled by a pencil enlarged to dimensions that certainly qualified as military-grade. The gore and sense of motion specific to such an event were effectively conveyed by the image. My teacher had written “How sad” in the margin and circled my misspelling of missile.
Also lost were at least a dozen other notebooks and folders full of song lyrics, poems, short stories, the overview of a derivative fantasy series I plotted out when I was probably in 5th grade, a bunch of high school and college essays, brief and futile adolescent manifestos, confessions, jokes. Pretty much everything I ever did to warm up for my dreams to come true.
I thought I was going to be a writer.
And I did write a book. I don’t know if it’s a good book, but it took me almost ten years. The people I trusted it with were honest throughout the process. When it was done, they liked it, and that meant a lot to me. I sent it out to other people I have never met. Over one hundred times. And then finally an agent seemed to like it. Her job is to give it to other people whose phone numbers I don’t have, in the hopes that they will like it, and if they do, she takes some of the profits, if any. But after almost a year, it feels like she’s about to throw in the towel. It’s just business. There are other books.
So here I am. Finally a man, I guess, now that I got everything out of my dad’s house. A man who suspected he was a writer for some while. Yet who possesses minimal tangible evidence that such a proposition is true, now that an apple box has disappeared in transit from the past to the present.
Why does this new reality feel surprisingly refreshing? Why does it feel so liberating?
Where to go from here? What to do now?
This, among other endeavors, I suppose.