Monday, November 30, 2015

Muddling Memoir: Letters

I opened Pandora's box, or rather Pandora's boxes. When I returned to my "Mexico Years" to explore the possibility of writing another memoir, I decided to dig out saved journals, photos, and letters.

My husband and I have lived in a very small house close to twenty-five years. Before that I lived in an even smaller cottage, and before that a one-bedroom Seattle apartment after five years and five months in two postage stamp apartments in Mexico City. I am amazed at how much stuff I saved, how easy it was to stash this stuff into nooks and crannies, and how overwhelming it became when it was time to take a peek.

The first box I found was pink cardboard covered in tiny white hearts that once held my daughter's dress-up collection. I was searching for Judi's letters. I met this British friend in Mexico and saw her again in England shortly before her death when we joked of writing The Ex-Mexican Wives Club. Stashed in the laundry room and crammed with yearbooks, merit badges, pictures, cards, letters, the box contained only a few of Judi's later letters. I was disappointed.

I dug deeper into the laundry room, the backs of closets, the crawl space under the stairs. On the floor of the linen closet, shoved deep behind my basket of journals, I found a large plastic storage bin of letters.

Several days went into sorting the letters into neat piles on the dining table by sender. Judi's letters were in that box along with letters from friends I've long lost contact with, letters from my Mexican ex-husband, and letters from people I no longer even remember. There were letters from my deceased parents and sister, and letters from each of my living siblings. I diligently labeled Ziploc bags and packaged what I recognized as an overwhelming wealth of research material.

Before settling into reading mode, I decided to give the house another sweep. Sure enough one more box was lodged behind a box of books on the floor of my clothes closet. I returned to the dining table and added this new box full of letters to the plastic bags. I haven't gone up into the attic yet, but I'm reasonably confident there's nothing there. Yet as I write these words, I know I will check.

I've begun reading these letters. I sort the collection in each plastic bag into chronological order and begin with the earliest. The letters reveal timelines and facts, experiences and emotions of the writer as she or he responds to my prior letter. I have only one side of these conversations, with two profound exceptions, but even that is plenty to fill in gaps and prod faded memories.

The two exceptions? Mom and Maureen. I didn't know how much my mother saved until I spent weeks sorting and emptying her house after my siblings and I made the difficult decision to move her into a dementia care facility. There was much I didn't know about my mother, but uncovering baby books, hospital bracelets, report cards, school projects, and saved letters from each of her nine children shocked me to my core.

At the time I was on a mission to sort and empty the house. I created nine piles, one for each sibling. It was not a popularity contest. There was no favorite child. The piles varied in size largely based on the physical distance between parents and kid, and how often we each wrote home. I didn't read the letters I'd sent to my Mom and Dad through the years, or those I'd sent to my youngest sister. It was too soon, too painful. I put them in a box and stashed them away. 

Now I will read those letters. All of them. In my Pandora's boxes, I will find the memories and truths hidden in words penned in a world before email made the art of letter writing obsolete.

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