Leftovers


Leftovers

When my father died forty years ago, it was in Arizona, where my parents had been spending their winters for the past ten years.  They maintained houses in two places, returning to South Dakota for the summers. But after my father died, my mother never again entered that house in the town where I’d grown up.

Our family had scattered like fall leaves by then—my mother to Arizona, one sister to Iowa, another to Wyoming. Both the youngest and the only unmarried one, I had fallen the furthest from the family tree. I had just returned from Africa, and so it fell to me to drive to South Dakota to pack up the house and to decide which pieces of our old life I might choose to build my new life upon and to dispose of the rest.

My father’s accumulations were not ones to fill a house. There were whole barns and fields of him, but none that needed to be dealt with. All had been sold before and so what was to be sorted out was the house. In that house, the drapes and furniture and cushions and cupboards were mainly the remnants of my mother’s life: clothes and nicknacks, pots and pans, spice racks full of those limited flavors known to the family of my youth—salt and pepper and spices necessary for recipes no more exotic than pumpkin pies, sage dressings and beef stews.

Packing up my father was as easy as putting the few work clothes he’d left in South Dakota into boxes and driving them to the dump. It had been years since I had had the pleasure of throwing laden paper bags from the dirt road above over the heaps of garbage below to see how far down they would sail, but I resisted that impulse this one last run to the dump, instead placing the bags full of my father’s work clothes neatly at the top for scavengers to find—the Sioux, or the large families for whom the small-town dump was an open-air Goodwill Store.

It was ten years after my father’s death before my mother ever returned again to South Dakota. By then, that house, rented out for years, had blown away in a tornado. Only the basement, bulldozed over and filled with dirt, contained the leftovers of our lives: the dolls, books, school papers and trophies. I’d left those private things stacked away on shelves—things too valuable to throw away, yet not valuable enough to carry away to our new lives. I’ve been told that people from the town scavenged there, my friend from high school taking my books for her own children, my mother’s friend destroying the private papers. My brother-in-law had taken the safe away years before.

But last year, when I went to clear out my oldest sister’s attic in Minnesota, I found the dolls I thought had been buried long ago–their hair tangled and their dresses torn—as though they had been played with by generations of little girls. Not the neat perfection of how we’d kept them ourselves, lined up on the headboard bookcases of our beds —but hair braided, cheeks streaked with rouge, eyes loose in their sockets, dresses mismatched and torn. Cisette’s bride dress stetched to fit over Jan’s curves. My sister’s doll’s bridesmaid dress on my doll.

It felt a blasphemy to me. First, that my oldest sister would take her younger sisters’ dolls without telling us. Her own dolls neatly preserved on shelves in her attic guest bedroom, ours had been jammed into boxes with their legs sticking out the top. And in her garbage can were the metal sides of my childhood dollhouse, imprinted with curtains and rugs and windows, pried apart like a perfect symbol of my childhood.

Being cast aside as leftovers twice is enough for even inanimate objects. Saved from my sister’s garbage and cut in half, the walls of my childhood fit exactly into an extra suitcase borrowed from a friend for the long trip back to Mexico, where I now live. I’ll figure out a new life for them as room décor or the backgrounds of colossal collages that will include the dolls I’m also taking back with me.

Mexico is the place where lots of us have come to reclaim ourselves and live again. So it is with objects, too. Leftovers and hand-me-downs have a value beyond their price tags. It is all those lives and memories that have soaked up into them. In a way, we are all hand-me-downs. It’s up to us to decide our value, depending upon the meaning that we choose to impart both to our new lives and these old objects. Leftovers make the most delicious meals, sometimes, and in Mexico, we know just how to spice them up.

The prompt: Hand-Me-Downs—Clothes and toys, recipes and jokes, advice and prejudice: we all have to handle all sorts of hand-me-downs every day. Tell us about some of the meaningful hand-me-downs in your life.


 

 

19 thoughts on “Leftovers

  1. Ann O'Neal Garcia

    I love every word. It is such a sincere and poignant piece. My favorite line, however, is about your dad who was wise enough not to collect “stuff” …your father’s accumulations were “whole barns and fields…” I am more like you, though, and have a collection of things from my past, but the thing I do not have is my mom’s writings. There was a box of her writings that dad said he destroyed after her death because they made him too sad. If I had those words of hers, I’d know her better. I had so few years to get to know her. She’d begun a long piece entitled Life with the O’Neals. I’m still angry with Dad for getting rid of her things and I suspect he didn’t want our stepmother to read Mom’s stories, more than their being in the house making him sad. (I understand your anger and puzzlement over the abduction and poor treatment of your doll house and dolls by your sister) He did save many of the photos he took, thank God and had the sense to give them to me. I’m trying to “use” some of them by sharing them with anyone who wants to take a look on FB. He tried getting them published in Life Mag, etc. As with many great great artists, he never found success. At least I can do this for him. I hope your dolls help you make art and give joy or musings to someone else, too. You certainly are out here on the waves, and your stories/poems are treasures to those of us who take the time to read them.

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    1. lifelessons Post author

      Thanks so much, Ann. I wonder if you could read those pictures and try to write their stories from you mother’s point of view? It might be a rich experience for both you and those of us who would get to read them. We could see her stories through you. My mom destroyed all her own early writings–something both Patti and I anguished over. They were wonderful–a rhymed diary of all the funny things that happened to her as a teenager. I remember only a few lines of the ones she read to us when we were young. Later, she decided they were silly and didn’t want to be remembered by them. Of course, what I remember most fondly was her silliness. I strive to live up to it and the cadences of my rhymed pieces are all her rhythms from those early poems and later ones penned in conjunction with her to chronicle the foibles of my dad and sisters.—Judy

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  2. Tamara

    I agree with Ann. I love reading these musings of yours! I have ended up with quite a lot of the flotsum and jetsom from both my mother’s side of the family and my father’s side. On my father’s side, I am the youngest of 3 cousins and 1 sister….and certainly the least reliable in terms of settling down, though I did manage to stay married for 17 years. In any event, the really good stuff ended up with the older kids of my generation. But, in a way, that meant that I got the things that were considered common and it was those things that carry the most memories. Chipped and mismatched everyday china that I can remember my Grandma serving us avocado sandwiches on out on their back porch in the summertime, old tattered books: household hints from the 1800’s a recipe book put together by the ladies of my father’s hometown,.. boxes of decaying organ and piano music that I remember my Grandpa playing…he played the piano every single day and played the church pipe organ for decades. I took organ lessons from him and loved playing. I have a whole box of photo albums of my grandfather’s life when he was young, camping with his brother who later died in WWI from meningitis and pictures of their home and life. I also have a whole box of letters written by my Mother’s mother to her father when she went away to college and to her uncle who was a dentist who moved from Norway to Buenos Aires to live. I know her fairly well even though she died before I was born, just from reading those letters! I have a huge old hump-backed wooden trunk from my mother’s mother with all sorts of partitions and decals of pretty Victorian girls all over the inside. It’s staying with a friend who couldn’t bear the idea of my selling it. Dolls were not that important to me, but I still have a couple of my ragged old stuffed animals. What made the cut when I was planning to move to Mexico will probably not make the cut again if I decide to make a major move. My boyfriend doesn’t understand my desire to minimize accumulations. He wants me to settle down here. And I do love it here, but I still cast my mental eye to Mexico frequently on days when it’s too hot or too cold, or I just miss the whimsical viewpoint….dancing skeletons, firecrackers and gunfire day and night, the blaring of trucks selling gas or advertising their shops as they drive up and down the neighborhood streets, and the fiestas, parades, and eating ice cream in the town square in the evening. All this accumulation of stuff matters a lot….and what matters maybe even more are all the lovely prints my Dad has given me over the years of his sheer genius photographs of nature and fusion art using Photoshop. None of the next generation gives a hoot about any of the old stuff. I’m still hoping that out of all of the babies being born to them, someone will have a fascination for these ancient relics of our family. Like your dirty, mussed-up doll, it hurts to feel like I’m the last one to care about this stuff. These are treasures to me because they are filled with memories….and those memories do not exist for anyone else.

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  3. lifelessons Post author

    Tamara, Wow. Loved your response to Ann’s response to my response! I think there are one or two in every generation who value the old things passed on to them. I have a mayonnaise jar in the shape of a bulldog. It’s head from the jaw up forms the lid and the orange tongue of the dog is actually the handle of the china spoon that sticks out in front. This jar has suffered a few near-misses, including a friend who picked it up from the head. The body and tongue dropped down to hit the matching plate it sat upon, chipping it. Broke my heart. The friend quickly said, “Oh, nothing damaged,” and moved away quickly, even though I’m sure she noticed the chip. Oh well, one more chapter in its story, which started with my aunt giving it to my mother when she was a little girl. Later, when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit, we were near the epicenter. Most of the dishes in my cupboards jiggled their way to the front of the shelves and crashed on the kitchen tile floor, but when I opened the cupboard door, which had slammed shut again in the last jolt, I found the bulldog poised at the extreme edge of the cupboard. One more jolt, and it would have been lost. That’s the story I meant to tell, but the other one forced it out of its place and pushed it back to be told at another time, another place…Judy

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  4. Martha Kennedy

    Beautifully written — I am the ONLY person in my family remaining who would care at all about the relics of my parents’ lives and my brother’s and my childhood. I’m packing up to move away from this house and finding it strangely easy to throw things out, knowing that there is no one in the world who will have any interest. I guess that’s sad, but it mostly feels liberating.

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    1. Tamara

      Well, in a way, if you give those things to a thrift shop, somebody like me will come along and buy them. Don’t throw them out! I comb thrift shops for interesting old things with mysterious pasts. If it’s a charity thrift shop, the money goes to a good cause, you get a tax write-off, and I get a treasure to make a story up about!

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  5. lifelessons Post author

    Thanks, John. It started out to be a very different article, but you know what happens when something wants to be written! I always appreciate your supportive comments. Judy

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  6. Julia Blackowicz

    You wrote yourself a very nice yet sad personal essay. I never even consider estates as hand-me-downs when I answered the prompt. I still have my box of Zippo lighters from when my father passed.

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  7. Ann O'Neal Garcia

    Hi, Judy, what nice and complete answers you give. You have always been most attentive to others, making us feel special! I am writing a good deal about Mom and don’t really need the photo prompts to do so, but they help. I’m sure they’ve helped keep her “alive” after all these years, in my mind and in my brothers’ minds. I’m working on Memoir of an Unremarkable Woman and it is as full of Mom as I can get it. How sad that your mother threw away her silly diary, but I’m glad she shared it with you, and certainly you are carrying her banner, as well as yours.

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  8. lifelessons Post author

    Thanks, as usual, Ann, for your appreciation and for voicing it! It’s always hard to tell how many people are just flipping through one’s blog and how many are really reading it. I always know the second alternative is true for you. Any time you want to send parts of your Memoir for comments or pure appriciation, please do so. Turn-about is fair play and all that…..xo J

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  9. Ann O'Neal Garcia

    Martha Kennedy, you say there’s nobody in the world who cares about the old “leftovers” but I have found through the Internet that many artists DO care. Some adopt old photos and treat them like family! (I have many “friends” on flickr who go prowling around antique stores, garage sales, etc, to acquire these old things from the past, and then they post them.) Remarkable! I love everyone’s family, everyone’s photos that are posted. I am taken into their homes, introduced to their loves and grape arbors and teddy bears and lace curtains at long tall windows. I am glad not only I but many others feel this way, because it makes me relieved about having to drop my family and possessions when I ride into the sunset for the last time. ie., die. Why did I write that sunset thing? I don’t like euphemisms, if that’s the right word. Anyway, so many many people are totally enchanted by others’ pasts. Isn’t that wonderful?

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    1. lifelessons Post author

      You should start posting them, Martha–Use them along with the prompts. Ann posts hers all the time on Facebook and everyone loves them. They are all so wrapped up in her family that it is like a serialized story–ones that used to appear once a week or once a month in the papers. Judy

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