My Life in a Box
Lisa ReilyI keep my life in a box.
Each birthday, Easter, Christmas, and each person in my life, is collated into a tidy pile and labelled: Mum, Dad, Mark, Adam, Aunty Grace, My birthday 1977, Christmas 1990… Each tidy pile is bound with a rubber band and arranged neatly inside a medium-sized box. Post-it notes and disintegrating rubber bands hold my years together. And I can see my life before me in uncluttered increments of time.
Over the years, this box has progressed from an old cardboard one to a large, plastic version with a lid that clips on perfectly at the sides. Every year or so I downsize it, to rid myself of the past and make room for the future. I sit on the floor of my lounge room and labour over what must go: cards from people I never see, from those who are no longer friends, or cards which simply say—and only say—Merry Christmas. As the years pass, I am usually able to let go.
The exception to this has been when I have only ever received one or two cards from someone—like my older brother. Then the two scrawled words, Happy Birthday or Merry Christmas, somehow grow in significance. I hold onto these and keep them in a thin pile of their own.
Perhaps I’ll discard something from my school days that no longer serves me. I may throw a report card, or finally rip out those pages holding the nasty opinions of a teacher. Perhaps I’ll shed a university transcript that now means very little. A memento when I can no longer remember who gave it to me. I may tear up a letter or photograph from an old boyfriend, congratulations from work colleagues from more than twenty years ago, or a museum pass from my first overseas trip.
I am often tearful about my life in its box. When I find memorabilia from the love of my life, I sit silent, my heart full of love and joy and memories. I take out his collar and hold the scratched dog tags in my hand, a collection of tiny blue, red and black discs engraved with his name: Henry. My little Henry. I retrieve the yellow-lid container with his one pulled tooth and I weep for him.
I meander through cards from my mother. Beautiful words from her at different times of my life. She was not one for mushiness, and we had some difficult times, but I have many gentle and funny cards from her, reminding me of her love. I can read her belief in me, my strength and my heart. I also keep in my box of life a collection of the cards I gave to her.
I remember Mum lying in her bed, dying, and going through her bottom bedside drawer. It was full of cards. I sat by her bed and watched as she carefully read each one and placed it into a pile. Sometimes she smiled. Sometimes she laughed, or sniffed back a tear. When I asked her what she was doing, she said she didn’t want my brothers and I to have to go through all her stuff when she was gone. That image stuck with me. And she never got to finish sorting.
After Mum died, I went through my box of memories with a ruthless love, a vision of my mother sorting her bedside drawer only days before her death. I remembered the piles of cards strewn by her bed, unfinished. Most of them were from me. But unlike my mother, I will have no children to do this job for me. I will not leave this worry behind for anyone. I will leave a simple box.
Other than the contents of her bedside drawer, Mum never allowed mess to accumulate. She even glued our first birthday cards perfectly into individual scrapbooks and tucked them away in her old, blue suitcase. My mother repaired everything, then used it or gave it away. Her only vice was that she was an organised hoarder of corduroy jeans, as well as shoes. (She often said she must have been a centipede in her other life.) Mum took care of the things she kept, and everything from clothes to electronics lasted forever in her care. I learned a lot from her.
Eleven years ago now, I added someone new to my life in its box—a second love of my life, this time in human form: my partner, Ion. Being a poet, Ion romanced me with his words and these I lovingly collated and kept, a perfect new post-it note and rubber band around them. Over the years, the two of us added our words and the small trinkets we gave to each other (and sometimes a note or card from Henry, too)! But the box was beginning to burst with our affections.
When I met Ion, we had a dream to go to Greece. After our first trip to the beautiful island of Naxos, travelling became a passion and we prioritised our savings for it. If we wanted to go, we knew we had to budget. So we learned to minimise our costs and live well with less. (We also discovered that it is easier to carry a light suitcase free of superfluous clothing, and the expense and weight of overseas shopping!) Our travels helped us to let go of things and gradually influenced the way we lived back at home.
On one occasion, when we returned home from a trip, we both sat on the floor of our lounge room and went through my box of life, which now held both of our lives within it. We cried together over the loss of my mother, and our little Henry. We laughed and read our cards and bravely discarded some of our history. Although Ion had become my most important person, my life companion, we helped each other to release the past, keeping only our most special memories. When we are gone, some beautiful words will remain, but no-one will be encumbered with the accumulated mess of our existence.
These days, Ion and I rarely exchange gifts. We may buy ‘something’, like a day out, or lunch at a café. Ion may make his delicious cinnamon and honey crepes. Perhaps I’ll make some Greek biscuits, or try out a new recipe to surprise him. We find free online cards and write special notes to each other, which we can keep without bulk or burden. We have celebrated the anniversary of our meeting every single month since we met, even if it is as simple as saying Happy Anniversary. We appreciate each month we have together.
I remember when Ion and I moved from our hectic life in Sydney to our quiet life in Coffs Harbour, Australia. We downsized to a more simple existence of less space and less work. Although this meant less money, we wanted to focus on our happiness in the day-to-day of our lives. And we knew that we didn’t need much money to be happy.
Following in my mother’s footsteps, our home in Sydney was super organised, so packing was a breeze. And moving was another opportunity for me to update the life I had tucked away in its plastic box. I was determined to thin it out, this representation of my years, so it could be placed lightly in the hallway cupboard of our new home, and not take up space in our new lives.
For weeks, I avoided this task. I knew from experience that going down memory lane was not always easy to handle and usually took some time. While some memories reminded me of love and joy and happiness, others brought feelings of loss and sadness. Things were changing, people had passed away and life was moving quickly.
Finally, I sat on the floor of our lounge room to commence the task. I opened the musty, card-filled box and was surprised to find it was not how I had left it—or at least not how I thought I’d left it! New labels and rubber bands held each pile of Mum, Dad, Mark, Adam, Aunty Grace, Ion, Henry… I had forgotten that it was only a few months earlier that I had gone through it. Somehow, my mind had been elsewhere. What I thought was my reality was not reality.
My memory of what was inside the box was not real. I was living with a distorted memory. Instead of the grueling task I thought I was in for, I was faced with my own tidiness. I thought about how this same thing can happen when we try to hold onto our memories in our hearts and minds, how these memories fade and change, and how I had tried to keep mine within this box. I was holding onto things, and people. I wanted everyone and everything in its place. To stay the same. But nothing, and no-one, lasts forever. Everything changes, and I knew there was more to let go.
I sat, dumbfounded at all the effort required to keep my memories alive. (In the end, my view of them was skewed anyway!) I was grateful I had let them go for long enough to forget about them for a while, but a piece of me remained fixated on maintaining them. I decided to let my memories be. To give myself room to move forward in my life.
Now, the box of my life sits on the garage floor, risking its survival on the 100-year flood that may pass by, at any moment. Inside this box are tidy piles of my life, each with a post-it note, each neatly bound with its own rubber band. It reflects my past, but very little of the life I live now. Or who I am. One of the smallest piles of cards within it is from my partner, Ion; we understand each other.
These days, I prefer my new box of life: my suitcase. It carries everything I need. It gives me new life, exciting adventures with Ion, and takes me to many new and different places. The old me now rests peacefully in the garage. I can always find it again, if I need it.
But life is here, and waiting.
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