Four more weeks till our house has to be pristine for our tenants. I woke up Saturday morning with a sense of dread — that feeling like an elephant was perched on my chest. (An elephant! Why is it always an elephant in the room? Do Republicans have different images of horror?)
OK, so I’m old enough to have been through this whole dread bit a zillion times before. I knew what I needed to do: Attack the chore I most wanted to avoid.
That would be, I knew, the hideous mess of a closet in our so-called pool room (so-called, since nobody’s played pool in it in years). That closet that was so jam-packed we could hardly close the door on it. It was filled with memorabilia from my parents, from my husband’s and my earliest years, photos, diplomas, letters, God knows what else. I shoved the elephant off my chest and gave my husband the bad news: We were tackling the closet.
“But I’ve got to exercise today,” he said.
Oh, brother. He always brings up his exercise schedule these days, like it was one of the Ten Commandments or something. “You’ll have time,” I said.
The point is, that’s how we — well, mostly, I — spent the next two days. Surrounded by significant bits of our lives and others’ lives that we’d saved over the years. What was meaningful? What was worth saving? I saw my parents’ youth in those boxes — the dances, the flowers, the beautiful young faces that went to war and danced to Glenn Miller. I saw my first-grade report card, carefully preserved along with a braid from my first professional haircut when I was six. I saw family photos that could have been shot by Diane Arbus, although Olan Mills got the credit.
You want to get depressed about the passing of the years, about the whole dust-to-dust scenario, the impermanence of us all? Go through a closet like this. Then crack open the bourbon.
But — and thank God there’s always a but, or how would we live? — it was also funny.
I read over letter after letter my husband had collected as a college student, all from big conglomerates he and his roommate had written. At first, they lavishly praised products, saying how their lives wouldn’t have been worth living without, say, Dial soap. Those letters often resulted in free products, which is what they were after.
But then, they turned critical. A bug in a bottle of syrup! A disgusting and polluted can of beer! A carton of soup marked cream of mushroom that turned out to be chicken noodle! More free products — along with a representative from Campbell’s Soup who turned up to question them. After that, they stopped writing.
I’d forgotten all the little signs and letters my husband and I had written over the years. When we were 22 and living in our first apartment, we got annoyed when the elevator always stopped on the second floor before it got to the fourth-floor hovel we called home. So we posted a notice in the elevator: “Are you fat? Do you live on the second floor? If so, you may be ineligible to ride on this elevator. See me.” Then we signed the name of the apartment manager. (We never could figure out why he didn’t like us.)
That brought back memories, too, of how that apartment complex had rules against putting bottles in the trash chute that went directly to the first floor. Since we were in the habit of drinking cheap gallons of wine made by our favorite vintner, Cribari, we took to having a little fun. We’d dangle an empty bottle of Cribari in the chute, attached to a string, and carefully close the chute door over the string. The next person who used the chute would open it and the bottle would hurtle down four floors, landing with a loud crash, while we sat in our nearby apartment and collapsed into hysteria.
“We didn’t get our deposit back there,” I reminded my husband. “I don’t know why.”
I made my way through letters we’d written moving companies that tried to dun us, letters to the editors of conservative newspapers claiming we were members of the wide, dangerous network of the SDS.
Then — finally — I came across one of my most prized accomplishments. In the late 1970s, I’d had the worst job I ever had in my life — and believe me, I’ve had some dogs. I was hired to do indexes for a legal publishing firm in Virginia. It required patience, diligence, and an attention to details — none of which I had. It almost killed me. There’s nothing worse than being in a job that requires everything you don’t have and nothing that you do.
One day, in desperation, I posted a note on the Coke machine. It said I’d heard that the proceeds of the machine were going to support the Shah of Iran. I urged everyone to join me in boycotting the machine. Then, I signed the name of one of my friends at work. (I was depressed, but I wasn’t stupid.) The next thing I heard, all the secretaries were boycotting the machine.
The note was faded by now, but I read it over as best as I could. I remembered it well (that note had finally alarmed me enough to realize I needed to quit that job now). But I’d forgotten that I ended it by saying “Death to the Shah and his 90-year-old mother!” Then, I’d signed my friend’s name with “Shalom.”
How wonderful, I thought. If we hadn’t tackled the closet this weekend, I would never have remembered that ending — so perfect, so wonderfully passive-aggressive, so me.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)