Fiction Romance

Boxes in the Attic

Some time ago, in the midst of those young and foolish days when such things seemed to matter, I promised myself that I would get organized at least once every ten years. The last day of reckoning was sixteen years ago. Better late than never.

I was already having a tough time doing much of anything, even those things that I once liked to do. Fishing poles and golf clubs, which had seen sporadic, limited success in their previous lives, now only served as home to an impressive collection of spider webs in a dark corner of the garage, right next to a large crate filled with deflated basketballs, footballs, soccer balls, a T-ball stand and a collection of baseball gloves of every size hanging on the wall. Memories gathering dust. I cut a deal with a neighbor kid to mow the lawn and shovel snow, and the colorful array of birds that once feasted on a veritable smorgasbord of seeds, nuts, and berries had long ago moved on to better feeding grounds. My dog died two years ago, and I just haven’t been able to muster up the energy to get another one. I also wonder if would be fair to get a dog that would likely outlive me. I’ll have to give that more thought.

I really don’t know what I do with my time. I shop for groceries, watch the news and sporting events on TV, hit the car wash every so often, and keep the big old farmhouse clean. And then as sure as the sun rises in the east, a time eventually arrives for me to go to bed and ready myself to do it all over again the next day. I’ve turned down the incessant invitations from friends to do something, anything. There are no games on TV today. Maybe now would be a good time to get organized.

After my parents passed away, I was charged with the task of cleaning out the home where I grew up. There were five or six large cardboard boxes full of those things that only a parent would consider worth keeping- pictures and artifacts that chronicled their offspring’s earliest steps through life. I didn’t have the time to sort through it all to make those tough decisions on what to keep, which items my brothers might have an interest in, and what to toss into the trash heap of memories that perhaps weren’t all that memorable. When I moved out and headed for greener pastures in the country, I carted the boxes out of the attic of the old home and stashed them in the attic of the new home. It seemed like progress at the time.

Prior attempts to get organized over the past forty years never made it up to the attic. Long work hours and raising four children left little time to sort out the past. The boxes were out of the way in a place difficult to access, so they sat undisturbed all that time.

I don’t know the motivation, but this morning those boxes were on my mind. I hadn’t been up in the attic for years. Like the items in the garage, I’ve gathered a little dust and rust myself, and I’m not entirely confident I can even make it up there. The attic is only accessible through an opening in the ceiling of a closet in one of the bedrooms. I don’t even like going into my kids’ bedrooms. It reminds me that they used to live here, and now they don’t.

One of the saddest moments in my life occurred one night when, out of habit, I checked to make sure the back door wasn’t locked so that my son could get in the house in case he forgot his key. With my hand on the doorknob, I remembered he had left for college and didn’t live there anymore. My heart was as empty as the house.

I don’t like to talk about such things. It’s all too personal, embarrassing, and painful, but I should tell you about my marriage. Everyone makes mistakes, but you don’t want to make one when it comes to finding your mate. Love can be blind; it can also be stupid. I’ll just say it wasn’t a good fit. Once the children arrived, there was no way I would extricate myself from the situation. I would not allow for the possibility that my sons and daughters might someday experience the discomfort of spending half their time in a home they shared with a new man in my wife’s life. And I didn’t want to miss even a moment of time that I could be with them.

So, I stayed. I lamented the fact I had missed out on true love in life. I would never be Wesley, and there would be no Buttercup. That can be a sad place to be for a romantic who had harbored such high hopes.

But the children! How much happiness can one expect out of life? They were everything to me- their smiles, their hugs, their successes on the soccer field and basketball courts, the school play, the piano recitals, the cards they made for Father’s Day, the messy rooms, the ear shattering music, my girls in prom dresses, my son stuffed into a suit for the Freshman Dance, the first fish they ever caught, the good report cards, and yes, upon reflection, even the bad report cards. A loveless marriage was drowned out by the sheer joy of having those kids around. It was all so wonderful, and then they were gone.

Eventually my wife and I parted ways. All I wanted was that house filled with all those memories. But I soon realized some memories can be happy and sad at the same time. Today I needed a distraction, so I’m heading for the attic.

The bulletin boards were still hanging on the wall in my daughter’s room, covered border to border with pictures of her school friends, ribbons and medals from her sports events, and dried up remnants of prom corsages.  My smile is always brief whenever I look at those artifacts of days that will not return. I touched the wall I had leaned on so many times in the middle of the night as I cradled her in my arms while praying to God that she would finally go back to sleep. Oh, that I could only endure another such a night.

I pulled the chair away from my daughter’s desk and placed it in the closet. Stepping up onto the chair wasn’t too difficult but pushing the cover away from the opening to the attic was a greater challenge than I had remembered. I don’t believe that piece of wood could have grown heavier over time, so I’m guessing the years have made their mark on me. My hand searched in the darkness for the long piece of string attached to the pull chain that would turn on the bare light bulb that hung from the rafters. Remarkably, the string was where it was supposed to be, and even more remarkably the string remained intact when I pulled it and the light went on. So far so good.

Now I was faced with the hard part. The process involved grasping the edge of the opening, pulling myself up far enough that I could get a foot on the closet shelf, and climbing up the rest of the way. It was a struggle to get myself through that opening, but the physical challenge was overshadowed by the realization that I used to make the ascent with ease. Who the hell ever dubbed these the “Golden Years”?

The Olympic Gold medalist on the balance beam would have a tough time traversing across my attic. There are no floorboards, only the three and a half wide inch joists with a spattering of two-foot square pieces of plywood that served as steppingstones. A misstep onto the decaying wads of insulation between the joists could put my foot through the ceiling of a bedroom below. As I told you, the challenge of getting to those boxes served as a nice rationalization for never getting to those boxes.

I sat down on one the boxes and opened another. My parents were as disorganized as I was. The box contained an odd mixture of their own history dating back to their childhood days, as well as memorabilia of all shapes, sizes and substances relating to me and my two brothers. Among the more noteworthy items were a real estate tax bill on our home from 1948 in the amount of $59.75, my oldest brother’s First Communion prayer book, the sales receipt on a car my grandfather bought for $312.00, somebody’s baby tooth, and a High School Letter that had been awarded to one of us.

And then I saw it. As I shuffled some papers around, a small heart shaped box appeared. The goal of organizing quickly dissipated into the stuffy, hot attic air, and the box drifted in and out of focus as my eyes teared up. I couldn’t believe that little box had survived the years and somehow made its way to my attic. It didn’t seem possible.

I remembered the moment. It was our last day of high school, and we were standing next to my beat-up Plymouth convertible in the student parking lot. I can still picture the hint of a bittersweet smile framed by light brown hair flipping around in the warm spring breeze.

“I have something for you.”

Molly reached into a bag and pulled out a small heart shaped box, one of those little ones that would hold just three pieces of chocolate candy.

“Wow, you really went all out. And I’m guessing it was marked down since Valentines Day was three months ago.”

Then the laugh as only Molly could laugh. I told her I would see her at graduation that night and went home. I set the box on the dining room table, and later discovered that my little brother had eaten all three pieces of the candy. That was the last I saw or thought of that little heart shaped box. For some reason, my mother must have deemed it an item of some significance and stored it away.

I picked the box up and stared at it in my open hand. I don’t know why, but I opened it. One of the three pieces of paper that had held the chocolates was tipped on its side, and I could see that there was some writing on the inside of the box, letters in blue pen that I had never seen before. I removed the paper and read the message:

“Ben- No matter what our futures hold, I will always love you. Molly”  

I was frozen in the past, locked into what might have been. “I will always love you.” The words burned through my eyes and went straight to my heart. How could I not have seen that message? What did Molly think when I never made mention of it?

 As much as eighteen-year-olds could comprehend, Molly did love me, and I loved Molly. For two years we were inseparable; meeting in the hallways before school, after school, between classes, the Friday night dances, studying at the city library, sitting on Molly’s front porch watching the traffic go by in one of our car-model counting contests, the endless hours on the phone. Everything was good when I was with Molly.

Then college happened for both of us. We went to different schools, and mine was out of state. I fell into the prevailing line of thought that one needed to “socialize”, meet other people, that I was too young to settle down. We didn’t drift apart; I drifted away, away from Molly. Over the years I must have wondered a thousand times how and why I did that. Falling in love can be stupid; leaving love behind is even “more stupid”, if that’s a thing.

“I will always love you.” I’m sure she did. Maybe she still does. I didn’t know what else I could be feeling myself as I read those words over and over again. I loved her then, and I guess I must still love her. Love, true love, is not diminished by time and distance. Maybe I had found true love but only lived apart from it.

 I wish I would have thrown all conventions aside and dropped to my knees in the parking lot that day and asked Molly to marry me. I bet she would have taken walks with me on cold winter nights, sat with me on the grass studying clouds by day and stars by night, fallen asleep in my arms, played T-ball with us in the backyard, baked birthday cakes from scratch, and laughed when my daughter and I played with an oversize, inflated soccer ball in the living room. Most of all, I think she would have been happy being with me doing nothing at all. Maybe tonight we would be holding hands as we walked down the aisles at the grocery store. But it does little good to think of what could have been, what never was, and will never be.  

I wondered how Molly’s life turned out. Did she find a new love, marry, and raise children? Was she happy? Or might she be sitting in an attic someplace looking at the necklace I gave her for our last Christmas together? I don’t know if I would want to know.

I sat there for a long time. I couldn’t stop reading those words and thinking about Molly. At one point my eyes wandered across the insulation and joists to the opening in the floor. It occurred to me that getting down might be harder than it was getting up. I thought maybe I would just stay up there in the attic.

February 16, 2022 00:32

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