“The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.” ― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
It’s July 1st and the neurons in the back of my head are buzzing again. I’ve bought a condo and after a month of work I’ve nearly finished moving. As I stood in the living room of the empty apartment it felt exactly like my parents’ basement did years ago, small. This didn’t make sense to me. With everything moved out the space should have felt larger. For once, I had nowhere to be and nothing to distract me, so I stood still and waited for the thought to finally emerge.
Only a few days prior the living room was full of both activity and memories. I’d completed dozens of exams and papers sitting on the couch working towards my masters. My sons and I had watched movies, played video games, and assembled tens of thousands of pieces of Lego there. The ghosts of the women I’d dated over the years had never really left. They beckoned me into the bedroom, found a shared favorite book on the bookshelf and bounced over to me in a borrowed shirt to plant a kiss, chopped ingredients in the kitchen, climbed out of bed and strolled, naked and perfect, to the shower, and smiled at me from under a blanket on the couch. Those memories had turned that apartment into my home. With the space empty, there was nothing to anchor the memories and the ghosts had left.
Their absence changed my home back into a plain apartment with beige carpet and white walls, absent of any personality of its own. I realized that the same feeling was responsible for how I’d felt in Danbury in my childhood home six years earlier. That basement had felt small because all of the things that anchored my memories had been removed. My attempts to figure out the buzzing that cold December night were tied to far too many absent objects. I couldn’t compact 33 years of experiences into a single insight.
I didn’t recognize that even with the anchors removed, the memories of that basement had all flooded back at once – the Star Wars figures engaged in imagined conflicts on the edge of space, the feeling of my knees on the hard floor, the sunlight flooding in through the large glass doors, flying mission after mission on my Commodore 64, the heavy click of the thermostat that started the electrical heater fan’s slow acceleration to drive off the chill – and that the volume of them made it impossible to focus on one. Each was a rock in an avalanche of memory, knocking more rocks loose as they tumbled down the slope, growing exponentially from individual and recognizable moments into an indistinct cacophony of remembrance.
I thought about my childhood home for a moment, remembering all of my father’s things sitting ignored in the storage garage and the guilt I’d felt at throwing out everything I couldn’t save. It dawned on me that I didn’t want to finish my father’s models. I didn’t want to research old family albums. That there was no reason to keep marksmanship trophies he’d never mentioned. In the end, my father couldn’t tell me anything about any of the things he’d owned over his life. They were his things, but like the empty apartment I stood in, they held no memories for me.
I knew what he loved – digital watches with more functions than hours in the day, a well-designed tool, his Gameboy with it’s Tetris and chess cartridges, his Swiss Army knife – but no single item told me anything new about my father. Instead, it was the collection of things that was revealing. They told of a man with many interests, who explored many things before settling on his passions – his marriage to his lifelong love, his faith, his church, his volunteer work, computer programming – and laying everything else to the side.
My father had inadvertently passed along a final lesson with all of his possessions. Each item, cared for or abandoned and forgotten, dog-eared or never-read, represented a choice he’d made. I recognized that he wouldn’t want me to spend time doing anything I didn’t love simply because he hadn’t finished it in his lifetime. He’d chosen to do something else and he would want me to do the same. It didn’t fall to me to complete everything he’d left unfinished.