Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Single File

Last summer I had contractors look at a spot on the ceiling and what resulted was a full-blown house renovation that took all summer, pushed me to the brink of exhaustion, almost made me lose my mind, and changed the look of my house forever and for the better.

At the start of the renovation, all of my possessions were moved into the garage and I naively decided that nothing that I did not love or need would make it back through the freshly painted porthole of my house. 

That was in the beginning of the process when I was welcoming workmen with open arms and providing them big coolers full of refreshing beverages.  At the end of August, I was focusing an intense death glare upon at the last few painters in the house and snarling at the mover guys to just hurry up get all the crap back in the house and I would organize it later.

Ah, yes.  The maddening process of renovation.

School started and I organized the house just enough to get by. This summer, I decided a week ago, would be the summer to open up some of those crammed drawers and get on with it.  I also decided to move some of my home office things in a cramped back room up to a bright, sunny room in the front of the house.  I would organize and cull out things as I did so.

I decided to start with a couple of filing cabinets.  One was the one my husband had organized and kept.  Before he left and filed for divorced, he took his passport and a few other papers.  Other than that, the files were all there: years of records of purchases, warranties, taxes, correspondence with friends, house blueprints, and the kids’ school projects and records.  The other filing cabinet was one that I had filled with years and years of papers from college, my own childhood memorabilia, past and current medical files, writing projects, and assorted pictures. 

It has been a little over a year since our divorce became official.   My scar tissue, I thought, would be sufficient to handle whatever I found.  It would be therapeutic to get rid of every file folder with his writing on it.  This is now MY house; I would make these MY files. 

I took on the easy stuff first—the outdated manuals and the old utility receipts.  I placed the folders full of letters from his friends and family in a box for our son to take to him on his next outing with him.  Then I got to all the cards I had sent him over the years.  What to do with them?  Hummm…  I thought about throwing them out, but I put them in the box anyway.  I know he will probably throw them all out, but I thought that should at least be his decision to do so.

Two hours into the process, I started to get overwhelmed.  I was past the cut-and-dried impersonal papers.  Now, nearly every paper brought back a memory, every piece of paper evoked some sort of memory.  My filing cabinet held all of his cards and letters—all those sweet notes and shortcuts in language that we used.

I found letters from my mother to my husband, written years ago before she fell victim to dementia.  The letters were written in that familiar script, praising him for being such a good son-in-law and thanking him for taking care of me. I kept the letters.  How could I throw out anything in her handwriting? I found some writings of my father, his eulogy, and his obituary.  My children’s artwork, and their letters to me when they were in grade school reminded me of the passage of time.  What to do with the wedding pictures?  Do I hold onto this scrap of a poem I started when I was seventeen?  Who was the young girl who wrote this?  Is she gone forever?  Is she still within me waiting to be rediscovered?

The playbill from a high school production. A letter from a grateful student written years ago.  The teddy bear I had when I was a child. My thesis. The sympathy cards from a pregnancy that produced no living child.  The school picture of a classmate from my third grade class. The copies of letters to friends, written on this new thing called the computer and printed out with the daisy wheel printer.  Love letters from our courtship.  The divorce papers—reams of papers from dispassionate lawyers.  And always, always, notes and references to us as a couple, people combining our first two names effortlessly as they wrote.  I went through them all.

By the end of the week, I felt bruised and sore.  I had touched thousands of papers and objects, and they had touched me, and some in not such a loving way.  It was as though I had been walking down a narrow, darkened hallway and the memories were being thrown at me in a random manner. This was such an intensely concentrated trip through my life and not in any sort of understandable chronological order.  From all directions, memories hit me. Some I felt as gentle taps, some felt like hugs, some were knives, some were boulders coming at me full force. 

I had started my life on a projected path and had always assumed the arc of that life would stay the same.   Reading those letters, looking at those pictures, touching each of those cards reminded me of how that arc had been cut off quickly and without warning with those words, “I’m leaving.  It’s divorce.”  My feeling of fragmentation, of amputation from my old life is probably exacerbated by the fact that my ex chooses to have no contact with me whatsoever.  It’s tough to piece it all together and make sense of a shared past life when you have to do it on your own.

This is no call for a pity party for me.  I don’t want my old life back. Had I stayed on the course I was on, I would have contorted myself into someone eventually would not recognize just to continue the arc that I was familiar with.  I understand now that I deserve to be cherished, to explore my creative gifts, and to have my voice heard and respected. The life that awaits me is pretty darn great.

I think about all those who have gone through situations like mine, or even more dramatic ones.  The past comes up and somehow we have to make the present mesh with it even when it seems the fragments will never fit together.  I know this is happening and will continue to happen. Part of it is dealing with the end of a thirty-year relationship.  Part of it is realizing how quickly time is passing.  Part of it is reviewing my life and wondering if I have wasted any of it.  Part of it is a desire to make the most of the life I have left.  My concentrated, disorienting trip down memory lane brought all these things into intense focus.  Is it always wise to visit the people we used to be?  Is it always necessary? 

Last summer, each night after the workers left, I wandered through my house that was full of dust, walls torn out, cabinets destroyed and piled on the floor.  There were times I didn’t think I would ever see it come together, to form a whole again, but it did, and beautifully too.

Just today I opened the newly organized filing cabinets.  Every single file in there is mine.  All the handwriting on the tabs is mine.  All the papers are ones that I have decided to keep.  The best part? Now, there’s also ample room for new files, for new projects, and for new adventures yet to be had. 


My Mind's Eye said...

Big Hug BB I know what a chore this must have been...the last step to being 100% you and your stuff.

I'm beginning a similar process at my parents home. I'm doing it in stages.
Some of the things I've found...such as a 1962 diary written by my Grandmother. Maybe there is a book in that diary. :-)
Hugs Cecilia

Momma Fargo said...

Lots of joy sent your way! Been there and still come across things to purge and give my ex or throw away. It does get cleansed to the point where the healing comes. It just takes more time than we sometimes think.

Leah J. Utas said...

Good for you for the cull, and thank you for writing about it.
It's good to make room for the new.

Old Kitty said...

Oh wow! Just imagine all the wonderful memories yet to be filed in your filing cabinets! The future is going to be ok!

Take care

Olga said...

High school papers?? Really? There was very little on your list that I would have had any trouble throwing away eventually. Culling is an on-going process for me and there is hardly a sentimental bone in my body. It is not necessarily one of my endearing qualities.

Cranberry Morning said...

This was a tough post to read, and I would imagine a very tough post to write. We have no guarantees in life, do we. But we can survive and move on. Beautifully written.

Donna said...

I have always found that to be free of "stuff" is to be, at last...free.
You have a wonderful life ahead of you...of that, I have No doubt.
Enjoy and smile like crazy!

Pearl said...

You're not Bossy Betty anymore.

You're Brave Betty.


Sueann said...

Good for you...a brave and perilous journey you embarked upon and came out on the other end with everything brand new. Clean and shiny...and all yours.

Sally Wessely said...

This reader could so identify with you on this post. Yes, I do think it is good to revisit the person that has changed and moved on. I think integration is the key to moving on. I love how you brought resolution to this process by creating new files that represent the woman of today. Bravo.

jenny_o said...

I admire and applaud that you write about what you are going through; you never know when someone who needs your words, your understanding, and your analysis of the process will come across your writing and be helped immensely by it. Bravo, and bon voyage as you move on with your journey through your new, improved life.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

You've removed the dust bunnies that were hiding. Good for you!

TexWisGirl said...

what a painful process. i am glad you are making it through. :)

thanks for stopping by today.

Ms. A said...

Much like your house, as painful as the renovation was, it turned out great. The renovation of "YOU" will turn out great, too!

Leah J. Utas said...

Stopped by again as I blogged about something similar and linked to you.

YrHmblHst said...

How do you so consistently tell your story so eloquently?
That process had to hurt...but I imagine there was plenty of good in there too. Weed out the bad and let the garden of good grow forth in the file cabinet! Thanx for blessing us with your verbiage.

Judy said...

This is beautiful.

English Rider said...

Nothing to add. You said it well. Did you not put wish-names on any empty files? I have "Life-Changes", "Things & Places of Interest" & "Ideas", for example.

Leanne said...

I haven't been through all that you have, and I have files that I avoid at all cost . . . from memories I have no desire to bring to surface. I applaud you for looking through them, my friend. However painful it may have been, you did it. I admire you in so many ways, dear Betty. A big ol'HIGH-FIVE to you!

Gigi said...

Sending a you a big old hug - because I know that was hard. And sad. But you did it. You powered through and are now on the path; ready to document your new life with even more memories. xo

Gina Gao said...

Always remind yourself to be strong!


Alison said...

Wow. Congratulations, that was a big, long job. I don't know if I could have stuck it out. Hopefully someone was around to pull you away now and then to go out for coffee or bottomless well drinks (whichever works best).

Also, just to let you know, I do cherish you, and love hearing your voice! Carry on...

The Queen said...

I still stumble across things that were the King's. Some make me smile, some make me cry.

I still come across the hidden picture of Major's sperm donor and I when I was pregnant with Major. Before we knew, before we told. I keep it hidden. I don't know why. It's a memory I don't want, and a memory I won't throw away.

Lin said...

I think whenever you start to dig through papers and momentos, it always ends up being sentimental and sometimes rough. There are so many years of trials and tribulations--even in the best of relationships. Who hasn't opened a box of their children's art projects and had a good boo-hoo?

I'm glad you did it and went through all that stuff now. Be done with it. Every day you just get stronger and stronger...and further along the road to the rest of your life.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Betty - it's hard enough doing what you've done, without the emotional aspects .. so I was so pleased to see the last note that all is well a la Betty and life is yours to do with what you wish ..

Congratulations - cheers Hilary

Hilary said...

I can relate to this in many ways.. the going through the drawers and cabinets and culling. We do tend to keep all of our important words in files.. knowing full well we'll go through them again sometime.. just not like this. I'm glad you have empty files waiting for new adventures. May it always be thus.

ellen abbott said...

the last clearing out of the old. filing cabinets are always the last.

Unknown said...

Dear Betty,

You haven't heard from me in a while, because I took a bit of an unplanned fast from blog reading when I got myself overwhelmed by the numbers of unread posts lying in my Google Reader.

Well, now, I've gone to Feedly, and so I'm checking back in with my most cherished authors. And you, my dear, are one of those. It was so nice, stumbling on this post, that actually does such a nice job answering the question I've been wondering: "How is my friend Betty faring now that it's been some time since her divorce?"

So pleased to read this post, to read about the forward movement in your life. Keep on keeping on, my friend.

Baby Sister said...

Oh I can only imagine how difficult this was for you. I'm impressed that you kept working after the more emotional stuff came out. Good for you!! It's not always easy to look at certain times from our pasts, but sometimes it is very necessary.