Not much about moving is pleasant, and this recent move was more stressful for me than any other I can remember. But, in the aftermath, I have finally tackled unpacking some items that have been bundled away for years.
I have twenty boxes that have gone through my countless moves--across the country and back-- and to the various cities I have inhabited on the east coast. These boxes contain things that I don’t need in my everyday life, and much of the contents are remnants of my childhood, or just forgotten pieces of my life at the point they were taped shut.
These are the boxes that have ended up in the spare bedroom, or a storage unit, regrettably with the same tape they were sealed with left unbroken. During this move, I purposely decided to go through those particular boxes in the beginning of the unpacking process.
This decision has slowed down my overall progress, but I have found possessions that I had forgotten existed. Some have brought tears, smiles or both, and a few items met the wastepaper basket. But discovering things like old love letters, photos with faded colors and yellow edges, old birthday cards from my grandmothers-both gone now, and art pieces I made in Kindergarten, have left me on the floor sorting through memories and forgetting the time.
Last night, I came upon an album with all of our old family photos-- my parents staring into the lens of the camera with young faces from a house unknown to me. Me, a toddler, smiling over a birthday cake with two candles. My sister, tall and skinny, nine years my senior, on the floor playing Monopoly with me in my footed pajamas. I am drawn into these pictures because so much of my family is a mystery to me. I don’t understand my parent’s marriage; I don’t understand the dynamic between me and my father. I don’t understand their need to keep secrets about their childhoods or mine. I get caught up in these photos, scouring the sepia images hoping to find answers.
A few years ago, I decided to work on our family tree, joined ancestry.com, pulled what little information I could get out of my mother, and started to work. Through my own research and the wonder of the internet, I discovered family members whose names I had never heard before, and more details about the names that were familiar. But I hit a point when certain things weren’t adding up. I couldn’t connect this person or that to my family, or find the name I needed. There were missing pieces in the puzzle of our family that I just could not uncover. If I had reached the point in my research where I was five generations back, and records were sparse, it would be one thing. But I was barely beyond my grandparents when the lines seemed broken.
I called my mother. I explained the trouble I was having and found out through that conversation that my dad’s father did not share our last name. He was his biological father, but my father had changed his last name to his mother’s maiden name when he was very young. The reasons for this weren’t offered, even after probing, except to let me know that the reasons weren’t good ones. I was a bit stunned as I hung up the phone. Over the years, I had looked at the one picture we had of the grandfather I had never met, seeing my father in his face so clearly looking back at me. I had asked a million questions it seemed, remembered asking, but not getting answers. And now I was finding out that in truth, my family’s last name should have been something else. I wondered if I was overreacting, if anyone else would just see this as a pulled thread in the quilt of a family. But to me it seemed as if I had lost a little of my identity, and had a whole part of my family I didn’t know and never would.
With this information, and the correct last name, I was able to fill my family tree with many branches. But so many of the names seemed so lost to me, as if they were all people who lived in another country, too far away to visit, and seldom talked about due to distance.
I know there is pain in my father’s past. I know this pain has manifested itself in ways I would like to forget. I know that his pain—in general terms—has been used as an excuse for countless things. And while I can understand that there are some things I don’t need to know, the whole of my parent’s past has been a well guarded secret. I have been told bits and pieces of happy memories, explanations of photos here and there, but the subject quickly changes when deeper questions are asked.
I know that compared to what my parents keep packed away emotionally, my twenty boxes are a small stash. I still foolishly hope that somewhere within the cardboard and tape I will find some answers. I think that was the reason I left them untouched for so long. I knew that any hope died if I unpacked and inspected every item, every letter, every photo, and didn’t find the missing piece to make all the disjointed memories fit.
I have six boxes left.
A part of who I am will always be unknown to me. But the ache to know and the absence of answers have made me who I am. I sometimes imagine that somewhere, in their attic perhaps, my parents have twenty boxes. They have always been hidden from me, and one day I discover them. And with each item I unearth, one of my questions is answered. And then, when the last box is empty, I know everything. All of the pain and secrecy make sense.
For now, as I cut the tape of box number fifteen, I still have hope.