I’ve always been a saver — maybe because we moved a lot when I was growing up. There’s a giant red double door on a dark grey two-story house that’s indelibly etched in my mind. It borders a wheat field and has a large, lush green lawn out front where most of my belongings sat waiting to be sold after my stepfather Howard died from complications of a burst appendix too long ignored. I was in fifth grade at the time.
I moved with my mother from Colorado to Alaska that year. We took only what fit inside the tiny car we drove into the underbelly of the ship that took us on the final leg of our journey north. After several years, we moved to Hawaii. Then to California. Eventually I felt settled enough to begin holding onto things again. Record albums. Photographs. Journals filled with my own angst-laden poems and songs.
Still, my mom preferred the simplicity of life uncomplicated by possessions. I returned home from college one year to discover she had gotten rid of nearly everything that had been stored away in brown cardboard boxes. She had no room for them, she told me at the time. The physical space was there. But not the emotional space. It was traumatic, but over and done with. I figured most of my childhood keepsakes were gone.
Years later, a cardboard box came in the mail from my mom. I was a newlywed at the time, celebrating Christmas with my husband James. We lived our first year in the home of a college professor teaching abroad. And we’d already faced tough choices about which things we could never let go. We awoke one morning to a brilliant orange sky, pausing briefly to bask in its beauty before realizing it was the glow of a fire burning through grasslands surrounding our small California community.
I remember standing with one arm across my forehead, leaning against a bedroom wall. For a brief moment, I felt panic. Then we sprung into action, loading things that mattered most into our car as bits of grey ash trickled down from the sky. We grabbed photographs and the wedding dress my mother had sewn, which was carefully preserved and displayed inside a special box. We felt relieved when the fire passed, and dusted a thick layer of soot off our possessions before carrying them back inside.
That year, our first Christmas together as a married couple, money was tight, so gifts were modest and few. But the box from my mother, who died years later when our three children were small, contained the best gift of all. It was the gift of memories.
It turns out she had saved all sorts of things through the years. The cheap gold-colored candle pin I’d given her one Christmas. The plaster owl, holding a heart, that I’d painted brown and pink. The dress and ruffled diaper cover I’d worn during a ceremony shortly after I was adopted.
Things I’d lost through the years seemed to matter less that night. It’s the people I’ve lost who stay with me — and the memories of my mother, who was life’s greatest gift of all.