Most of us tend to compartmentalize different experiences and emotions in our minds.
Perhaps we do so to give some order to complex feelings, store away pain, hurt, or grief, or maybe simply because we get wrapped up in the cadence of life itself.
Many times, the colorful contents of those “compartments” are forgotten about or left unattended for long periods of time, waiting to be rediscovered, much like an old, cardboard box left somewhere in your house.
I began to think of this concept when my sister and I decided to sift through a sea of cardboard boxes sitting in the basement of our childhood home. It was as if they waited patiently for decades to be uncovered and acknowledged. The boxes contained items belonging to us, our parents, and from relatives who passed on long ago.
For years we knew one day we would have to sort through them, but postponed the arduous task. Outside of dreading the job, a subconscious reluctance to reflect on the absence of those who owned the boxes and revisit memories of our own lives prevented us from doing so.
But the day came when it was time to address those old boxes and “clean house.” So, we began the job, doing our best to focus on the task at hand, sorting through lots of stuff, disposing of junk, and retaining precious items. We would try not to lament on what we would find since we had little time and a lot to do.
Some of the boxes advertised products with old logos from long ago, gray, faded, and coated in a thick layer of dust. Most had not been touched since they were filled many years ago.
As I opened the first box, I encountered brown, tattered, decomposing newspapers used as packing material from the 60s and 70s. It contained old paid bills and cancelled checks written by my paternal grandfather the last years of my grandparent’s lives. I remember they had such beautiful handwriting and how articulate they were, just like my dad.
Their last wallets were as they left them and contained membership cards and family pictures. There were publications and paraphernalia from Pop’s days as a fingerprint specialist, dating back to the late 30s and 40s. We encountered my grandmother’s old hearing aids, rosary beads, and a little prayer book with a heartfelt handwritten message she wrote when she lost a baby girl in 1927 after giving birth to her three days earlier. The sadness of her beautiful words made us stop and ponder.
And at that moment, we realized we needed to proceed gingerly and respectfully and sift through the boxes with care. We were being told a story by the former owners that included things we knew, things they never got to tell us, and private thoughts and experiences they held close to their hearts—it was as if each article represented a colorful tile, contributing to a beautiful mosaic of their lives.
And from then on, the task became a sacred experience we were honored to undertake.
Another box told the story of my great aunt’s divorce in the 1920s, and when she remarried years later, the hats she wore during that time, and a Santa Claus pin she donned every holiday for as long as I can remember. I encountered my maternal grandmother’s old change purse from 1960 containing old, Christian medals and crosses she carried with her for decades.
I read cards from my father to his parents and love letters to my mother when he traveled the Pacific during his Navy days. Lots of photos and certificates of accomplishments from many who are no longer with us. All colorful remnants of their existence, of their lives.
For the first time in many years, I saw old class pictures and snapshots of my first singing recital when I was in first grade. Looking at them made me remember how excited I was that night to be up on stage and how proud my mom and dad were. I found old trinkets that once decorated my childhood bedroom, objects collected from the many trips taken abroad with mom, dad, and my sister, and the collar of our beloved dog, Ebony, who died when I was 13. So many bright spots and rough patches to recall.
As we touched the items, it was as if we visited with those times from long ago, our younger selves, and those we lost. And the more “life” we reviewed, the more vibrant and richer their existence and our lives became.
At the end of the day, we were energized by the spectrum of emotion we experienced, but a sense of sadness quickly followed for the bright, happy days of the past, when life seemed simpler and more complete. The task resurrected grief we tucked away for decades, and we realized how significantly life has changed.
It reminded us of the evolution of our lives, the beautiful, colorful memories we carry in our hearts, and the void left behind by those we loved. What a privilege it was to reflect and celebrate their lives and ours.
I realized that those old cardboard boxes were comparable to the compartments in my mind that I had tucked away and was reluctant to revisit. It may take some courage to do so, but it is enlightening to review our memories from time to time— to evaluate where you’ve been, to accept/discard dark recollections, and embrace the happy moments that illuminate our lives. When we do, we are more apt to acknowledge the entirety of who we are and abandon the baggage that may drag us down as we continue our journey.
It may be an arduous task, but, in the end, beautiful and freeing.
Our lives—our days—are precious and limited. And one day, our lives may also be reduced to a cardboard box—a final receptacle containing a summary of our successes, failures, joy, heartbreak, disappointments, and eras of challenge. It is up to us to decide what colorful memories we will focus on and what experiences we should accept as part of our growth to let go of or file away.
And most importantly, we should recognize that all those shades of light and dark contribute to the beautiful mosaic of our lives that we can choose to appreciate and embrace while we are here, and may remain for others to discover when we leave.