The Collector of Junk

This story was inspired by my parents moving out of the home they rented for about 40 years and the memories I had in that home.

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My Dad off-handedly describes himself as “the collector of junk” as he cleans out the house he and Mum rented and called home for more than 40 years.

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The house isn’t much to look at now, but it is beautiful to me. Every crack in the wall, every slice of peeling wallpaper, every dated wood panel, every leftover square of linoleum that we tried to cover up with stick-on tiles.

It is beautiful to me.

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The crayon markings on the walls leading to the cellar show that children grew up here. This is the same dank cellar we played video games in, on consoles we bought on sale after newer versions came out. When almost everyone else had Sega, we had Calico Vision. When almost everyone else had Super Nintendo, we had Nintendo. And so on.

But we didn’t care about that. We had a lot of fun playing those games.

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The piano that my grandmother used to play at my grandfather’s political parties stands silent in our back cellar, worn and yellowed by the years. We inherited it when Nana McLaughlin died. Nobody else wanted it. Nobody else wanted to deal with it.

Dad is a professional dealer with things. Not wishing to part with something that played such an integral part in his childhood, and not having anywhere else to put it, it ended up in our back cellar, atop floorboards that loosely covered dirt. Sometimes us kids would open the piano and pound on the keys chaotically. The piano needed tuning, but it still sounded strong. It still had life.

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The remainder of the last 40 years of my parents’ lives now remains in the back cellar in cardboard boxes and rubbermaid tubs. Sheet music that belonged to my grandparents. The first camera Dad purchased as a budding photographer. That lens that captured Mum in so many beautiful portraits when they were first married. My brother Paul’s clarinet. A beach rock one of us painted for my parents’ wedding anniversary in 1987.

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The rest of the house is just about empty.

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The hallway where my Dad trimmed the Christmas tree with a saw after us kids helped him pick out the perfect one.

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The kitchen where Paul told us he and Diana were engaged. And where they told us they were expecting their first child.

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The kitchen sink, where my parents once argued about whether or not we could afford paper towels.

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The living room couch, where Mum cried on the phone as she learned that her best friend, Anne, had been diagnosed with skin cancer.

Again.

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The back stairs, where I first saw my Dad cry as he told me that Anne passed away.

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She was 46. When I saw her in the hospital for the last time I was scared to touch her. She looked so frail, and I didn’t want to break her.

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Every death after that was easy.

Even that of my beautiful and serene Nana, whom I always long to hug one last time.

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The front entryway, where Paul would arrive home after a long shift at Bickford’s, reeking of pancakes and syrup.

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The staircase, where I tip-toed to my room when I came home early in the morning, sometimes drunk. Where I always knew who was coming up or down by their tread. Mum’s was the softest. My brother Sean’s was the loudest.

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The bathroom, which never had ventilation and Mum hated. But she always made it look as nice as she could.

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My parent’s bedroom, where Mum, in embarrassed tears, told me how mothers should never let their children see them cry.

The living room couch, where Paul grabbed my cheek like a doting grandmother and said, “Be brave, little buckaroo.”

The back door, where Mum and Uncle Larry made a deal to quit smoking. The back steps again, where they stayed up most of that night smoking the remaining packs they had.

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The telephone on the kitchen wall, where I learned that Uncle Larry, missing for 14 years, died of lung cancer. And where I thanked God that Mum held up her end of the deal.

The living room, where we opened so many wonderful Christmas gifts under the happy tree. Where Sean and Paul watched The Dukes of Hazzard, transfixed in front of the TV in thermal undershirts and sweatpants.

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The living room carpet, where Dad once wrested the car keys from Sean’s hands and pinned him to the floor so he wouldn’t drive drunk. Where Mum sent me up to my room so I wouldn’t see Sean get arrested.

Sean’s room, once decorated with so many car posters, which he knew every detail about. And once littered with liquor bottles, hidden under the bed.

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Paul’s room, where he once drew me all of the Muppet characters because I saw similar drawings hanging in the local mall and liked them.

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The kitchen, where we celebrated many Thanksgivings. Some functional, some dysfunctional. Always topped with Mum’s famous gravy and stuffing.

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The kitchen table, where Paul would eat a can of Spaghetti-O’s after an 80 hour work week of making filet mignon and french onion soup at the Double Tree hotel.

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Where Diana lovingly painted my nails for prom, asking me to gush all the details about the new guy.

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Where Dad told me I could be anything I wanted to be, even the President of the United States.

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The upstairs hallway, where Mum and Dad would traverse to attend to me when I couldn’t sleep, bringing soothing words, tissues to dry my tears, and warm milk.

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The downstairs hallway, where Paul intervened when Sean pinned Dad against the stairwell, splintering one of the railings.

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My bedroom. Where I would look out the window curiously at the kids who moved in next door, too shy to go over and say hello.

Where as a teenager I would retire to avoid the sometimes chaos of family.

Where I wrote in my journal.

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Where I would cry alone into my pillow, not understanding why I was sad and not wanting to upset anyone else.

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The remnants of the old tree outside the front of the house that came down years ago. Where Dad took our pictures on every first day of school, in our new outfits. Where I fell and broke my nose, saying, “Now I’ll never be a teen model!” and laughing as blood gushed onto the pavement.

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The backyard, where we would play with our beagle, Jake. Where Dad and I practiced soccer and softball. Where our next door neighbor, Bernie, grew tomatoes and cucumbers that he gave to us.

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Where our cat, Muffy, climbed the neighbor’s tree.

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Where lilacs bloomed near the back stoop around my birthday every year. Their scent and the sun shining through the leaves were always the best birthday gifts of all.

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The front hallway again. Where Sean invited me to an AA meeting, where he would be recognized for two years of sobriety.

This is where we kissed, hugged, cried, and loved.

For forty years.

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Now the remainder of it all lay in boxes and in the musty air of the back basement, where Dad, Paul and Sean worked on wooden projects and model airplanes together.

Dad has been left with a lot of things to sift through, and it’s a burden that he acts like isn’t one. It’s the same burden he experienced after trying to wean down the stuff after his parents died. He has gotten rid of most of the things that don’t matter. But trying to get rid of things with so much sentimental value is hard. There are so many special memories.

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He jokes that he is the “collector of junk,” but I believe he is the collector of things more valuable than anything.

He is the collector of history, of memories, of love.

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Family Me

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