Saturday, November 6, 2010

Calculus Notebooks and Baby Clothes

My grandmother's house has an attic full of memories: boxes of innumerable letters, notebooks, photographs, and baby clothes from three generations. Watching my mother go through these items over the past few months has been an education in memory and attachment. With each box, she relives a moment or a year or a decade. Everything that gets thrown away must first be exclaimed over and/or mourned. Some things, like the letters Gram wrote to my parents before I was born, Mom has passed on to me, so now I've started my own memory collection in my attic.

Going through old things has weird effects on the space/time continuum. It's hard for me to imagine my mother as a teenager struggling through chemistry and calculus, yet there are the notebooks to prove it. Actually, it's not that I can't imagine her as a teenager--I can't really believe she was once a teenager.

It's different for her--she can't imagine not being that teenager anymore, alive in the pages of those old notebooks. As she tears the pages from their spiral bindings and adds them to the recycling bin, she says, "I feel like I'm tearing apart my life." And yet it needs to be done.

My baby clothes--most of which are musty and stained and not worth giving to a thrift store--are still vivid and colorful in her mind as she holds them up, saying, "I loved you in this dress ... you looked so beautiful in this color." Me? She can't be talking about me, 5'10" tall and 31 years old. I was never small enough to fit into that. And how could I have lain on that embroidered blanket or worn that handmade flannel nightgown if I don't remember it? How was that me?

In the boxes of the baby clothes--most of which were either bought at Sears or sewn by my grandmother (who was quite talented, although her designs were essentially practical, and usually made of flannel since as a baby I lived in Maine)--were a few items from an earlier era: finely worked crocheted bibs with colorful decorations, and dresses with lace collars and hems. These, according to my mother, must have been made by my great-grandmother. A professional dressmaker, she took the concept of handmade to an entirely different level.

My idea of a thoughtful baby gift is taking the time to go to Target and pick out something in a color the kid (or parent) likes. Handmade dresses or clothes like the ones my great-grandmother made would probably cost a hundred dollars--more than I'd spend on a dress for myself! So much has shifted in how we spend our time, money, and labors--individually and globally as well. My idea of green or budget conscious involves shopping at a thrift store, recycling someone else's best guess at a good buy from Target.

There were many more baby-girl pink items in the baby clothes boxes than I've worn in the 30 years since then. By the time I was old enough to verbalize my desires, I tended more toward red and blue. We also found among the baby clothes my first-ever pair of shoes (these resulted in many exclamations). For some reason I was relieved that they were cute and maroon. I'd wear them now, if only they were the right size.


  1. Wow, what a great story of the attic! I can never see myself that small either, thanks for sharing!

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