Words, not objects, are vessels for our memories [Commentary]

Cleaning out the house that my parents called their own for 57 years is, initially, an exercise in futility and heartbreak. You walk a guilt-strewn tightrope. Should we keep this or that certain artifact left behind following Dad's death in March? Or is it at best another inanimate object that loses its dramatical representation? Might it best be remanded to the junk pile of history?

Here's the best answer I can offer: I know that I don't know. I know all that furniture they got during the Carter Administration served its purpose. The not-so-comfortable sofa; the outdated chairs; the dorky lamps with shades shaped like retro hair dryers in beauty parlors; the kitchen appliances that could have been props in TV sitcoms like "All in the Family." 

Then there are the things we've unearthed in the basement. Books so dated, the publishers' names and addresses lacked ZIP codes; the final edition of the Washington Star in 1981; a beer sign that flashed "Michelob." And who can forget the vintage electric pinball machine we salvaged from a vending company in 1967? Yes, it worked well for many years after. Eventually, though, the novelty of the relic, the ding-ding-ding of its bell, fell silent. What to do with it? The vote was unanimous: Send it to penny arcade heaven. Too broken-down to fetch anything on eBay.

As we dug into piles of paperwork lovingly stored in giant manila folders, we seized upon a stack of forgotten diaries. After literally blowing the dust off, we searched them and discovered that our Dad, the stoic and upright World War II hero, somehow found time in his busy schedule running a bunch of restaurants to make daily entries. The best we could figure, his first recording came in 1961. That's when he noted that three of his four kids were now in elementary school and that JFK had brought something called "Camelot" to the White House, a mere eight miles away. His last one came around 2009, about the time his health started to fail.

My sister, Marianne, summarized it best: "We never thought he was paying attention to us. Come to find out, he was paying close attention."

"Tony called today," he wrote. "Mary (my wife) feel under the weather."

"Kristin (my niece) graduated from law school today," came another. "Andrew (our son) born at Georgetown Hospital at 5:57 p.m."

But my favorite entry came back in the mid-1960s: "Vicki (our mom) on her high horse. Walked to the bank. Stopped off at Fred and Harry's (a long-gone bar) for a beer. Then back home."

Saving the things in life that are fashioned of wood and plastic and steel, for me, lose their luster. When it comes to my parents, the most important parts of them they can leave behind are their words. Words are reflections bubbling up from the soul, musings that matter, even if they come across as applicable only to a select few eyes. I would rather harness the words a person has recorded for posterity than keep things like vases and commemorative plates (unless they're worth something) and the angel figures Mom, who's in assisted-living, collected for what seemed forever. 

Along with the wedding ring, watches and talcum powder I got from Dad, two other things — both left in writing — resonate. The first was the hospital bracelet I got when I had my tonsils removed in 1959; the other came six years earlier. It was in the form of a canceled check made out to George Washington University Hospital for $100. That's what it cost for me to be born, which was a lot of dough 60 years ago. The investment came without an owner's manual or service warranty. I hope it yielded good dividends.

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