Memory box - FamilyEducation

Memory box

August 16,2010
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

Scott and I spent another weekend systematically de-cluttering around us. Last weekend I tackled my closet and the messy piles of shoes. I'm a person who likes a system for organizing the odds and ends of life; I love keeping things in their respective bins and boxes. Maybe I like a tidy life--I like the different parts of my life--past and present--to be in order, so I can find what I'm looking for, when I'm looking for it. This is how I keep my memories, too. I imagine them in boxes in my brain. Memories of childhood, for instance, in an enormous golden bin; memories of my children's infant years in that precious white bin in another corner, and so on. This weekend I worked on the top shelf of my closet, where a lot of extra clothes and boxes of memories end up. I'm a big believer in the shoebox system of organizing old letter and postcards and birthday cards. I have several of them stacked on a shelf above my clothes. I found some cards from years and years ago--back from my last two years of high school, when we lived in Italy. *************** For many, many months after my family moved back to the United States from Italy in the summer of 1987, I felt a strange disconnect with my surroundings, like I was straddling two different worlds at once. I started college the fall after we moved back home, after having lived in Turin, Italy, for two years. I would walk to class from my parents' house, through the college town streets, up the steep hill into the main campus, past the white-steepled chapel where, many years later I would marry Scott. The wind would blow and all of a sudden I'd be back in our hillside town in Pino-Torinese, opening the shutters to the golden cornfields and the lowing of the cattle from the farm across the way. I felt transparent, often, like I wasn't really in one place or the other. It was months before I felt solidly rooted to American soil again, and it was years before our time spent in Italy receded well into the past, becoming flat and one-dimensioned, like a half-remembered book. Travel is broadening, but it's maddening, too. Everything after Italy seemed terribly ordinary, and dull, and superficial. I had longed to come back to the States, and to start college; yet once back, I longed in turn for what we'd left behind and I felt restless and uninspired by everything around me. I struggled to make those two years fit, somehow, into the picture of my life as a whole. Instead, there is life before Italy, and life after Italy and Italy itself remains like a parenthetical inserted in a long and fairly linear page of text. I plotted and plotted to go back and yet here I am, some twenty-three years later from that day I looked down on the River Po from the airplane window, and I still haven't had a chance to go back. My sister did this summer, and I envied her tremendously. I still haven't had the chance to talk to her about it--I'm thirsty to see photos, to hear her reflections on the trip, but I'm half-scared, too. I dream sometimes of once-familiar roads, and wonder if I'd recognize them; of once-ordinary places--a yellow villa where I went to school, a vine-covered schoolyard, a field of corn, the path winding past the crooked tree where we'd let our beloved family dog run loose and she'd take off, feathered tail held high, startling the doves out from their hiding places among the tall grasses. I can see them rising into the air, tossed upwards like a handful of stones. I don't know what to do with all the memories I've recently pulled out, dusted off, and placed in obvious spots where I can catch sight of them, as I'm going about life, pausing in my kitchen, driving to work with the radio on, or lying in a darkened bedroom with my children, their bodies winding down for sleep. I don't know why I always feel so compelled to do something concrete with those years. I write about them from time to time, hoping to weave some connections, and remove the parentheses setting that period in my life apart from all the rest of it. Last night, lying next to T. in the dark, I imagined looking down on the Po again from an airplane window, my children crowded around me, the magical blue squiggle growing larger and larger until the wheels touched down, with a lurch and screech, and I was back again.