Thursday, June 24, 2004

Childhood detritus

I naturally tend to be a bit of a packrat. When I was a little girl my closet had a built-in dresser, and the bottom drawer was left empty because it didn't have a handle and was difficult to open. I discovered this empty space and squirreled away the weirdest things in there. I brought home flannel-board figures from Sunday School, pretty rocks and shells from the beach, and sheets of paper I'd carefully covered in scribbles and drawings, tucking them all carefully into my "hidden" drawer.

The weirdest thing I kept in the drawer? Well, my mom had really long hair, and after she brushed it she would clean out her hairbrush, roll the hair up into a neat ball between her palms, and throw it away. I was fascinated by these hairballs. Obsessed with all kinds of miniature things, soon I discovered that I could shape the hairballs into tiny hair nests. I imagined that a delicate bird had shaped a hollow for her eggs inside them. And, yes, I kept a couple of these pretty little nests of hair in a corner of the drawer.

After I left home, however, I ended up moving at least once a year for five or six years. This made me get a lot better about throwing things out. No more secret stashes of hairballs for me! I stopped keeping every little note and letter, mercilessly recycled clothing and shoes, and even frequently culled my bookshelves (by far the most painful part). Things with sentimental value stuck around longer, but after packing and unpacking something three or four times without using it for anything in between, I became ruthless. Yes, I know I got this from a dear friend, but our friendship won't suffer if I pass on this candle holder/necklace/picture frame.

Journals are a different story. I've been an obsessive journal-keeper since sixth grade, and I won't throw out a single one of the twenty journals I've filled. It's a little pathetic, but I justify that collection by pointing to the fact that my memory is atrocious.

But there's one thing I've kept through all those moves, and it's never going away. My sister and I had a small collection of dress-up clothes--mostly castoffs from our aunt and grandma, ridiculous dresses they hadn't worn in twenty years that we would bunch up over our t-shirts and jeans and sashay around feeling glamorous and grown-up. At some point our collection gained two fringed shawls: a black one and a glimmering silver one. My sister took the black one, but I fell in love with that silver shawl. I told myself stories about how it was woven from starlight and spun by moonlight, sprinkled with fairy dust and shimmering with magic. I was very strict about letting myself play with it, reserving it for extra-special storylines in which I needed a flash of mystery draped over my shoulders. Every time I whirled it around me, I thrilled to the cool secrets I imagined woven within it.

When I left home, I quietly dug the silver shawl out of the closet where all our stuffed animals, Barbies, and dress-up clothes had been banished over the years, and took away with me. It usually stayed in a drawer or a hatbox in a closet, always out of sight. I never wore it, but I never quite tossed it out in any of my anti-hoarding fits, either.

And then a few years ago I ran out of magic. I stopped looking up at the stars and couldn't bear to keep a journal. It was a very long stretch of drab monotony. God died, love lied, and I never wanted to get up in the morning.

I remember three things that happened around the same time a little color started to creep back into my world. I had utterly neglected my only houseplant. It was completely dead, I thought--nothing but dirt left in its container. I started hopefully watering it anyway, and after several weeks I was delighted to see tiny green leaves emerging from the soil.

I had a favorite bracelet with a broken clasp that had languished in my jewelry box through those months. One day I sat down and carefully fixed the clasp so I could wear the bracelet again.

And I pulled the shawl out of the drawer and draped it around a lampshade. Of course I knew it wasn't actually a magic shawl. It hadn't been able to make me invisible, or let me tame unicorns, or transform me into a stunning princess. But all the playful storylines had woven themselves into it over the years, and something of its fantasy still seemed to twinkle at me through its silvery threads.

I've moved a couple more times since then, always keeping the shawl draped somewhere prominent in my bedroom. For a while I had it arranged high in a corner, hanging so the light from my lamp sent lacy patterns onto the ceiling and walls. Usually it's just hung awkwardly around a lampshade, fringe swaying below the light.

If a fire broke out in our apartment, I would first scramble to grab as many journals as I could sensibly carry. I would rush to pull clothes from the closet and the box of important documents.

And then I honestly think I would snatch that shawl.