Like many Americans fortunate enough to remain healthy while working and attending school remotely, the Cooper family—me; my wife, Molly; our fourteen-year-old, Larkin; and our menagerie of pets—has spent an extraordinary amount of time in our house these past five months. The COVID confinement has meant living around the clock in this shared space, working, cooking, eating, sleeping, entertaining each other, and driving each other crazy. As someone who works at home anyway, I will confess to sporadic eruptions of surliness. Who are these two interlopers in my workspace? Ah, yes, my family. Such intensive domesticity! We’re all here, all the time.
Some of the extra home time has been put to household organizing, with special attention paid to those zones of perpetual chaos, the attic and the basement. Molly would add my study to the top of that list, under the heading “Emergency!” A great simplifier, she’s a devoted reader of the organizing consultant Marie Kondo, and regards my messiness with disdain and alarm. Meanwhile, she works away at improving our environment. Containers have proliferated, formerly unruly objects have been marshalled into order; the kitchen countertop now hosts a single small box. I keep trying to restore this area to its former comfortable clutter (I am, after all, the cook); but every time I look, oops, it has been neatened again, as if by tidying elves in the night.
Messiness and neatness, as traits, tend to parallel two personality types: savers and unloaders. I’ve always been a saver. I keep a lot. The mess in our attic, for instance, includes two plastic yard bags filled with old letters preserved from the years when I lived far away, an ocean separating me from friends and family, and relied on a flourishing epistolary life. Those bags also include letters my parents wrote, going all the way back to childhood postcards written by my dad from summer camp to my grandparents. I even have letters written by my mother to a college boyfriend; he held onto them for decades and sent them to me after she died. Beyond these personal meanings, the fact that letters themselves—long, discursive, thoughtful personal communications—have been displaced by ever more abbreviated forms of digital messaging is another reason to save them. So the bags remain; and when Molly points to them and asks me whether they “spark joy,” I answer truthfully, “They do!”
There are other items saved in my attic. There’s a giant duffel bag containing every pair of shoes that Larkin wore for the first eight years of her life. I have a plan for those shoes: an installation, a big arrangement of concentric circles, beginning at the center with the tiniest shoes, and “walking” outwards in spiral circles of ever-larger shoes toward the edge. But until I actually create that, all those shoes remain stored up there, along with boxes of books and photos; framed art we have no room for downstairs; old home movies from my childhood and still older ones from my mother’s; my 78-rpm records from the 1960s; my complete Hardy Boys and Chip Hilton collections; my father’s medical-school diploma; my grandfather’s World War I army uniform; the ring I gave my eighth-grade girlfriend at St. Joseph School (courteously returned to me when we broke up, and stashed now with my plaid St. Joe’s school tie); a box of ephemera from a ski area in Quebec that we visited every winter when my sisters and I were kids; a copper mule mug that is the sole survivor of a collection my mother used for iced tea; a Swiss-made art deco music box that plays Strauss waltzes...and on and on and on.
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