Tuesday, January 13, 2015

'Significance' by Denise Oehmcke

She is a hoarder. I catch it early on but, I mistakenly wait until she is of an age to be able to identify me, the thirty-three gallon trash bags and my sweaty brow before casually going in to weed the garden, lighten the load - throw some crap away.

My nine year old daughter’s bedroom is home to every single solitary possession that has ever come her way rightfully and thieved (she seems to think that the Moroccan rattles St. Nick left her older brother years ago were really meant for her and that he doesn’t deserve or appreciate his world-globe as much as she does and that my pink, Spanish-dancer looking dress is somehow more appropriate for playing  dress-up...her, not me.)  In addition to our stuff, Anna has her every water-park bracelet, movie stub, craft project, gift, trinket, note, pebble, piece of sand, apple core–really, I am sure there’s a sacred one in there somewhere.

When she toddles in the first time to find me with two bulging Hefty bags at my feet she looks at me in total bewilderment; she wants to know what is in those gawbage bags. She is genuinely confused as if she can’t make connection between garbage and the things in her room Two years later she will use five of her cents to buy half of a used wooden spoon at a neighbor’s rummage sale–to remember the rummage sale by.

Her confusion surprises me, she’s usually a bit sharper than this. Not  a problem, I can explain to this misguided, knee-high, drooling trash collector the American way of  Out With the Old and In With the New and be on my way to Goodwill and the industrial size garbage cans standing outside of our home.  I pull her to my lap and three minutes later I know as certainly as I know my middle name that there is no possible way I am getting anything out the door, not while she is around.

She is at preschool; I have two hours. I go in and I clean. I hide the bags and later that day she calls to me from a shaky voice.  She is in her room and sees the empty spaces where the stuff had been and she wants it back....all of it. I am very annoyed but I drag the things out of the back of my car - plastic purple ponies with golden dreadlocked tails, a baby doll with red Sharpie smears in her nostrils, so so so many beaded necklaces and then I dig through the garbage to return ring-pop bases, Barbie doll heads, torn piano book pages and orange peels. Apparently she ate a clementine on the 4th of July one year and she loves the 4th of July and it was her first clementine, she loved that too. I dump all this back in her room.   

She is at soccer practice; I have an hour and a half.  I gather only things that won’t leave any noticeable empty space–four of her seventy stuffed animals, last year’s smiley-faced worksheets, jeans that are causing chafing, a cracked snow globe that has fallen behind her jammed snow globe shelf–I swear she hadn’t seen this one in two years.  She comes home and again she knows. She feels the absence of the missing items and looks at me in a way that goes against everything I set out to be for these small people I bore. I cannot be trusted and am embarrassed by her hurt. I guiltily bring back the things I collected for trash. 

There are no more heists. I’m out. I will wait. Surely she will save herself before TLC shows up with the camera crew. I stop taking but I don’t stop complaining. I say things like, “Your  room makes me hyperventilate, I can’t breathe in here!”   She rebuts with stories, connecting the stuff in her room to whole days of her past. 

When I was Anna’s age, in the living room of our rented drafty farmhouse, I watched my stepfather shoot and kill  my mother and then himself with a .22 caliber hunting rifle.   I have absolutely no memory of my mother before that coldest February night. 

I once read a quote by Saul Bellow, “Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.”   But, what if one needs the wolf more? Dissociative or psychogenic amnesia is a memory disorder characterized by sudden retrograde autobiographical memory loss. By dissociating oneself from memories, a person who has suffered trauma is able to protect oneself.

I erased her. Saved from the trauma of missing a woman, my mother who I am told I loved more than the world but yet, cannot resuscitate a single mental image of.  The sound of her voice alludes me now thirty-seven years away. I remember not one interaction with her but I know that the day before she died she didn’t go to work and played Twister and Monopoly with my brothers and I. I know this because her cousin shared it with me during a phone conversation thirty years later.  

I can see from an old and yellowed photograph that I look like her but, I have nothing else of my mother and nothing else of being her child until that night, three months into my ninth year when I became a ward of the court and the day before I was delivered empty-handed to my first foster home.

I am vacuuming the Y- shaped path that is the only clearing in my Anna’s room. I want to throw out a piece of broken glass.  She tells me that she loves that piece of glass. I am exasperated by it all  “How can you love a piece of glass, it’s g-a-r-b-a-g-e??!”

She is exasperated by me and puffily tells me of  “a long long time ago for J.J.’s  basketball tournament when we were in that one big-bridge city.... and we walked and walked to eat lunch before the last game when he  won the biggest trophy.... and the wind was blowing so hard... we were laughing and you were pulling me Mom cuz you said the wind was going to keep me stuck on the other side of the road and you and J.J. would have to eat lunch without me... so you kept laughing and pulling me ….and I ate that soft turkey sub and J.J. spilled orange soda on his uniform..... and we were still laughing all the way back to the gym that had the blue floor!”  

That day was so fun she says. She loved that day and on the windy walk back she pocketed that street-side piece of brown beer-bottle glass. She was four years-old and her coat was purple and now I remember that ordinary day. That insignificant Saturday. That one lost March.   

“You can keep the glass.”  I say.  Put it next to the rotten toast-point from your baptismal  luncheon  while I go crawl under the wash-machine to cry over the fact that you are so blessed smart and good at living life....of course I don’t say this and as far as I know, there is no toast in her room.  

In small jewelry boxes, pencil holders, and purse pockets Anna stores clusters of shiny and chalky and jagged and smooth and pink and grey-blue and white and the very best, crystal pebbles from the grade-school playground familied into the days when she’d stoop to collect them on her way to the car where I stood waiting and watching. They rattle through the vacuum cleaner and I complain about all the stuff, the junk, the disorder, the chaos. She tells me these stones are Kindergarten and that, “You can not throw Kindergarten away!” I don’t. I don’t mess with Kindergarten or windy days or the 4th of July or the cheap neighbors’ rummage sales. 

My Anna is now ten. Today she tells me that she has left a pile of things outside her bedroom door. These things are approved for removal. I may take them and do whatever I want with them she says; her room is too crowded.  I should be pleased but I am not. The pile is three items. A beanie baby split butt to neck, her first-grade spelling book, and a frame she decorated at Brownie camp. I look down at her things and feel like there’s a pigeon in my chest -that fluttery rush that comes right before I cry but don’t because it happens so often that I have learned to quickly calm it under.  


I pick up her things and walk pallbearer-like to my closet where I carefully tuck them away.  It was a hundred degrees the day she sweated through that frame... I was the dogged, watch-checking camp-mom helper...as if time could possibly ever have been going too slow..... it took Anna’s stubby little fingers forever to move all those raspberry-colored sequins one at a time from the middle of the table to the tip of the glue bottle to the white space of that frame while her nose moved rabbit-like the way it used to when she was concentrating. A magnificent, stupid camp-song singing, hot hot day when her hair was still  white-blond and she couldn’t say her r’s. I love that frame.   

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