For the past 10 years I have been following, more or less, the same routine every year. Around the middle of April, when the ice has melted away from the yards leaving the sludge and waste behind, I go out with my car. Or is it the car that takes me out? My old car seems to know my mind, like a trusted friend.
The cemetery near the town of Carp on a rural road off Highway 417, is just 35 km from my home. The springtime urge that takes me there every year originates from a familiar voice that I seem to hear, or imagine I hear, saying: Why aren’t you coming yet? What’s holding you up? The same complaining voice that had managed to keep me always on the alert for 41 years of our marriage-----that irresistibly beautiful girl with the fury of a volcano and the charm of a nightingale. Destiny had taken her away from me ten years ago. Now I have nothing but memories, staring at these long unbearable months of Canadian winter, when everything seems to get frozen. Waiting and waiting, and waiting more till the relentless grip of ice lets loose.
April and May are the two cruel months here in eastern Canada. Especially for the lonely hearts. The ones who have lost their mates, the ones who are tormented by memories, and by the agony of having failed to utter the last words in her ear, the two magical words everybody craves for: ‘I love you’. How simple, yet how immensely powerful those two words are. What a pity that we ordinary mortals seem to be stingiest with these simplest words of life. We fail to utter the right words when there is time, when the sun still keeps shining in the sky, the rivers keep flowing to the sea, and the trees keep humming in the woods. It’s only when everything has suddenly come to a screeching halt, when the time has had its last breath, the mind seems to wake up to the reality of lost opportunities. We spend our entire life on the most mundane things, only to wake up to the most important ones when it is too late. Spring is that time of the year when the lonely mind roams the alleys of memory in melancholy solitude.
It’s not that she remains on my mind at all times of the day and night. No, not at all. Time and memory are the two perennial antagonists----engaged in a never-ending duel of will. It’s an inherent law of nature---there’s no way I can deny or defy that. Time exhorts you to move on. Memory pleads for a little pause----a moment of reflection, for a bit of introspection. It wants you to slow down, to look back from time to time, to stop for a silent bow by the lifeless body of your loved one. Remembering will help fine tune your consciousness to a lasting state of alert, while the ruthless Time will always put a damper on it. I used to think about her at least once a day, everyday, and would feel terribly guilty if I forgot to do that even once.
But not anymore. Now she doesn’t appear in my mind for days, even months, yet I feel no real prick of conscience. Time seems to have dulled my capacity to feel guilty. Or feel anything, period! Maybe, at long last, I really have started moving on, leaving her by the roadside. Isn’t it the destiny for us all ---to lay still by the side of the road when the time comes and let the caravan move on, as it always does?
Thinking about her suddenly reminded me---my God, I didn’t clean the house for two whole weeks! Not one day, not two days, but for more than 2 full weeks. It would never have been possible while she was alive. For her, the daily life didn’t mean much more than keeping her house spic and span, as a showpiece in an exhibition would be. She would gladly forego everything else in her life, but not the mandatory cleaning part. As long as she was able to move her limbs she would work the vacuum without fail. You wouldn’t find a speck of dust anywhere in her household. No way! Her living room, with all those immaculately clean and polished chairs, tables and sofas, was what you’d see in a fancy furniture store displayed as: “ For demonstration only: do not touch, please”. Our occasional visitors would feel quite unsure about what to do: to use or not to use. It was unthinkable that anyone would enter our house with shoes on with my wife keeping an eye for such indiscretions. On one occasion a well-dressed lady came in, took off her outdoor shoes and slipped on her indoor ones quite nonchalantly. Poor lady had no idea that in our house, any footwear, indoor or outdoor, was a non-wear----not allowed. Period! Quite a scandalous situation it was, that’s all I can say. My wife wore a hard cold face through the entire evening, while I was looking for a place to hide----afraid to meet the eyes of that unfortunate guest of ours.
Our younger son, Raja, had a dog when he was studying in New York. He named him Nickel, although the cute little pet of his was precious as a ton of gold to him. Once he brought the poor animal to Ottawa on a two-week vacation. Just imagine the mental state of his mother. She couldn’t close the door on them, could she? One was her son, the other the son’s pet dog that he could give his life for. So she had to find a way to accommodate them both. Alright, you can come in, but on one condition. The dog’s feet and paws must be cleaned with a washcloth dipped in soap water, before he steps in. Poor dog must have been terribly confused, perhaps a bit amused as well, on having this strange podiatric care that must have been a rare experience for his species.
My wife’s obsession with cleanliness was known to everyone in North America, at least to those who knew us or knew about us. Which meant, of course, that we wouldn’t have too many visitors while she was alive. Out-of-town friends would always find a reason to stay somewhere else. Out-of-town casual visitors were, of course, out of question to seek overnight accommodation in our house. They would usually be scared away by the rumors that were always in the air in our close-knit community.
But today, everything has come to a screeching halt. She is no longer with us to fuss over anything. I wish she were. I wish she were there with all the fussing she needed to do. Today, I wouldn’t mind her ever-complaining, fastidious nature that kept me on my toes at all times of the day and night. I would gladly accede to all the idiosyncratic wishes she would want me to carry out. Today she is not here, but her memory is everywhere. In fact, the real reason why I am still sticking around in this house with all its emptiness and its constant reminder of the bygone times, is precisely this: memory. The memory is over the unused furniture in the living room that she cared about so much, over the bare walls that she insisted I paint every two or three years, over the patch of bare land in the backyard that were abloom every summer with flowers that she loved so much. How can I leave the dust settle on her ‘spic and span’ coffee tables and bureaus and sofas? She would have gone crazy looking at those layers of dust that I neglect to clean today. Above all, how can I erase the fingerprints that she left behind in this house and beyond everybody’s sight except mine? Why do I have to be tormented by all the burden of love that I just can’t seem able to unload? Oh memory, cruel memory!
Let me give you an idea how utterly different she was in matters of tidiness of her house. There were as many as four vacuum cleaners in the house, one each for the three floors we have, including the basement, plus an extra one that serves as a spare-----just in case any one of the other three had to be serviced. She didn’t have too many friends, but the one fellow who she befriended quite naturally was Wali, our local Eletrolux store-manager-cum-serviceman. He was her best friend! Almost every week she would need some service for her precious cleaners, and who was her friendly ‘green giant’? Wali, of course. Poor fellow must have visited our house at least twice every month. Always with a smile. Which pleased my wife very much. In course of time they had developed quite a relationship!
So you see why it is so difficult for me to leave the house un-vacuumed for two full weeks. It would be an egregious offence if she were alive, and is an unconscionable one in her absence. So I get down to work. Take the machine out and toil away the whole day trying to get rid of two weeks of collected dust, and working up quite a sweat in the end. There were a lot of junk scattered all over the house that had accumulated over the years since her death. They couldn’t possibly have escaped my dear wife’s sharp eyes, but they did mine. So I was determined to do the right thing today, for fear of keep offending her memory for too long. There were a lot of things that were clearly disposable-----she would have got rid of them without blinking an eye. But, strangely, it wasn’t so easy for me. One of the shelves in the main bedroom upstairs was packed with her stuff-----stuff that was for her everyday use. Toothbrush, a half-used tube of toothpaste (could you possibly throw that away?), her hairpins, and combs ( that she had no use for near the last few years of her life), two bottles of Kerry Body Lotion that she had to use regularly for her pale dried-up skin that shriveled like a dead animal’s hide following all those years of kidneyproblems, a small mirror that once adorned her dressing table like a privileged companion with peeping rights on her beautiful face, then becoming a cruel reminder of the regal looks she lost to the transplant in 1975. I can’t recall when was the last time she bothered to use that wretched mirror of hers that seemed to have no purpose to be there at all in the end, other than digging up the pain from the memories of a lost paradise. There was also a small notebook that she used to jot down her weekly shopping list, never failing to lash me with her razor sharp tongue if I failed to bring any one of those items that she had marked for me. Apart from these little personal trinkets there were a lot of stuff, clearly of no value at all, total waste, that I should have thrown away a long time before. Maybe right after her death. A normal person would do just that. But who says I am a normal person? For I am not. I am, what people would usually call, ‘a sentimental slob’. I didn’t have the heart to throw anything that carried her fingerprints----they are everywhere, in every little object no matter how trivial it was. Now you tell me how I could, how possibly could I throw them in the trash. Could you?
Vladimir Nabukov wrote in his autobiographical monograph: “Speak Memory” (what a lovely name for a book), as his opening sentence: “ The cradle rocks above the abyss, and the common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” A little while ago I read another interesting book, “Museum of Innocence”, by a younger writer called Ohran Pamuk. It’s story and narrative would appear to have no real connection with the title of the book. In the hands of a very conservative reader it may appear to be almost pornographic, and may get enraged enough to clamor for banning the book, or at least for restricted sale, so that young impressionable kids are denied access to it. He/she will no doubt discard the word ‘Innocence’ and replace by ‘Sin’. There is, of course, always a possibility that he/she may instead be aroused by some of the gory details of the book, and start looking for an immediate release of the urge. But the truth of the matter is: Pamuk’s book has nothing to do with sex, certainly not with explicit sexual acts. No trace of real ‘sin’ anywhere. Physical sensuality, yes, there is plenty of it, but it takes a lot of sensitivity and insight to realize that physical sexuality can sometimes rise beyond the cover of flesh and become part of a solemn hymn of prayer. It is this silent prayer, this eternal craving for liberation through the barriers of flesh and grime that permeates through this beautiful book. I thought this is one of the most profoundly poetic expressions of offering to the goddess of beauty and purity that I have ever read. I can, of course, understand why a book like this will be completely incomprehensible to ordinary Muslims hopelessly mired in the gutter of conventional interpretation of ‘sin’ and ‘piety’. Pamuk is a Nobel Prize winning author----it would be completely out of his character that he would write a book on pornography. The symbolism in this story couldn’t escape anyone but the diehard literalists and the most dim-witted religious zealots. In my own interpretation what this Turkish author really wanted to do is use a familiar man-woman erotic obsession to portray the sad decadence of his own society, the inglorious fall of a great empire to the ruins of history. All he did is wrap up the nation’s frustrated pride and emotions in a package of unfulfilled love. Five hundred years before Turkey had everything. Today she has nothing-----she is as pathetic as Kusum, the main character of the story, whose mangled body is a metaphor of the land she was born in. The bejeweled crown of pomp and glory no longer adorns the skull of a great Sultan, but in a well-protected chamber of the museum---the museum of memories.
I have no qualms about admitting that naming of this article of mine was inspired by Pamuk’s book, even though my museum is not half as exotic or interesting as the museum of innumerable trinkets from the exploits of his melancholy lover. Mine is just a humble bouquet of memories. I told my sons: don’t expect any material inheritance from me. Nothing that I will leave behind for you will have any market value. I’m not even a celebrity that my personal effects will attract collectors to bid for my belongings.
Do you know what I inherited from my father? A useless pocket-watch----a laughable relic of the bygone times. So antiquated this watch was that you won’t find a single repairman today who would know how to fix it. It won’t fetch as penny in today’s market. Does it mean, therefore, that it has no value at all? What do think, sons? If you haven’t figured out in all these years whether or not this “worthless piece of junk” has any value at all, then I’m afraid I haven’t been able to teach you anything. The failure is all mine. My grandfather, my father’s father, didn’t have the means to afford even that little “junk”. He used to work on his land, all day everyday from dawn to dusk, didn’t have any opportunity to go to schools, but had the foresight to send his son to school. In doing so he had to sell his crop of jute, sometimes pieces of his life-sustaining farmland. What he left for his son was even more worthless than mine, but do you really think his “worthless” inheritance had no value at all? Market-value, no, of course not, but in its intrinsic value measurable only in higher human scales that are discernable only to the most sensitive minds, it was priceless. The most important of all assets, my dear sons, is that spell-binding thing called “dream”. Likewise, my father sowed a seed of dream in my heart through a piece of “junk”----a laughable little time-piece that, to my mind, has transcended all times.
You do not live with me anymore. Moved out a long time ago. You have your lives, I have mine-----in our separate ways. People who are fairly close to me but do not know me too well wonder how I manage to live on my own, all alone in a moderately large house. Perhaps in their minds, they blame my sons for ‘callously abandoning’ their aging father to fend for himself while building a comfortable lives for themselves far away from where they were born. They must have concluded that your mother and I had raised a couple of cold, heartless boys who did well in their personal lives, but failed miserably in their moral obligation to their parents. Don’t pay much attention to those senseless thoughts of my so-called “well-wishers”. I suppose they mean well, but I’m afraid they do not know me well, nor do they know you at all. They can’t imagine that the decision of staying alone was entirely mine----and mine alone. It had nothing to do with what you wanted for me to do. How will they know that my living “alone” isn’t quite as simple as that? My “aloneness” is only on the surface. In reality I have all the beautiful memories around me, especially your mother’s, with her foot-marks on the floors, her fingerprints on the walls that I didn’t have the heart to paint out after she died, her big smiles poring down on me everyday from those large pictures hanging in every room of the house. Not just she, you as well. There is an old trunk in the basement that contains some trivial things from your childhoods-----Babu’s first baby-toy, his first report-card from the public school in Parkwood Hills, Raja’s first handmade wooden car, the birthday card you presented to your mother by drawing on a piece of cardboard what only a child’s wild imagination can think of. Your mother would never allow me to throw them away. Now that I have inherited them by default I can’t either. Do you see now, why I do not need to feel alone in this memory-filled house of mine? Also why it isn’t possible for me to leave all these behind and move to a place full of blank walls and lifeless rooms? Here, in this ‘lonely’ house I feel I have built a personal museum and I am its sole curator. It is my hope that you two brothers will appreciate the value of these memories and take care of them when I will not be around.
A familiar phrase in the West is ‘Spring-cleaning’. In the oriental culture we do not have anything quite as formal as that, but we do have a concept similar to that in our literary tradition. There is a famous song by the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore on Bengali New Year, called “Esho He Boishakh, Esho Esho”, where he talks about the need for cleaning up the waste of the year before for a fresh start ahead. There was a time when in our house, too, we had a sort of “spring-cleaning” every year, when there were people to create enough ‘waste’ to need cleaning at all. That was the time of mindless acquisition, drunk with the craze for piling up goods whether we needed them or not, just for the feel of it. That was time when we owned the rainbows of the skies, the stars of the galaxies and the wings of the butterflies. As soon as the winter ice would melt away my wife, my dear, dear wife (we used to call each other “Mona”, goodness knows why) would put an old toothy garden-tool called “rake” in my hand and dispatch me off to the lawn with a command: no dinner until the lawns on both sides are raked and cleaned. Quite oblivious to what it meant to the poor, weak-bodied diminutive husband of hers, she would often add: have you bothered to look around to see how dirty those windows have become (have they? Why, I didn’t see any dirt there!) ? So there you are. Raking and cleaning on Saturday, windows-wash-and-polish on Sunday. Isn’t that called ‘slave-labor?’ Of course that wasn’t the end of it. How about the garage? All the sludge and filth from the winter? And did you have a look at the car? My God, how dirty it is. Don’t feel like getting in there except with workers’ boots and clothes, she would say. Who would say it’s a 10 years old car, people would say we got it from Henry Ford Sr. himself! No, why would you? How possibly could you have thought about those subtle things with a brain completely drained of all gray matter after years of trying to teach math to bunch of dummies. And on she would go until I finally gave in and picked up the tools to get to work. Burnt in scorching sun of midsummer heat of Ottawa, and totally exhausted, I’d be back in the house late in the afternoon, hardly able to speak, and almost near death out of thirst and hunger. If you want to call it a ‘good day’s work it surely was! It was brutal. Sometimes I thought it would kill me one day. But her majesty was happy, and I’m still alive!
And yet, when I look back to those years, those bygone times of day-to-day struggles of keeping things moving in an orderly fashion, I take a step back, become wistful. I wish she was still here to hand me a rake with a stern look and a firm warning: work all day, or no dinner at the end of it. I wish so much to have someone in the house, a taskmaster, like a drill sergeant who would push me around relentlessly, everyday, then gently but surely cuddle up to me by my side of the bed at night. I’d give anything to have those times back when there were enough people in the house to create a lot of waste and junk that I’d have to work extra-hard to clean up every week, or risk my wife’s severe admonishment. I know I can’t do things as well as I could before----do not have the energy, the patience or tenacity to work all day. All the backyard gardens have been covered up, all flower plants uprooted, all the hedges and bushes remain untended for years and years. There is no one to draw my attention to the mud and sludge in the garage, or the dirt on the windows, or the filth on the car. Everything is quiet now, eerily quiet. The voice, the sight, the mock threats of ‘do the work or no dinner’ are all gone. Those beautiful days, those golden times riding on the wings of angels, have vanished in thin air. Now the piles of dirt in my garage and driveway never move, like some ragged pages of ancient history. That dreaded ‘rake’ in our garage, still carrying her fingerprints, is in no hurry to move from where it has been strung on a hook since she died. Once I thought I should throw it away----just a piece of junk, that’s what it was. But I couldn’t----something held me back. There were a few car-wash accessories in the garage that have lost their usefulness. So how shall I get rid of them? Where else, but in this secret vault of mine that is my very own museum of memories. None of the items in this museum has any market value whatsoever-----they wouldn’t even sell in a garage or yard sale. And that is precisely the point, my sons. They are simply priceless. Do you understand, I mean really understand, what I am trying to say? Do you really have the ability to comprehend the value of these ‘pieces of junk’, having been used to an era of boundless affluence fed by a relentless march of technology?
The large closet in our master bedroom upstairs had been packed in stuff at one time. Most of them had some use from time to time while she was alive and relatively well. Now there is no use for them, none at all. Yet I didn’t have the heart to throw them away. They seem to have acquired a life of their own. They are alive and alert. Whenever I go near them in an attempt to clean up, something holds me back-----a silent voice, a plaintive look, a sullen face. So I leave them alone. Exactly the way she left them.
The bedroom closet has four chambers. Or should I say four set of shelves. The one on the far left contains a thousand and one saris, that have been gathering dust since way before she died, to the point that you can no longer tell their original color. The one on the right is stacked with my own personal things-----shirts, pants and jackets, sweaters and pullovers, most of which I do not wear anymore. The chamber in the middle is for everyday use----my pants and jackets which I keep wearing till they start smelling, my undershirts and pajamas, that are thankfully not visible to anyone but myself (for otherwise they would cause me a lot of embarrassment). With my wife alive that would never be possible---- shirts no more than two days, pants a week at most, jackets maybe two, but no more. That was her way. But now, who cares? I have complete freedom to do anything I want, keep my house any way I like to. On the side are two shelves of linen, solidly packed. On the top shelf are stored petticoats goodness knows how many-----millions if you ask me. One of her idiosyncratic habits was to wear a freshly washed petticoat after every bath, everyday. Otherwise, she would say, her skin would warp and she would feel itchy all day. On yet another shelf are countless number of towels-----towels of all kind, bath, hands, face, everything dumped together. In an orderly fashion, of course. In her house disorder was disallowed. Now that she is gone I feel tempted to shuffle things a bit to make room for other things, or just leave an empty space. But once again, she appears from nowhere to hold me back-----I just can’t move my hand. The very top level of the closet, almost beyond my reach, contains some of her precious possessions-----silk serviettes, embroidered tablecloths meant only for special occasions, like invited dignitaries, ambassadors, bureaucrats, deputy ministers. For her the decorum on the dinner table was far more important than the menu. “It’s not important what food you serve for your guests, but how you serve them is what shows your culture”. That’s what she would say. All of this ‘treasure’ of hers is now lying there in the dark closet, the closet of memories, gathering dust and rust year after year, untouched and unattended since her death. For the last nine years I have hung on to those precious items as if they were the most valuable things one can imagine. I just couldn’t bring myself up to the thought of getting rid of them, or even doing a bit of dusting and cleaning. That would be grossly disrespectful to her memories. I know what you would say. Cheap sentimentality, quite unbecoming of my age and social standing. You know something? Yesterday I decided enough is enough-----it’s ridiculous to have things in the house in such disorderly and slovenly state, that would, in fact, amount to more disrespect than respect. She would not approve of it----definitely not.
So I set about moving things around to bring a measure of order to my household stuff. One might describe it as an attempt at lining up the files in a proper system. I decided to convert the empty room in the basement into a full-scale family museum, devoted entirely on my wife’s used and unused stuff-----things that she might have wanted to throw away someday, but now I can’t think of that. How does one throw away something that your dear departed life-partner had her fingers on, and will carry her memories till eternity? This room, I decided, would become my personal sanctuary of recluse, of thoughts that only she would know about. Something that some devoted Hindu friends of mine set aside in their house as a prayer-room ( puja-ghor, as they say). Yes, something like that-----my own, my very own puja-ghor. Why can’t a temple of memories act like a pulpit of prayer? What is memory, after all? Doesn’t it represent the eternal longing of us the ordinary mortals to send our earthly experiences to a transcendental level at some point of our lives? In his novel “Museum of Innocence” Ohran Pamuk set about collecting every little trinket that his lover Kusum had ever touched or left behind, down to the meanest piece of chewing gum she chewed and threw away (that he so dutifully collected, like a possessed monomaniac), then stored them all in his secret family vault. This bizarre act of irrational junk-collection of his would appear quite silly on the surface, but deep inside I think he wanted to bring forth in a symbolic trivia the eternal message that no matter how much pomp and grandeur there may be in your dream-house, every palace ultimately gets deposited in the heap of history as nothing more than relics of times gone by. It is this unusable, broken-down dilapidated house that Pamuk used to store every little item that his lover ever touched, thus creating his own temple of prayer. In my case the dream house had never been much of a “palace”------how could I have afforded one with a lowly professor’s salary? So my “museum” is just a humble little room in the dark corner of the basement of a modest suburban home.
First, I brought some empty bags from the basement storeroom that I used to take on my frequent travels to all parts of the world to attend meetings and symposiums. Now that the traveling is over the use of those bags is over as well. Except now----in the service of my planned museum. (They are too bulky and old-fashioned to take out for use in the open, anyway). I was surprised to see that it took three such bags to empty just one little closet of my wife. We never appreciate the volume of things we collect through our lives until it is time to store them away, or even just throw them away.
As I kept digging into the mine of memories I got to the drawer that contained some old letters----perhaps the most precious of them all. Mostly my own letters, sent to her from various places of my stops abroad, some written by her to me. Curious to see what kind of an emotional slob I was at my youth I decided to read a few. Agh, I thought. I’d not want anyone to see any of these, not while I am alive. And yet, I couldn’t just throw them away, since they were something that my wife treasured through her entire life, so I had no right to destroy something that no longer belonged to me. But what I did own, however, are the precious few letters that she had written to me. Nobody, but nobody, would be able to take them away from me. She wouldn’t write much----just a few words, very mundane, lifeless words, despite the fact it was she who went through an honors program in Bengali literature at the university, not me! She studied poetry, but there wasn’t any poetry in her letters, nor in her day-to-day life. She would squirm at the thought of writing letters, to anyone, even to her own folks. Would you believe that it was I who had to draft her letters to her own brothers or sisters, that she would grudgingly copy on a fresh letter-head, and be over with the ordeal? Incredible as it may sound, it was true, literally true. This makes it all the more important that I preserve every little piece she ever wrote to me when I was away on out-of-town trips. They were just priceless!
My wife wasn’t particularly attached to any material thing in her life, even though the size of the enormous amount of useless stuff that she managed to accumulate in the house would indicate otherwise. Strange as it may sound, but it’s not too uncommon to find people who have absolutely no real attachment to any material object he/she may have acquired through his/her life. Sometimes I felt my wife was a compulsive collector-----collector of useless objects that are never going to have any market value. How useless and how enormous we had to find out the hard way twice in our lifetime-----once when we moved from a rental facility to a brand new semidetached home we had bought with a loan from the bank, second time when we moved from the semidetached to a single home with yet another loan from the bank. In course of time things kept piling up, until they filled up every little space available in the house. There is a lot of stuff in the basement that remain in their original state-----they were not even unpacked, let alone used. So was the collection-crazy wife of mine, whose total indifference to their actual use baffled me all our married life.
Today she is gone. And here I am struggling with a strange dilemma. Should I or should I not? Should I, can I really, throw them away? Just because she isn’t there to forbid me not to? I know I can’t, I simply can’t, throw away those rare letters of hers----that carries her hand-written words, words that are so banal and lifeless, you’d think it’s kind of dry legal jargon. Are you eating well? You do lock the door behind you, don’t you? Never go out to strange places without company. Last, but not the least, do not be tempted to take a sip of liquor just because others are doing. Don’t worry about me. Children are fine. And yes, I love you! At last a word that has a meaning. Love!
So you tell me how I could possibly throw these away.
But enough is enough. Enough of old-fashioned sentimentalism. I have to clean up the mess. Have to find a way to stop the ever-increasing layers of dust settling there permanently, morphing into mommies of dust eventually. So I decided to move her closet stuff to the basement, something I should have done long ago, but didn’t have the heart to. Every time I touched a petticoat or a brassier and thought of putting it in a basket I felt she was looking at me with wide open eyes-----as if she couldn’t believe I’d stoop to that in my lifetime. As if she was saying: So you think it’s time for me to move from the bedroom to the basement? Even you? How could you? How could you possibly do that to me after all those beautiful years of living together, in good times and bad, in rain and hail? Didn’t we always keep our hands together vowing never to let go? What happened to that vow? I know what you might say. Childish emotionalism. I guess there is a bit of emotion still lingering in the air. What can I do? How can I help being what I am and what I’m destined to be?
The hardest part of it all was when I was trying to move away her things of everyday use-----her toothbrush, dental floss, her glasses, body lotion. She was so sticky about her personal hygiene that she insisted on brushing and flossing her teeth even the day before she sank into her final comma. She wouldn’t bear to think of anyone complaining about her bad breath-----you can imagine what a life-long challenge it was for me, a rustic simpleton who was never too particular about how his breath smelled. Today I take those junkets of hers, and find myself torn apart. What can I do? Then there was an old half-toothless comb that she kept on her dressing table, even though cruel disease of hers had shorn away locks and locks of thick heavy, wavy, long-flowing hair that she used to mesmerize young men with in her youth. In her last few months she had absolutely no need for that comb, yet she kept scratching her skull with it as if she never lost her hair. This comb obviously belongs nowhere but the waste basket. But you can’t tell me that. There’s no way I’ll ever throw that away. Much too precious a possession it is for me. One of my prize exhibits in the museum. Only my sons will be able to appreciate what it means to the entire collection when I’ll not be around, when they will reach their middle ages, when the distant memories will keep visiting them in their dreams, in the rain-filled melancholy days. Memory has the longest shadow of all.
The little room in the basement that is to house my museum of memories was built in 1985 when we just moved into the new home. Our younger son used to visit with us at least twice a year, each time for two or three weeks. This is why we needed to set aside a room to place his (baby) grand-piano so that he could continue practicing his musical scores. We had to do a major carpentry work to lower the piano to the basement floor----that was quite an experience. These things one can do only once in your lifetime----no more, perhaps no less too.
Today my son doesn’t come for a visit anymore, his mother is gone, and so is his piano. Now there is nothing but a blank stillness pervading the air all over the house. We had reserved this side little room in the basement ostensibly for my personal use----sort of a home-office. That never happened. After she died I had brought all of her personal effects from the hospital room and deposited in a far corner of that room-----her hospital gown, towel, slippers, a broad sheet of cloth that she liked to wrap around her body. Absolutely disposable garbage, you might say. Maybe you could very well throw them in the bin, but I couldn’t. Still can’t. Now they are no longer ‘garbage’, rather invaluable pieces of exhibits in my museum. They are priceless. It is my hope, should I say hope against hope that my boys will continue to be drawn to this private museum of mine year after year and feel compelled to come for a visit whenever the urge becomes too powerful. I really do not have much more to leave for them as a legacy-----nothing to boast of anyway. Ultimately we all reduce to ashes, don’t we? Ultimately we all become fossilized relics of the distant past. Perhaps not even that. There aren’t too many crazy fellows like me who wouldn’t leave any ‘real’ property or wealth for his children and grandchildren, except a laughable little ‘junkyard’ that he fancifully calls a ‘museum’. It has to be a man who lost his mind, people might say.
Ottawa, 13 July, ‘12