Boxes of Dust

Being in quarantine introduced us to a surprising medical complication; Tim is highly sensitive to live fir trees.

In 20 years together, we’ve always had a live Christmas tree. Moving to Oregon meant we were treated to a glorious variety of trees, which helped us land on our favorite, the Grand Fir. You can see in the picture below that the Grand fir needles are slightly curved and shorter than the Douglas firs or Noble firs available on Christmas tree lots. The needles are also pliable and soft, do not drop easily, and the tree is the most fragrant of any tree I’ve smelled. And I’m like Judi Dench: I engage with a LOT of trees. It’s a habit I picked up in Oregon, where trees smell amazing. I greet them, touch them, hug them if I can get close enough, crush their needles to divine the scent.

Grand firs smell citrusy, a mystery I am happy to leave unsolved.

Our last live Christmas tree, 2020

About two weeks after setting up the tree, Tim started wheezing. In this time of covid, I was immediately terrified, but his symptoms remained singular, just the wheezing. No fever, no nothing. His lungs seized up only when he was in the house. Long walks in the woods? No big deal. Hikes on mountainsides? He’s fine. No breathing problems. Only when he was inside, and because of covid, he’s only been inside our home. Also because of quarantine, he’s been inside our home 24 hours a day, which is why this is the first year the live trees have caused so much distress.

He used his inhaler, which had been tucked away in a drawer for months, and suffered graciously through Christmas. We kept the windows open near the tree and in the bedroom, so he could sleep. This allowed me to use my electric blanket, which is a great joy; with just the tip of my nose cold outside the blanket, and my feet toasty warm, the smell of the rain and the sound of the early morning birds. That’s heaven.

December 26, the tree went out on the patio, where it stands even now, waiting to be recycled at the Girl Scouts event on Saturday. Once the tree left, Tim’s breathing went back to normal.

The next week, boxes arrived from my sister, sent as she departed the Midwest for her new home in Maine. An ancient typewriter — my grandmother’s — and a box of items from my father’s house, plus two boxes of documents from my aunt’s ancestry research. I opened the typewriter and started fiddling with its familiar keys. Nothing worked, not surprisingly, but the keys felt good under my fingers, with their satisfying punch. The carriage return clickety clacks to the left with each key pushed, and dings when you push it back rightward, as typewriters are designed to do. Even without letters inked on the page, it’s a gratifying exercise.

But the leather-bound box reeks of decades in my father’s attic, mildew laced into its corners. Tim began wheezing again, and we knew right away he was affected by the microscopic growth. I bagged the typewriter in plastic. After briefly looking through the boxes, I closed them up with plastic as well, and Tim’s breathing has returned to normal.

In the few days the boxes were unwrapped, I discovered some family history I had forgotten, or never knew. My maternal great-grandmother was widowed before 30, and had to send one of her children to live with relatives while she sorted out how to support a family. My mother, a fine artist with pen and ink and watercolor, painted a really horrible portrait of me, and now I can’t decide whether to keep it.

And I had written dozens of cards and letters to my parents when I was a young college student. Like, a LOT. Birthday cards, postcards, long—LONG letters telling them about my discussions with academic advisors and experiences in class. I sent them my own versions of progress report for my college classes. I apparently did not like Econ, which surprises me because I do not even remember TAKING Econ in college. Why did I do such a thing? Certainly there’s a more suitable math or business class for English majors.

My letters reveal a lonely kid who missed her parents. I had friends–some of whom I am in contact with today. I went to occasional parties and had long talks into the night with people on my dorm floor. I explored the library and the music department, the Student Center and the woods around campus. But in these letters, I longed for contact with my parents. I was away from home and terrified. I wanted assurance. In every word, I was begging for their approval.

I had forgotten about that period of my life. The just-before era. The time after my juvenile heartbreak in high school and before becoming a young mother. This interstitial period of young adulthood.

Had I not become pregnant, I would not have finished college. In addition to my parents’ lack of funding to send their fifth child past the first year of college, I wouldn’t have had the fortitude to continue on my own. Having a child changed me, made me stronger than I knew I could be.

But that young person sits with me now, fidgeting in her chair, trying not to make eye contact. That 20 year old, mature in some ways but sorely lacking in others, found out that she would not be getting her parents’ approval. Once she informed them that she was pregnant, and that she wasn’t “having the baby and putting it up for adoption” like they wanted, she was on her own. She was no longer a loved child, she was a disappointment.

All growth is painful to some degree, but these growing pains left permanent marks. A fork in a tree, where upward reaching branches are thwarted from impediments or lack of support.

It no longer matters what my life would have been like with my parents’ involvement. My “mistakes”, in their eyes, comprised my life choices, and I’m where and who I am now because of those choices. Tim and I stayed up for hours talking about how our respective families’ rejections of us made us each who we are. Not quite a shared trauma, but parallel. His family was hurtful in their own way.

Opening these boxes rushed these memories into my system, clogging my breathing like the mildew clogged Tim’s. I haven’t looked directly at those scenes in a long time, not since I was pregnant, talking to my sister on the phone as I laid on the floor, feeling the baby kick against my abdomen. From that moment on, all that mattered was ahead of me.

To see these memories again, to have a clear picture of who I was at 20 years old, has seized my imagination, frozen it in focus on that small window of time. The boxes are closed again now, so Tim and I can both breathe easier, sleep through the night. When the weather clears up, I’ll take them outside and examine the contents more closely, but in small chunks.

Given the impact the cursory glance has had, I’ll need to take this slowly. I’ll give myself time to breathe, sort out those few items I want to keep, then let the dust blow away.

I graduated college two years after having my son, which my parents said I “would never do” once I had a child. They were happy I completed a degree, but guarded, as if I could start making terrible choices again at any moment.

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