When my husband and I bought our house in May 2005, the one thing I really loved about it was that it did not have an attic.
When I was growing up, the attic at my parents’ house was both a source of fun and mystery. As immigrants and former apartment dwellers, my parents did not have much to fill a house nor, of course, anything to put into an attic. But, as time went on, the attic became the place where things went to “stay out of the way for a few months” — clothes that the oldest girl had outgrown were labeled in an old diaper box for the next girl; winter coats; old boots to be handed down. Those items stayed put while the summer months of shorts, bathing suits, flip flops, and tube tops were guests in our drawers and closets. Then, soon enough, the thin cotton clothes were swapped out for fall, then winter, items.
Once I was old enough to climb up into the attic and explore while my Mom labeled boxes of out-season clothing, I wandered around the attic that spanned the entire length of the house. I found my sisters’ prom dresses stored in zippered plastic protectors, and I counted stacks of luggage that my parents would give to visiting Filipino relatives who bought more gifts for their families back home than they anticipated. Soon, the vast, cavernous like attic would be crammed with years and years of clothing, toys, clearance rack pots and pans, boxes of dishes that were on sale, and Informercial promises. Old diaper boxes became separated from their once neatly affixed labels, and we no longer bothered to open the lids that were carefully tucked inside one another, alternating to keep the boxes closed without tape or adhesive.
After a while, I didn’t even want to go into the attic. I no longer felt free in that space. Instead, I felt as if one wrong move would start a domino of neatly sealed diaper boxes filled with my 16-year old brother’s clothes marked “Save For Jon: Size 2T”, warped cardboard holding the unused Crockpot that was on sale for “Buy One, Get One Half Off” that my Dad thought would be a great gift for when one of us got our own apartments. Or something like that.
So when my husband and I bought our house, I was sold when I realized there was no attic. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to save money to buy items to then store them out of sight.
Out of mind.
Back then, we only had one child. She was 1 year old, and turning 2 in a few months.
Our lower level held anything that we needed — a few boxes of keepsake clothing from when my daughter was an infant, some of my old maternity clothes that I had brought with me when we moved, my husband’s comic books, some of my graduate school and thesis materials, photo albums, scrapbooks. At least a few times a week, I walked by the well labeled clear bins of items. I always knew what was in them.
As my daughter outgrew some of her clothing, I purchased more clear bins, typed two white labels on my fancy label maker (really? are you surprised?) and placed one label on top of the bin cover and one label on the side facing outward. I took one firm swipe with my finger from end to end, and pressed down on the sides of the stickers just to make sure they didn’t come off. In sight. In mind.
Of course, you know the timeline. My daughter was diagnosed with cancer just a few months after.
Two months after she was diagnosed, our entire basement flooded under 6 inches of water.
As my daughter had just come home from chemotherapy when our basement flooded, we worried that the mold that would quickly grow in the basement would be hazardous (okay, so we thought it would be deadly). We called anyone we could get a hold of, begged them to come over and help Jorge move items from the well packed basement out to our storage shed, and called every flood company in the three-state area to come help us.
Nearly everything was ruined.
Except the items in the plastic bins; Her clothes. My work. His comic books.
Not long after we cleaned up from the flood and began to get our basement back from the Wrath of Poseidon, Jorge’s brother and his young family needed to move in with us.
“Liza,” I knew it was coming. Wait for it. “It’s time for an attic.”
“NO-O-O-H O-H-H-H-H-H-H-…….” I melodramatically played the scene in my head.
Here lies Liza’s stuff
It was once there
To the attic
I said, “Okay, sure. That sounds great.”
The following weekend — in the middle of JULY — my brave husband purchased a saw, watched “How To Make an Attic” off of You Tube, bought some 4×4 planks and some plywood, and an Attic Kit. Given that he’d lived in an apartment all his life, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay … or leave the house.
But, as I trust both my husband and well made You Tube videos, the Attic Project was a roaring success. He even wired lights up there.
Props to the Boy from Queens.
And so it began. I passed the neatly labeled plastic bins, which now read “0-3 Months” and “3-6 Months” and “6-12 Months”, “12-18 Months”, “18 months – 2T”.
“Be sure that the label faces the outer side, honey. You know, so I can see exactly what’s inside of them. Oh, and please stack them so that they line up one on top of the other in Month order,” I said. I’m pretty sure that he was suffering from heat exhaustion at that point, and my OCD was not what the man needed. A belated “thank you”, babe.
As the year went by, I continued to put clothes away in the same clear bins and labeled them in the same exact way, stacking them up neatly by chronological order, labels facing outward.
Naturally, as all Order of the Attics seem to go, over the years our attic has become a “I dunno where to put it… oh,okay, yea, go stick it in the attic” kind of place. Christmas decorations. Old bed rails from the toddler bed. Some rocking horse that the kids outgrew. An old car seat. An old bean bag. Random shoes.
This evening, as I felt a strong urge to nest — I consider myself giving birth to my doctoral program — and I decided it was time to clean out the attic. Knowing that my son was my last child, it was time to go through all of the bins that were now labeled “BOY 0-3 Months” and “BOY 3-6 months” (etc etc) and pull out only 1-2 items that I loved. The rest, donation bin. With all of the natural disasters happening in the South, I couldn’t reconcile having so much unused material privilege while others lost their entire homes. In fact, keeping this wasteful privilege at the forefront of my mind was motivation to truly get rid of items in the attic. Definitely a great strategy, and a powerful way to connect with humanity.
After nearly 3 hours of sorting clothes, 4 boxes labeled “Donation”, and calves that burned from going up-and-down the attic ladder, I knew I was coming to the end. I had felt a fire burning and a desire get this all done. I was determined to get it all cleaned out before my doctoral program turned me into an intellectual hermit.
With only FIVE bins left to tackle at the back of the attic, I felt alive! I felt free! I felt like a giant weight had been lifted off my chest (note: could have been a product of physically lifting giant boxes of donations and balancing them on my chest)!
I flew up the attic stairs, crawled freely in all of the empty space. I felt like Maria in “The Sound of Music” when she spins and spins and spins with her arms open wide on top of a green, lush mountain, ready to sing after the swell of the orchestra of “The Hills are alive (ah ah ah) with the ….”
You get what I mean.
After the dizzying joy of an almost-clean-attic had settled, I made my way to the last of the bins of my daughter’s clothes.
Then, it happened.
I wasn’t quite sure what was going on in my head, in my heart.
But, as I reached for the 2T bin, my hand went limp.
I tugged at the lid to slide the heavy box closer to me, but I could barely curl my fingers to grab the edge.
My hand found it’s way to the white label on the front of the bin, and I smoothed the glossy surface as my finger glided along the words: “18 months- 2T”.
And I began to cry.
I shifted my weight from my knees and softly sat back, looking at the stacked bins as if they were a painting. A piece of art that seems so obvious, yet changes the longer you look at it.
I peeked through the clear bin and saw the pajamas she wore on her 3rd week of chemo. The soft fleece button ones with the yellow print and the pink flowers, faded from years of wear and rest. My eyes gently glided to the folded light blue bottoms that still had the words “Mass General” just below the elastic waistband, practically pressed up against side of the bin. Just a little towards the top was the pink striped sweater she wore one month before she was diagnosed. I still have that picture. She still had her eye.
The bin was like a time line of events. The top part, clothing from when she was 18 Months old. Pre-diagnosis. By the bottom of the bin, chemotherapy. Winter.
I closed my eyes. Wondered if I would ever move the bin. Wondered if I would ever tug at the lid, and smell the memories of love, fear, joy. Wondered if the prayers I begged, the tears I wiped, and the kisses I left were imprinted on a sleeve, a collar, or a chest.
I opened my eyes. Crawled back through the open space that was once filled with items out of sight. And knew, for sure, that through the journey of losing sight, the love, compassion, hope and thanks were always
Peace, love and holding on,