Little boxes: Memoirs of loss

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I don’t know if it’s because the seasons are changing and the trees are making such a pretty show of time passing, but loss is on my mind. This weekend, Vancouver enjoyed brilliant autumn weather. We bundled up with hats and scarves, and walked around False Creek marvelling at the light on our City of Glass. When I tucked in, back at home, with a cup of tea, I went to my e-reading list, where I had bookmarked recent essays by two of my favourite writers, David Sedaris and Zadie Smith. Both pieces were meditations on loss — ghosts of their loved ones flittered between the lines.

Sedaris, a regular contributor to the New Yorker, is a beloved and prolific humorist. His memoirs have made me laugh over and over again. Me Talk Pretty One Day had my grade 11 English class laughing until we were in tears. Now, 10 years later, I’ve read most everything Sedaris has written. His recent memoir-essays are less bitter and acerbic than a decade ago, and more melancolic and reflective. Sedaris, now 56, writes tenderly about getting older and feeling the weight of time. The roles of his father, Lou, and his five siblings have morphed — after all, people change.

The biggest change in the Sedaris family happened in the last year. The piece I read this weekend, “Now We are Five”, made me teary-eyed again. Though this time I was somber as Sedaris described his family coping with the loss of Tiffany, his youngest sister, who took her own life last May, just weeks before her 50th birthday. In the summer, Sedaris and his extended family go to the beach, as they have every year, and fill the spaces their sister has left with witty comments and stoic explanations of her death: “How could anyone purposefully leave us, us, of all people?” asks Sedaris. “…though I’ve often lost faith in myself, I’ve never lost it in my family, in my certainty that we are fundamentally better than everyone else.”

Sedaris relates a scene of his father looking at items retrieved from Tiffany’s apartment after her suicide:

“Just awful,” my father whispered. “A person’s life reduced to one lousy box.”

I put my hand on his shoulder. “Actually, there are two of them.”

He corrected himself. “Two lousy boxes.”

But what else is left when we are gone? I have been through countless albums and boxes of photos as the photo editor for this company. A person’s life transcends the tangible remnants of a life lived in memories, but usually, everything is put in a box — that’s how things arrive at our studio. When someone passes, we put our grief and sorrow in boxes and stash them away in attics and forgotten closets, and hope we aren’t asked to bring them out again. When enough time has passed, some of us do dust off the souvenirs, and come to terms with the loss. If I have read his essay correctly, Sedaris has found peace with the abundance — of family, love and memories — that is left in the wake of losing his sister.

In a pensive state, I read “Love In the Gardens” by Zadie Smith. Smith begins with light, humoured accounts of visiting the continent with her father, already in his 70s when she was just graduating from university. In Florence, hoping for a grand tour, à la Byron or Milton, Smith is stumped by her father’s easy contentment. He snaps photos of beautiful women, and enjoys the mediocre food and grimy accommodations. But they both find a little solace in the gardens: “No money has to be spent in a garden, and no awkward foreign conversation need be made, and no one thinks you odd or provincial if you consult your guidebook in front of a statue or a lake.”

Months after her father, Harvey, dies, Smith moves to Rome. She discovers the famous Borghese Gardens, which are inviting, where Florence’s Boboli Gardens were stand-offish. She is at home, and visits the gardens often to relax, and to ponder how, most of all, her father would have enjoyed Rome — the city they never visited together. In her early twenties, Smith thought her sudden wealth would give her father comfort. Instead, she finally recognizes, he felt fettered by its formality, customs and tradition. The Borghese Gardens would have offered Harvey a way to be wild.

At home (in London, I assume), she goes back to the memories she packed before she left.

When my father died I dashed to Rome leaving a lot undone. I’d packed what little I found in his room in a box and abandoned it in my basement. Two years later, when I returned, I had to go through his things properly. There was not much, but there were some photos of trips we’d taken together in France and Italy….He liked to get them blown up and sent to me in a large padded envelope, perfect as postcards and equally uninteresting.

She also discovers that her father had taken a photograph in Carcassonne, France, but never shared the photo with her, though it stands out for being “sublime” and “wild.” Smith sees her father again in the photo’s lush greenery and hills. See, these boxes of things, inert and unchanging, also lend new meaning to lives past.

At Echo, we are packing up now. It’s 5 o’ clock and everyone in the office is heading for the door. The sun is still out, so it’s warm enough to walk home. I’m going to kick up some leaves on the way. Fall won’t be here forever.