I was sewing a day or two ago, some simple mending that had been ignored for far too long—stitching a torn hem here and mending a button there, settling into the simple act of repairing the wear and tear of catching unexpected corners, and sudden scuffles, and boys wrestling in the living room and the dining room and the backyard, when I found myself rummaging through a drawer for a pair of scissors and stopping for a moment to consider the simple junk drawer. Everyone has one, no matter how organized or how clean—a place where the odds and ends of living come to rest in a joyful jumble that can never be entirely tamed. So consider it for a moment with me. The drawer itself is small—probably too small for the items it has come to hold—and conveniently close to both the kitchen and the dining room; near enough to drop the excess out of overflowing pockets or toss in those objects on the counter that never seem to have another home.
There are the expected items: keys, rubber bands, bent bobby pins and lost LEGO men, batteries saved because we are not sure whether or not they have any life left. There are hair clips and expired library cards, and notepads with half finished grocery lists. But there are also unexpected items. A few scattered pine needles. A smooth gray stone from a beach in Oregon we visited as a family years ago. A small piece of driftwood, darkened by wind and weather and the small hands that picked it off another beach near Seattle on a different family vacation even longer ago. Items saved here not only because they have no other home, but because, despite their lack of inherent value, they speak to experiences and memories that would otherwise be forgotten in the dark dusty corners of my memory. And it seems to me that this drawer is a reflection of my family.
The author Nancy Miller wrote about pulling open a drawer after her mother had died, examining what was there, and trying to piece together the stories and experiences, the lost memories and binding ties, the magnetic pull of what she called, “my family, found in a drawer.” And as she examined the fragments and pieces left behind she acknowledged the drive that to me is the largest part of how we make a family and how we retell family stories, especially stories that are grounded in the artifacts that we have saved: the photographs, the scrapbooks, the movie tickets and handbills, the secondhand sewing machine and my grandmother’s faded quilt. They are a history of loss, and a record of connection. By retelling their stories we are trying to incorporate that loss into our own narratives and create for ourselves a melting pot of personal identity. Sometimes these stories are sparked by something literal: a document, the name of someone in an unidentified photograph, a scrap of paper, a small round pebble saved from a long ago vacation—pieces of the past that we might have overlooked. Sometimes they are memories of conversations almost forgotten, or people we barely knew. But in the end, by returning to this place of loss, we acknowledge our true sadness, which is that we miss what’s missing.
When my grandmother was in her forties she saved up the money to buy a used piano for herself, fifty cents at a time by taking in hemstitching for the other women in the neighborhood. She taught herself to play after only three formal lessons, one painstaking page of notes at a time, until she could play one song, and then two, and finally the entire book of hymns, practicing methodically day after day. My father tells stories of hearing her practice late at night or early in the morning, faltering music swelling out of the windows of their unairconditioned home on hot summer nights, mingling with the birds and the bugs and the velvet toned night air. I love the stories, the atmosphere, the lyrical rise and fall of my father’s voice—and the connections to a woman I barely remember, but would have loved, I think. And I also think about how these stories have shaped my life, the experiences I tell in turn, and the person I have become. My grandmother played the piano, learning through hard work and determination. In this fact is a reassuring sense of connection with a woman I remember in soft hazy edges filled with laughter and good food. She played the piano, and I play the violin, but I identify with the fact that I love music in the way I imagine she loved music. It is a comfort and a solace as I force my children to take piano lessons, and participate in band and orchestra. We are musical. It is a part of our life narratives, a part of the history of our family, just as much as wide feet, nondescript brown hair, and blue eyes. It is a link in a chain that strengthens my relationships with my siblings, my parents, and my own children—an identity created out of the stories we tell each other, and the things we save from the past.
The author Brian Doyle once wrote that stories are prayers. I believe this. I also believe that stories are hopes and dreams, that they are bridges linking us to one another across boundaries of time, space, relationships, and customs. I believe that stories can become the mediary for connecting us to one another, especially within our families, amplifying who we are and helping create the possibilities of who we can become. It is up to us to search out these stories, to recognize their power and their uniqueness, and to tell them in a way that reaches beyond ourselves—in ways that resonate like small ripples in a pond, moving outward until they reach the edges of our influence and carry our whispers out into the world.
I can’t help but think that we are all an accumulation of great stories, a collection of artifacts and narratives we have preserved and protected, creating out of our collecting a cohesive sense of self. As I retell the tales of my family it is the stories that create the bonds; between families, friends, and strangers, between past, present, and future, between generations. They demand reverence and respect for the work and trials and hopes of my parents and grandparents. They insist that we remember the fragility of the lives around us, the histories that we tell, and the ongoing nature of life. They remind us that one day we will exist in fragments in another drawer or long forgotten attic. And so, although I always mean to clean the junk drawer in the kitchen, frustrated with my inability to find anything useful in its depths, instead I pause for a moment and then close it—still disorganized, still crammed full, still whispering of the objects, people, and stories that tell us who we are.