Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Curiosity Cabinet

Sure enough, the doorway effect revealed itself: Memory was worse after passing through a doorway than after walking the same distance within a single room.
Charles B. Brenner and Jeffrey M. Zacks, "Why Walking Through A Doorway Makes You Forget," Scientific American, December 13, 2011

This morning I stood before the open fridge like a sleepwalker—like thousands of other human beings at precisely the same moment—wondering what the hell I was even doing in the kitchen. I had to walk all the way back into the dining room, retracing my steps, recrossing the same threshold, just to be able to remember: retrieve your iPhone from the kitchen counter.

           Routine maintenance is built into our system to provide periodic memory dumps—like feng shui for the mind. Whenever we cross a threshold, involuntarily, our memory-garbage gets tossed. What happened to me this morning—forgetting why I'm here—is a common system glitch that we regard as a minor nuisance.

          There is a darker side, though. Because memory can be such a fickle bitch, the baby occasionally goes out with the bathwater. Just how often, we will never know, because so many memories are irretrievable. This would be a more elegant system if it weren't for the petty bureaucrat in charge of purging our memories.

          In her bestselling book, "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing," Marie Kondo instructs her hoarding, neurotic, miserably bogged-down readers to keep only what sparks joy and dump the rest. Out goes little Johnny's macaroni art from kindergarten, most of your mementoes and the clothes in your closet, and all the books in your library. The rooms of your house will be pleasingly spacious and how you'll easily be able to locate whatever you need. Spareness correlates to self-actualization, leaving room for growth and new opportunities—and no regrets. On the rare occasion you find you've thrown out something you need, Kondo says, no problem. Just buy new.

          But I cling to all my talismans, old books and photos, cabinets of curiosity, boxes of letters, and every irreplaceable artifact, perhaps because I'm so afraid of the inevitable forgetting. I'm an unrepentant historian of myself and everyone I have ever loved. Given my penchant for collecting memories, it's odd that Marie Kondo is apparently in charge of the Kafkaesque bureaucracy that runs my Memory House. I demand a curator, instead I get a janitor.

I have to move to a smaller house to reduce expenses and I can't take everything with me. Where do I begin?

Because I wouldn't let my mother get rid of my father's ugly curiosity cabinet, it's now my problem. I brought it up from the basement recently because I felt I should 'do something about it'—a Victorian tabletop-display case, mirrored in the back, with a glass door. Somehow my detritus has been accumulating there, too, on top of my father's leavings. I guess this is a natural phenomenon, like layers of geologic history.

Inside the case is a cast of my Aunt Lottie's hand. We're both Charlotte Heckscher; she was my father's best friend and died nearly 40 years ago. I met her once or twice, found her a little intimidating. My children probably don't know who she is.

There are other hands.

Another hand, equally mysterious.

And my father's silver baby rattle, gnawed and missing a bell.

A sepia-toned snapshot of two, pale nerds wrestling on a beach. On the back in penciled script is
August 1936
St. Peter/Nordsee
My father and his younger brother were, as my sister Dida says, "making like men." That the brothers were legendary for their suave elegance and total lack of physical ability, for me, made this worthy of the cabinet. The photo was one of my contributions, not my father's.

These bits of coral had been placed there by my father long before.

To be honest, I only remembered the real reason I had brought up the cabinet yesterday, when I first opened the glass door and crossed its threshold to take out my Day of the Dead trinket. Hasta que la muerte nos separe, Till death do us part.

I bought it in New Mexico just two months before I met my future husband. It doesn't spark joy, and neither did the marriage.

Here's a voucher from the Egyptian Museum, where my former husband and I walked our two small, unsuspecting children through the Mummy Room. As we made our way through the dim, silent maze of the exhibition, our kids never noticed the black mummified bodies in the display cases. The bodies were small and, it had struck me at the time, shamefully exposed without even realizing it.

          I remember I had brought up the curiosity cabinet because I wanted to make some kind of assemblage of my marriage. I've had the idea for years but keep rejecting it because—well, who wants to be reminded of a bad marriage? Still I can't shake the idea that, once and for all, I want to make something coherent out of all the salvaged bits of wreckage. I had begun to put marital artifacts into the cabinet as a way of keeping track of them. Until, I suppose, I no longer wanted to keep track of them.

My ex-husband brought no mementoes with him when he came to America except this little figure; the dwarf reminded him of his father. When we separated he didn't want it. This attitude makes him stronger, more self-reliant, but it also reveals his weakness.

          I'm afraid when I leave this house and close the door behind me—my parents' house, where I grew up—I will forget everything. When I first moved back here with my kids, to take care of my mother, I dreaded living here again. It meant being a child forever and trying to live in a museum. Miss Havisham is never meant to leave the heartbreak of her ruined mansion, the only way out for her is fire. But I'm not Miss Havisham. It's not too late to reinvent myself. Who might I become if I permit Marie Kondo to dump my memories?

         How do I want to remember the past? What do I want to carry with me into a new life? How do I want to live?

One of my daughter's notes, before she knew how to write