In spring, she bares the collector’s soul


Greg Bean

My wife spent the weekend giving the upstairs a spring cleaning, and at the end there were many trash bags filled with mysterious stuff.

“What’s in the bags?” I asked.

“Nothing much,” she said.

And so I didn’t even peek before she hauled those bags outside where some would go to Goodwill, others to the used-book store and others to the garbage. But back upstairs, as she was finishing up, I saw that among the items that survived her purge were some things I’d written years ago, carefully preserved in an air-tight baggy. One of them was written on another spring day, shortly after we married.

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The young couple had not been married long when the husband came home one spring evening to find his wife in the basement, muttering near-obscenities to herself as she sorted through the many boxes and closets containing the archeological flotsam and jetsam of his life.

As the sweat gathered on her brow and ran in rivulets down her face, cutting narrow channels through the frosting of basement dust that powdered her cheeks, she pitched one obsolete and half-forgotten item over her shoulder after another – now a pair of high-topped sneakers with no laces, now a cracked baseball bat held together with black electrician’s tape, now a midnight blue polyester leisure suit with white piping and velvet lapels.

Had he only been more knowledgeable in the ways of men and women, he would have recognized his bride’s curious frenzy for what it was – the compulsion of many newly married women to bring some sort of order to their husband’s sloppy existence.

All newly married women, it is known, assume that the stacks of clothing and incomprehensible hardware squirreled away in dark basements by their new mates are the result of laziness, the sheer lack of motivation it would have taken to throw it all out. All new brides take it upon themselves to set the matter right by disposing of such obvious junk. It is a universal process that continues throughout the tenure of most marriages.

For his part the husband – for whom the mountainous heap of down-at-the-heels merchandise nevertheless represented an important historical record of his life – was almost speechless.

“You don’t have to throw that stuff away,” he said, knuckles turning white as he gripped the banister of the stairs.

“Oh,” she said, as she studied an orange and black paisley shirt discovered at the back of a closet, “it’s no trouble at all.”

“No,” he said, snatching the shirt from her hands, “I mean you don’t have to throw it away, ever. In fact, I forbid you to throw it away.”

“But what could you possibly want with an ugly shirt that doesn’t even fit you anymore and has a collar big enough to use as a bed sheet? I was only trying to help. And what’s this ‘forbid’ business, anyway?”

Had she given him a chance before kicking the pile of ephemera and steaming up the stairs in anger, he would have explained that even though the shirt was indeed ugly, and he had no intention of ever wearing it again, he had saved it for 15 years because of its value as an artifact – he had worn it to one of the last Janis Joplin concerts ever given.

As he carefully replaced it on its hangar, he heard in his mind once again Joplin’s scratchy roar as she wailed out the last chorus of “Piece of My Heart” before a half-naked audience bathed in the glow of a Canadian sunset. For him, the shirt was the key that unlocked a most precious memory.

It was much the same with the broken bamboo fly rod that lay next on the pile, his only trophy of an hour-long battle to the death with an eight-pound rainbow trout (he claimed) fair-hooked on a caddis fly nymph. As far as he knew, that trout still had the other half of his rod, but the half in his basement was his only proof the contest had taken place at all.

Carefully, lovingly, he jammed the rod back in the red plastic golf bag containing the women’s clubs his aunt had loaned him 20 years before. He had quickly outgrown the clubs, and had given up golf altogether – but the bent and dilapidated sticks still brought back the most pleasant memories of warm afternoons spent lopping the heads off dandelions and the occasional snake.

So it went for the young husband. One by one, he replaced the items in his personal time capsule. The junior high yearbooks filled with the incomprehensible scribbling of dozens of young and untouchable debutantes; the well-oiled outfielders glove with which he had caught the only fly ball of his baseball career that led to a double play; the pocket knife with a broken blade given him by his grandfather one memorable summer afternoon on a stream in Crazy Woman Canyon.

And as he continued his emotional journey down memory lane, he began to formulate a theory about a basic difference between men and women. Men, he hypothesized, are not pack rats tucking away insignificant bits of junk as his wife believed, but rather scholars of a sort, documenting the material history of an age and the emergence of self.

Not at all like women, he thought, who collect only meaningless trivia – his wife, for instance, with her boxes of old letters and cards, ballet programs, ribbons, locks of hair, theater stubs and napkins stained with the blood red impressions of two wine glasses. He planned to get rid of that stuff as soon as possible.

He needed the extra room in the closet.

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In those days, I apparently still had much to learn.

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For a newspaper columnist, indicted Keyport Mayor John Merla’s announcement last week that he was running for re-election was Christmas in April. I don’t know about his chances, but I do know this: John Merla just gave me material for five or six columns this year, and I suspect they’ll be doozies.

Thanks, John. Thanks from the bottom of my ink-stained heart.

Gregory Bean is executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers.