If a Salad Bowl Burns

Editor’s Note: 

This post is a personal essay written for Colette Weber’s  sophomore English class. From the assignment: “Philip Lopate in The Art of the Personal Essay sees the hallmark of the personal essay as its intimacy.  He says, ‘The writer seems to be speaking directly into you ear, confiding everything from gossip to wisdom.  Through sharing thoughts, memories, desires, complaints, and whimsies, the personal essayist sets up a relationship with the reader, a dialogue—a friendship, if you will, based on identification, understanding, testiness, and companionship.'”

by Eden ’17

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Nothing shames like packing. It asks you to sort through a montage of memories, in the form of all of your known possessions. A packer’s job becomes an appraiser’s job. Every artifact that makes up your home must be deemed worthy enough to bring along to the next. Else it will be thrown or given away. In the end, formless masses of cardboard envelop it all. There is no telling kitchenware from trophies until you undo the whole process. I am living through this behemoth of a job in the great chasm between middle and high school. Every childhood relic waits for me to discover it again. My great packing begins with the great unpacking of childhood.

If you’ve ever packed, you know it always starts with the books. Their neat right-angled corners and conforming flat sides beg to be stacked. They fit so easily into their boxes, that their packing is always expected to take the least time. (Though that neglects to factor in that I am quite impressive at procrastinating and that my collection is quite massive.) Spanning two cream-white cases, the books morph into a monster of a thing. The poor shelves are crammed with double rows of books, their loads inflicting heavy set cracks. With the last remnants of my infamous childhood tendencies, I commence my task with a dumping of all the books onto the floor. When I’m finished, the boxes and I are an island dwarfed in a great lake of literature. The novels’ clattering onto the floor brought puffs of dust into the light of the late afternoon, perfuming the room with the aroma of a dignified library. The bangs and clatters of my family break any majesty in the moment. Their packing creates a melody of percussion, and I dive into my task with this symphony sounding around me.

As the cardboard slowly soaks up my lake, a thought trickles in. The corporeal form of these volumes is a container just as the boxes are. Their contents are the mess of memories I have stained them with. The meaning I’ve crafted makes giving up the books a struggle. The seasoned reader that I am, the ten-year-old chapter book holds no value for me. I cling to the memories wrapped in its size eighteen font. The sun is setting as I struggle with a million of these internal wars. Logically I know that I will never read most of these books again, but still I want to keep them. I want them for the familiarity of their colors, their covers, their dog-eared pages. Despite how many others there are in existence, my copy is far from interchangeable. The world I explored in its pages left it to me as a souvenir. The memory of reading it has soaked into the pages as surely as the spilled coffee. These are the books I know exactly how to sort in height order. I have spent hours of my life living in the stories they contain, and more still sorting and organizing them on their shelf. Again, I am sorting and organizing them, though into boxes, and I will sort and organize them yet again into a completely new chapter of my life. All the while, I add to the memories instilled in them, bonding them closer to the truth of my existence, and giving more of my being to them. I’ve given them the value of my time, a currency that only I truly understand.

Now the books are all boxed away. Cardboard digs into my hands as I struggle to hold the novels’ container long enough to journey to the truck. These books bring weight in their numbers, as if to state their final protest to the indignity of removal. The books are packed away, and have left their shelves bare. In their place is emptiness, a stranger to this home. I’ve invited it, seeing it become a presence in its alien nature. My agony is powerless as it watches this stranger consume and replace the objects of my life. Agony wails as parents donate my culmination gown in the bag filled with other ill fitting elementary fashion. Agony shrieks as the posters come off the walls, exposing the raw canvas of marred wall paint. Agony moans as we take out the boxes in the warm May mornings. By the last night in this home, agony whimpers at the emptiness that surrounds me. The comfort my objects bring it are missing. The things that surround me had become a part of me. I built my room on these precious pieces of time, letting their second skin cover me. Now that blanket has been ripped off, and reality stings like alcohol on the open wound. I suffer here, in the moonlight of a final sleep. I am trying to rest in the graveyard of desks and dressers and shelves, lifeless without what they used to contain. They stand like graves, a last call for what was taken.

Morning comes in a snap. I wake in a gasp, trying to grasp why my world has been replaced by a looming emptiness. Shuddering to awareness, I realize I invited it into my room, I let it violate my holy space. Feet creeping across the bare wood floor, I peak outside. I know what I will see, but a shock of fear spikes anyway. I see a truck filled with childhood, my childhood.

Too easily, too quickly, there is my world. It is stacked, folded, and crammed into shades of cardboard. In only a week the house was purged of all things personal. Emptiness is no longer a stranger; it fills the house, as comfortable as if it has always been there. Only the scratched floor and smudged walls hinted that anyone has lived here at all. The truck’s cold metal hull has consumed all of our personal things. Its contents could quite possibly be mistaken as a thrift store donation. Though I doubt that any business could appreciate the magnificence of my second grade creations. No family could value what that truck contained like we do. We are the ones who will struggle through the vague sharpied labels, bumbling boxes through rooms. We are the ones who spent our lives as curators to this museum of memories. Though we call it a home. Equal to a photo album, our possessions are documents to our growth. We are the ones who have chosen these objects to save our past in  a tangible form.

Now the house of my childhood stands empty. Technically it remained empty only for the time it took for the realtor to find a new owner. For me it will stay as empty as it was when we moved the last box out. The furniture and decorations and books that replaced my own are as empty in meaning as a catalogue. They are making their own scuffs, their own stains, their own dust. Dust whose smell belongs to a stranger. Scuffs whose stories belong to someone else.

I can’t say that I would rather it remain empty, like a tomb in the wake of our departure. Hollow rooms echo with uncovered acoustics as I walk final steps through them. Empty walls ring with the imitations of my footsteps, sharp and eerie. On these familiar paths, they are unexpected in their unfamiliarity. There is a fear in this emptiness. Have we really been living, if we have no physical proof? What have we done, if there is nothing substantial to commemorate it. Life accumulates a mess, because it is one. We fill our homes with the quilt of our time embodied, a natural instinct, a justification. I have spent my life building a nest for comfort. Here I am, leaving it empty for someone else to settle into, and feeling as if I just lost my fourteen years.

We don’t realize that every day we could lose everything. An earthquake, a flood, a fire, could consume all we’ve worked for. The objects we find precious are, and always will be breakable, flammable, and transient. With so much invested in that which can be destroyed, what do we leave when we lose it all? What precautions could we take to prepare us for something like a house fire? The flames can take however much they want, from a singe of hair to a beating heart. If the inferno is determined, how can we stop it from taking everything? The orange and gold will consume the details of love and memory until they become nothing but a fine ash. What have they truly taken? Are the memories in the burned gone? The salad bowl has a nick in it from its employment in play pretend as a shield. The moment being so small, the imperfection was the only way it can be remembered. You cannot see this nick in the dust of the burned. When the house is rebuilt, with glossy magazine rooms, there will be another salad bowl. The department store easily supplied it, and this replacement serves the same purpose. Yet it refuses to be the same. The memories that the old once held are now gone, saved only in the mind. The space it contained is replaced. The old has been swallowed by time.

I will cross the threshold into a brand new home. I will open the well worn door as a stranger to the remnants of love left by the last owner. The floors will have stories scratched over their boards, and hundreds of tales splattered and faded into the tile. My family will adopt this empty nest; soon we will replace the stories with our own. The breath we hastily inhaled here in our old home will be exhaled in the new. Our boxes will flood the halls, the murmur of unpacking will not quiet for some time. The proof of our life will be reorganized and spread to cover the great expanses of empty rooms. We have accumulated objects in life as little proofs to our existence. In death we will use graves for the same. They will catalyze the memory of us. The pharaohs of Egypt erected the great pyramids to mark their lives in history, entombing their objects along with them. This is done in a desire for a memory. We all desire to mark that we existed in the record books of the universe. Subconsciously we all ask the question: if we leave nothing behind, what will be remembered of us? If a salad bowl burns and no one remembers it, did it exist?

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