At the Bottom of an Old Box

The beauty of found things

My younger son and his pregnant wife had been away on vacation. They and a few friends had escaped for a short week at a family lake house near Chautauqua, NY. While they were away, I offered to do some chores at their home. Both of them had been quite busy over the last few months—new positions at work, new jobs. And when they returned, things would soon turn busier as the baby approached. The dad chores: clear out the boxes in the baby’s room, fix a banister that had loosened, repair the garbage disposal, and most of all, clean out the garage. There had been so much in that space that they had not been able to pull their cars inside for weeks. Boxes, bags, miscellaneous stuff had accumulated since moving in. Much of it simply needed to be tucked neatly away or tossed out.

“Do I have full authority?” I asked before they left for their trip.

They both agreed.

Dangerous territory.

Both of them, I say lovingly, are keepers. They hang on to things. Hoarders? No. They just have trouble giving things away. Books, for one. They have lots of board games. Lots of games. They collect things. All kinds of things. Some of us are collectors, keepers. Some of us are not. They are the former.

And so I got after it.

Boxes and boxes of stuff—clothes, books, art materials, stub of tickets to concerts, homework from college days, cords to fifteen things none of which matched, commemorative cups and glassware, hats, bags kitchen towels, bags of plastic bags, garden tools, paint cans, several bottles of weed killer. My son is a woodworker, so there were hand tools, dowels, pieces of wood and acrylic. Sawdust in the corner. A long table in the middle of the garage held stacks of old CDs, souvenir magazines, and coloring books.

I looked twice, and tossed. Looked again, and tossed. Anything that I was unsure about, I placed in a separate box for them to decide on when they returned.

Hours later, near the end of the work, inside one small box under a stack of cancelled checks and a bunch of miscellaneous cards from a scattered deck of Cards Against Humanity, I found a passport. It was my son’s. Expired. Ten years. 2011. The only travel stamp in it—the Dominican Republic. He needed the passport for a family vacation years ago. Inside was the standard photograph. He was eight to nine years old. I had seen that face, that big smile, that tousled hair, those crooked eyeglasses in so many old photographs. None of it was new to me. But that particular photo on that afternoon in the dim light of the garage, boxes and bags all around me, appeared different than the other photos I had been familiar with, more meaningful somehow. My son was just a boy. Today, he’s a young husband and a soon-to-be father, working in a field that he has always hoped to be in—the culinary world. In the young eyes in that old photo, I could see that future—his energy for life, a level of joy. Years later, like many teenagers, he had had his struggles—some quite difficult—but in pre-teen years, something strong and balanced was evident, a mighty purpose and determination. I could see it in the photo, maybe for the first time. The acknowledgment of this may have been about simple retrospect, being able to look at the past with what we already know of the present. Still, it was as if, in many ways, I was seeing my young son for the first time. Traveling to the future from the past.

What I was experiencing was not nostalgia. There was no longing for past times, or some wistful affection for days gone by. The garage cleaning chore was not the act of rooting around in a family flea market, searching for items that evoked emotion linked to some former life. This was not a reunion with what once had been. Psychologists say that nostalgia can evoke a warm and supportive energy, like looking at photos of a vacation taken together years ago. There is nothing wrong with that. But what I saw in that passport photo was not what had been. What I saw was to come, as if I could see that little boy already beginning to contemplate what was to be, envisioning what the future held. Certainly, he had no clear plan or formulated goals at the time of that photo. But it was evident that something was brewing. Behind those eyes the synapses were snapping, his future self was forming, he was beginning to morph with a kind of—at least at the time—unrecognizable purpose.

When I told my son about rediscovering the old passport and seeing that photo, he laughed. “Pretty dorky. That seems like a hundred years ago,” he said. “I wonder why I kept it.”

“It probably wasn’t a conscious thing,” I said. “Maybe subconsciously you wanted to someday look back and see where you had once been.”

It is good to come to terms with our past so we can fully understand who we are now. Even if it is only a small segment of our life seen in an old photo—a photo of ourselves or of someone we love.

I tossed a lot of things out that afternoon. But not the old passport. It seemed the right thing to put it inside a new box for safekeeping.