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I Dig the Past

I’m going to be honest here, which, of course, rules out my serving as defense attorney for our most recent ex-President. So be it. I’m compelled to be truthful because taking credit for qualities I don’t possess would put me in the same category as George Santos, the New York congressman whose pants are constantly on fire. Let me be specific. I cannot claim neatness or adherence to disciplined organization as among my admirable qualities. The opposite is true. If someone accused me of being a packrat, a compulsive collector of minutiae of yesteryear, I’d hang my head and plead guilty.

I confess to being addicted to accumulating “stuff,” as Elaine tolerantly refers to the contents of those cardboard boxes I’ve filled to capacity over the years. That catch-all term refers to the multitude of tangible memory joggers of events and places and experiences that risk overflowing the tops of those receptacles. Much of my collection, if dated for the time I first took possession of it, would be eligible for Social Security. I’d probably deserve a bit of compassion and understanding for my packratism if, periodically, I went through the contents of my eccentric treasure troves and scrapped things that appear to have passed their expiration date. That is, they seem to have lost virtually all their ability to move me. I don’t do that. Instead, when some preposterous deaccessioning idea pops up, I reject it, reasoning that I may, sometime in an unforeseeable future, be blindsided by the need to examine a particular item. I feel more secure in the assurance that even in such a barely imaginable likelihood, it’ll be at my fingertips, after, of course, an arduous excavation of boxes. Thinking back, the last time I instituted such a search was way before the final time I filled my tank with gas at under two dollars a gallon. Come to think about it, I’m sorry I didn’t save that receipt, but who knew? In any case, I’m comforted by the ready availability of my holdings. In case you’re wondering, I do realize, my collection serves psychological needs, not practical ones. My guiding principle is that memorabilia are the oxygen that keeps alive valued elements of the past, which, in turn, help illuminate the road we now travel.

Occasionally, for a change of pace, I do actually browse randomly through my collection. On a recent trip to Arizona, taking a break briefly from the comfort of warm winter sunshine, I rooted through some boxes in our garage, which is on the verge of being car-unfriendly because of its always-expanding accumulation of cardboard treasure chests. This time, there was a particular purpose behind my explorations. Someone at dinner the previous evening had mentioned a seemingly unforgettable event I attended a decade ago. To my discomfort, I remembered almost nothing about it. Time, that treacherous speedster, had left that particular recollection in the dust. I wanted to remedy the situation by digging carefully into my “stuff.” Surprisingly, I located what I was looking for, along with lots of other buried treasures I hadn’t been looking for. There were theater programs from productions whose names I had almost forgotten. Re-examining them produced a spotty but certainly welcome revival of memory. There were a few restaurant menus and hotel guides from places that had also become more obscure in my thoughts. Gazing at them with only a bare sense of what made them eligible to be remembered, I wondered whether I should simply toss items like that. Naturally, I decided not to, reasoning that preserving them would keep alive, in whatever diminished form, parts of a past that had been distinctively mine, times that I didn’t want to concede were now virtually inaccessible, therefore in danger of vanishing. I did not want that to happen.

Most of what I occupied myself with in those moments didn’t have such portentous implications Those nuggets of the past could never be vulnerable to being expunged, however undependable my recall. An old program from the first high school dramatic production I directed, “Brigadoon,” made me pause and reflect and smile for a long time. Looking at it produced a reunion with a part of yesteryear I have always held close to my heart. Without effort, I remembered cast names and faces.

The smile remained for other nuggets extracted from the lode. I was reunited with a program from a favorite place of mine, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe; another theater program, this one from a production of “Frost-Nixon” at the Donmar Warehouse in London; and then, of all things, a yellowed clipping from the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin listing names of the then-current graduating class at Central High School, my name among them. Wow! Just that: Wow! My personal saga with its numerous diverting subplots had largely unfolded, and here, now was a clipping transporting me back to Chapter One!

I won’t delude myself any longer with the ridiculous hope that on some, however distant day, I’ll tidy those boxes up. Their power to bring back significant parts of the past makes that possibility unthinkable. To skeptics, such a stubborn connection to “stuff” might signify a compulsion to live in the past. That conclusion would be wrong. Instead, it’s a stubborn dedication to understand the past and how its parts have contributed to who I am now.

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