Tea cups by Shogo-Ikeda

The Stuff of Memory

There are cupboards and drawers in my flat I hardly ever open. They are like some colonial outpost on a god-forsaken steppe that even the local district officer has forgotten. They are home to things I no longer use, relics of a former life that now resides at the bottom of closets or the top cupboard shelves. The stoneware Matthew and I lugged back from a trip to Ireland. Playing cards emblazoned with figures from the French Revolution. Back issues of Gourmet Magazine. The fish poacher. Stuff.

Matthew believed that you could never have enough storage space, so when he designed the renovations to the flat he put in closets wherever he could: banks of cabinets on the two walls of the galley kitchen, wall-to-wall closets in the bedroom naturally, the usual cupboards in the bathroom and utility rooms. And then the more unusual ones, like the cupboard which was built in front of the main bay of pipes for the heating system and whose upper shelves had a depth of only five inches. The similarly shallow drawer that sat below the shelves and opened just enough to slide a hand into, and that with some difficulty.

At first I thought we’d never use all this storage space. But we did. Even the five-inch drawer began to fill with erasers and rubber bands, rolls of adhesive tape and a small bowl that, like a drawer within a drawer, came to be filled, too this time with one- and two-cent coins.

Stuff accumulated. Some of the objects arrived in the hands of guests, salt-and-pepper shakers and good-luck charms, Indonesian shadow puppets and wooden salad bowls. Others were purchased out of need or whimsy (however did we acquire the miniature barn that was meant to store bread but which remained bereft of inhabitants?) Still others were bought on impulse, like the set of oversized soup tureens that were used for a single bouillabaisse supper, or testified to an abandoned interest, the be-bop recordings and sake cups of a short-lived enthusiasm that was soon extinguished.

The contents of the flat are like the finds of an archaeological dig, though one deposited horizontally across cabinets and drawers instead of vertically in layers of sediment. The ramekins and poker chips spoke to a time when Matthew and I did a lot of entertaining, before he drifted away to spend his evenings down in his office hunched over his computer with delivery souvlaki. The 3 x 3 mat, folded and stored on a top shelf at the back of the bedroom closet, was witness to a later time, after Matthew left of course, my time with Wacław.

I was up on a stool the other day rummaging through the top shelf of the cupboard above the washing machine, looking for the extra plate rack for the dishwasher that I knew I had stored there. It was all the way in the back, behind a platoon of vases and Mason jars and what was left of Matthew’s sour cherry brandy liqueur.

The liqueur had long been drunk and only the cherries remained, small wrinkled marbles the color of dried blood. The juice had leached out of the cherries to leave a thin wrap of slightly bitter fruit around the pit. In the early years after Matthew left I would occasionally eat a few, sprinkled over ice cream or dropped in a sauce for sautéed pork medallions. But they always reminded me too much of my life with Matthew.

Matthew didn’t cook. He mounted food productions. Complex, time-consuming projects he would He’d only make okra when he could find the tiny young pods that arrive in the markets at the very beginning of the season. He’d buy a kilo of okra and sit at the table the entire morning trimming the stem end of each pod into a perfect cone and then lay them on a baking sheet which he’d then sprinkle with vinegar and set out in the sun to coax out the mucilage. November marked the start of preparations for his annual Christmas fruitcake, which was launched with a trip to the spice shops in the old market district, now frequented only by pensioners, Arabs and cooks, to find candied orange and citron peel.

But the cherry liqueur was the biggest production, not because of the ingredients (there were only four) but because of the preparation time. After mixing equal parts of sugar and fruit and a handful of bitter almonds in large Mason jars, he’d leave them on the roof in the sun for the sugar to melt. Every couple of days he’d go up and shake the jars to better distribute the ingredients. He’d do this for two months before then adding the brandy that turned the slightly syrupy juice into a cordial.

Matthew’s forays into the kitchen were always big productions of a single dish, executed on a scale appropriate more for a hotel than for a home, which explains why I still had a half-gallon Mason jar of cherries in the cupboard. Matthew had always been a man of grand gestures. He didn’t really cook the way most people do, the mostly daily preparation of ordinary though sustaining fare of daily meals. Instead he mounted elaborate and infrequent productions. His cherries and fruitcakes were like the extravagant gifts of a distant wealthy aunt who arrives at the house on Thanksgiving.

Shifting the jars aside to get at the rack, I thought, why am I even saving this? And I couldn’t answer. It was then I decided to get rid of it. Not just the Mason jar but the rest of the stuff, too, the asparagus steamer and the painted wooden duck that sat on the mantle above the kitchen fireplace, its head turned to its tail as if looking back on the lake it will never return to. The tea towels that were too small and the dildos that were too big, the whole lot.

But not all at once, I decided. I wasn’t the betrayed lover who madly sets about stripping the house bare of all traces of the other, as if memory were wholly encapsulated in objects and could so easily be eradicated. I didn’t want to purge the house of its memories. I just wanted to be unburdened of all this stuff.  I always seemed to be pushing useless things aside to get at something I needed. Stuff that got in the way.

Every day for a period of time I threw out and wrote about it. I had conceived of it somewhat grandly as a project in dispossession. If I were a better photographer I would have documented these daily acts of dispossession visually as well.

I didn’t arrive at that mythic state of a man with only a hundred possessions. In the end I didn’t throw out more than what one might at a particularly ambitious spring cleaning. Each was inscribed with a memory, not always immediately discernible, but it was there, like a scene painted at the bottom of a cup or the signature of an artist half-hidden in the details of a painting. The memories did not vanish once I got rid rid of these relics, just the occasion for their remembrance, which, after all, was just one among many. And the house is still full of memories, to the point where I began to wonder, is there anything here at all that truly has nothing to say?

Among the things I did throw out, however, was the jar of Matthew’s sour cherries. In fact, it was the first thing I got rid of.

I emptied the cherries, resisting the temptation to eat one, more out of fear of being poisoned than from a desire to preserve unadulterated the memory of how they had tasted. I rinsed out the jar and carried it down to the recycling dumpster, into which someone had again unthinkingly emptied his garbage. The jar landed on a bed of onion skins and melon rind.

I didn’t feel anything afterwards, nothing of the relief or sadness or sense of closure I had been anticipating. It may be that I’ve already so mourned the loss of the two lives I had with Matthew—the one I lived and the one I wanted to live—that all that is left are the preserved yet fleshless memories of our days together.

/ Notes

The project referred to in this post was called Left of Nathan, the first two days of which served as notes for this post. Apologies if you’ve read parts of this before.

Image: Tea cups by Shogo-Ikeda


2 responses to ‘The Stuff of Memory

    • So true! There’s probably a corollary to Parkinson’s Law. Something like “stuff accumulates to fill the space available to store it.”


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