It was one of the hottest days of the summer but I was crawling around in the attic, scraping dusty boxes across the plywood floor, opening them up, searching for that old box, the one with my wedding dress in it.
And there it was in the corner, hidden behind the Christmas ornaments, it was packed in the bottom of a bin, stuffed inside of a clear plastic bag. It looked like a crushed gardenia with its creamy ivory satin now yellowed and wilted beyond freshness.
Every time I climb up there it feels cramped and uncomfortable and I see things that dust up different sorts of unsettled emotions: the stack of journals and diaries from my adolescence, old unfinished projects and basically just things I’ve held onto that I’m not ready to throw away.
But I love the stillness there under the eaves where you can feel the preserved sense of history, the passage of time, of even mortality. It’s like the room is holding its breath for the trap door to open and the light to come on. It waits for someone to bring a memento from our present life to be gently folded into the eaves. Life used up but still loved, things played with and lovingly crafted.
The dollhouse my husband made for our daughter with each shingle glue-gunned painfully to the roof. The toy cash register that saw a lot of action at my son’s lemonade stands. The homemade cards and art projects, all of them bittersweet reminders that their childhoods are over, they are grown adults now.
These artifacts come from different times in my life, some okay but some a tiny bit painful and better left undisturbed. Like the wedding dress.
The dress and wedding album are definitely items that I’ve stashed into forlorn memory. When I look at the little crumpled gown I don’t remember the girl who wore it and even the pictures from the ceremony are vaguely embarrassing to me. We were so young and stupid. We were so dead sure about everything.
And sometimes the keepsakes in the attic imply a cold promise – that we will live and love forever. I think about my mom and how I miss her, how she touched so many of the items up there in one way or another.
On some level I could never believe that she would ever die, or she would at least be here now when her beloved granddaughter was getting married. It doesn’t seem possible to have such a big event without her. She was absent at my son’s graduation too and it broke my heart, she almost made it.
And it feels cruel how all of the old stuff implies that life will go on, the heirloom Christmas ornaments are packed optimistically for next year, the camping equipment is poised for the vacation that has yet to be planned.
But all of it gets pushed deeper into the corners year after year. We add to the stacks with the intent to go back, to peruse, to sift through the good times, but in the end the bulk is too massive. Time erodes the papers even within the plastic containers. We simply forget.
Our daughter is getting married next year and there I was, in the hot, dusty space, wondering what that meant for me. I wanted to show her my paltry dress, to start to plan, to talk about the details of the wedding, I have been so thrilled for her.
But when I went up there the physical scraps of memorabilia seemed so insignificant. I don’t remember the flowers we chose for the wedding, what we ate, even the words people used to toast us.
This morning my husband left a note in the kitchen I love you more every day. And I think about those words and I think about the years that have gone by, some of them slowly but each one of them measured out to the cadence of our two children’s lives. Our love has grown and expanded because they pulled our little coupled life apart, twisted it completely out of shape. And now it is being reshaped into something all new again.
And to look at my old dress is to remember how long ago our life began and how the ideas we had of a future were so wide and broad and limitless and yet so absurdly fuzzy around the edges. And we had no concept at all of just how deep it would go.
And I’m sure even now I imagine that it will last forever.
And I try to imagine the day I picked out this little satin dress, what silly thoughts and youthful ideas I had. Did I worry if the marriage would last? Did I think we would ever need counseling? Did I have a picture in my mind of what raising children would be like?
I don’t remember. But I remember really wanting to please my mother with a small, tasteful wedding and also wanting my dad to say beautiful things about us in his sermon.
I remember later wanting to have a cat and wanting to wake up with my husband every morning in our own place that we had decorated all by ourselves. And I vividly remember being pregnant and dreaming about having a little girl.
These are body memories not attached to any article of clothing or piece of paper. And today they swirl in my thoughts, the smell of my daughter’s head when they handed her to me after she was born. the sweaty hugs after school, her hands grimy and covered in marker, the nights lying on her bed late at night when she couldn’t sleep.
Some time ago after my mom died I was talking to my son and I told him how I was struggling with the passage of time. And he said, Mom, you’re next in line. It seems like the young accept death more easily than people my own age.
But he’s right. The next generation pushes up and moves ours aside and my own wedding memories are so far in the past as to be obsolete. Who cares? Life belongs to our children, to their dreams, their plans.
And it seems that like those moldering layers of cardboard paper in the attic, our lives alternately grow smaller but also more dense. We hold the truths of our experience in a compressed state, the good stuff distilled into a kind of love that holds all of the bits and pieces. The joys and disappointments, births and deaths, the days that were so tough we wanted to simply give up.
But we didn’t and now there is this, this original collection of stories from our life together, rich and solid, something to be passed on to the next caretaker, maybe some of it to be discarded, but for now, while I am here, simply held.
And so now I am the mother and the little girl is getting married. There will be a new white dress and smiling bridesmaids and rings exchanged and lovely toasts to the bride and groom.
And the excitement and joy I feel is even bigger than the emotion I recall from thirty years ago – it is deeper and more profound in the way that life has taught me to slow down, to pay attention, to savor. It will only last if it is held onto carefully.
And next year, somewhere during the wedding, my husband and I will be looking at the new couple and our hearts will be full, so full to almost breaking. Because we will be thinking about all of the love they will experience in their life to come. And how it will be layered with little love notes proclaiming a love affair that is so deep that it is beyond words, beyond memory, beyond even the passing of time itself.