“Did you get married in New Jersey in 1997, ma’am?” A couple months ago I got a call out of the blue from the Portland police. The officer confirmed my name with me, then asked about when and where I’d been married. “Y-y-y-es,” I stammered, wondering where this was going. He explained that a box of paper files had been found at an intersection about a mile from our house. Someone had picked up the box, taken it home, and looked for clues as to its owner’s address in Portland. After finding nothing helpful, my unknown hero turned the box in to the police.
Ten minutes after the phone call, the officer was on my doorstep handing over a ripped and battered cardboard box with manila file folders spilling out at all angles. In the interval between his phone call and arrival, I’d pieced together what must have happened. One morning the week before, when we’d had guests staying with us, I’d noticed that our garage door was open, meaning we’d forgotten to close it the evening before. Thieves must have gotten into the garage that night.
The files in this box, called “Archived Files” on the label I’d stuck on it, were miscellaneous papers I wanted to keep but wasn’t ready to give indoor status to. I already had a lot of files in my study and couldn’t accommodate these. These files were second-string in my mind – not of immediate importance and rarely consulted.
Why the thieves took that box baffles me. They left everything else—the lawn mower, ladders, vases, holiday decorations, wine glasses, suitcases, and other typical garage content. They also skipped over boxes named “Linda’s diaries,” “Linda’s musicology articles,” “Annuals and letters,” and “Linda’s old stuff, pretty things.”
Did the thieves’ conversation go something like this? “I see some teapots in this box.” “Nah, you’re crazy.” “How about this lamp?” “Nooooo.” “Here’s a box called A.r.c.h…. ‘Archie,’ maybe?” “Leave it. Let’s get out of here. There’s nothing we can sell.” After getting into the car: “WTF! You took that Archie box?” “Where’s the comics? This is just a bunch of papers!” Car stops. Door opens. The box goes plop.…
Our garage, like most people’s, is a weird space. It’s not fully inside or fully outside. It’s cold in the winter and stuffy and hot in the summer.
For some people, I’ve noticed, garages harbor hopes and dreams. They’re turned into workshops, studios, small businesses. They’re sometimes refuges for those who want more alone time.
When we lived in New Jersey, one of neighbors kept his garage spotless, cleaned it out often, and held large family parties in and around the garage. His lovely deck on the back of the house stood empty while guests socialized in the driveway, sitting in lawn chairs on the cement, drifting in and out of the garage to get their food and drinks.
For most of us, garages aren’t places to spend time, but a storage solution for big or dirty things, unfortunate purchases we’re not ready to admit to, items we haven’t gotten around to giving away, boxes we’re intending to go through from the last move, outgrown toys and clothes, grown children’s boxes waiting to be picked up, and, of course, multi-packs of paper towels and toilet paper.
Ah ha! I forgot cars! On my street, there are a lot of parked cars on the street at night. Either most families have more than two cars, or there’s no room for cars in their garages.
Back to my stolen papers, though. What bothered me about the theft was not that it made me feel unsafe: I get that we’re not in the New Jersey countryside anymore. We used to leave our garage door open for weeks at a time there (I was feeding a stray cat for a while). Nor was I troubled because I had too much stuff in the garage. In fact, we took the luxury of time to declutter before we moved across the country four years ago. I knew what I had. I knew what was in each of my boxes.
That’s the thing. Only four years ago, I put too many priceless things in the garage. I know this now because I went through the garage again after the theft. I came away with two big boxes of items that needed to be moved to safer ground. What was in these two boxes? Words.
Every single thing in those two boxes was some kind of writing: 30 years of letters from friends and family, 13 years of my diary, some journals of my deceased brother, the little notebook my mother kept during my first year of life, and my “Linda’s School Years” book.
In just four years, I realized, my priorities had changed dramatically. For 23 years in New Jersey, these letters and journals had been buried in piles of sagging cardboard boxes in a rarely opened closet. When I decluttered prior to moving West, I assigned them the same low ranking—I knew I had to save them, but when would I ever have time to read them?
Now is the time. Yes, now I have the interest and energy to read them. I downshifted my work life so that I could make time for things like reading old letters and diaries and deepening my understanding of how I got to be the person I am today. These letters and journals uncover memories and help me piece together my upbringing, my friendships, my plans, my opinions, my fears, what was going on around me, and the many decisions that have led to the present day. It’s going to take a while to go through everything, but I’ve started.
I’m lucky I got my box back, with the bonus kick in the pants about what I’d been keeping in the garage. The tidiness lulled me into a false confidence. I had nice shelves, uniform containers, and minimal bloat. Everything sparked joy in one way or another, but the precious old words that could spark deeper self-understanding weren’t in the right place.