Maybe I should have stopped after I uncovered my mother’s old artist’s portfolio, leaning against a half-wall covered in cobwebs. I gently thumbed through the contents: a stencil of well-worn cowboy boots, a sketch of the dinner bell from my childhood, a charcoal portrait of a naked man. With a mustache. Dad?! I was hoping to find heirlooms, not my dad’s youthful and anatomically correct body.
But I had my reasons for being up there in the first place.
Maskless Covidiots in my apartment building in New York forced me to flee to my parents’ house an hour north of the city. So while they were golfing and sipping cocktails in Florida, I was pacing their suburban home in the woods, panicked and convinced they were as good as dead.
“You’re never going to die” was my whimsical response to my parents (now in their late 70s) whenever the subject came up. I was able to hold denial and the inevitable simultaneously ― until the pandemic body-slammed me with reality, that is. When I allow myself to reflect on this at all, my fantasy is that my parents go out together, because otherwise it would be too devastating for the one who got left behind. Also, I can’t imagine planning two separate shivas.
Whether it’s my dad’s hearing loss or my mom’s dicey driving, watching them age is sobering ― and probably more so for them. But I’m fortunate. We have a tight bond, and our love for individual therapy has encouraged honest communication. Nothing is left unsaid. They know where they failed me as parents, and once a year, I apologize for being a colossal bitch during my divorce.
Like many people sheltering at home, I couldn’t do much of anything other than sanitizing heavily trafficked countertops and door handles. After two days, it hit me. Traffic? I’m the only one here. Marking my days with mundane tasks, like replacing the toilet seat covers with slow-close lids and dumping food with expiration dates earlier than December 2019, wasn’t distracting me from my dread.
Decluttering and tidying my parents’ attic was a preemptive strike, designed to mitigate the trauma of touching their belongings after their death, when I’d be grieving and inconsolable. My throat tightened just thinking about it. I didn’t ask my parents for permission beforehand because I was afraid of being denied. Also, I didn’t want them to know I was considering their demise.
I sat on my camp trunk and FaceTimed my mom. “Hey, I’m cleaning out the attic for you. Can I ditch the busted laundry baskets? How about the defective suitcases and ripped window screens? Fine,” I sighed. “What about donating the Norelco hair dryer?” When I was little, my mom would sometimes set my hair in big fat rollers after taking a bath and then sit me under the dryer like we were at a salon. It made me feel glamorous.
Boxes of slide carousels stood balanced in the middle of the room, like a game of Jenga. Slideshows were hugely popular during family gatherings growing up. I pulled a few out and held them up to the light. My brother and I are spinning in a teacup at Disney World. Dad and I are practicing free throws in the driveway. My mom is presenting a can of walnuts to the camera. I stacked the boxes at the door, excited to digitize them once it was safe to be in the world again.
That’s when I came across Mom’s portfolio of drawings, including Dad in all his naked glory. Undeterred, I shrugged it off in the name of abstract art and moved on.
Alongside a commercial coffee urn was an old reel-to-reel film projector. As a filmmaker, I wondered why they hadn’t entrusted it to me instead of letting it rust. I opened a crushed box beside the projector. Metal canisters of 8 mm film spilled out of a ripped shopping bag. Red spools of exposed film were unraveling, and I rewound them. Wow, I thought, I’ve got to digitize these home movies as well.
A few questions come to mind when you find peeling porn labels written in your dad’s chicken scratch: Two Lesbians-artful, Bath scene-great ending, Two guys kissing-very good. Questions like: When was the last screening? Was I in my bedroom studying geometry at the time?
It would have been easier to write off if it were just a few reels, but the sheer volume looked like my parents might’ve owned a retail store, and that was weird.
I reflexively started rocking back and forth, davening between intrigue and nausea. Here I was, alone with their porn, while they were probably aqua-jogging in Florida wearing face shields. I had no context. I darted from the room, tripping over a straw sombrero.
Intellectually, I know my parents are human beings with desires; good for them. But did I have to find those desires? Why aren’t they in a safe that I don’t have the combination to? My parents weren’t big on setting boundaries when I was growing up, so I set them for myself. I didn’t want equal footing ― they weren’t my friends. And I was uninterested in the intimate details of their past.
My phone rang. It was my mom.
I tried to decide whether to tell her what I’d found. Would it enrich our lives? Change how I felt about them? My head is teeming with important information from them: ancestral history, holiday traditions and Borscht Belt comedy. I know where my dad keeps the wills, the health directives and the list of those uninvited to the funeral. What more do I need to know?
She was matter-of-fact. “When you open Pandora’s box, you never know what you’re gonna find.” She paused. “You’re a little late to the party. Your brother found the box decades ago. Oh, and Dad said to leave his stuff. He’ll go through it when we get home.”
I hung up the phone and laughed. My mom’s nonchalant attitude had helped me to put things into perspective. Her breezy tone made me consider the possibility that my discomfort was my burden alone, and that perhaps my disgust was an overreaction.
All of these years later, even as a grown-up (allegedly), I was still setting boundaries, thinking that my parents (and I) needed protection from potential embarrassment. I was letting my child-self dictate the woman that I am today.
My unease evaporated, as if I were evolving right there in the laundry room of their house. I didn’t care about my parents’ stash. I cared that I had them around to laugh with.
It was selfish to rummage through my parents’ things. Finding their mementos spoke to their curiosity, spirit and youth, giving me a deeper understanding of who they are as people.
I’m not entirely over my hang-ups, but I do feel closer to them. I still wish it hadn’t happened, but maybe it’s time I let go of some of my strident ideas and embrace my parents (and their smut) for who they are. For as long as I’m able to.
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