My sister and I have embarked on a monumental task. We have a goal, an endgame. We are laser beam focused, spurred on by small successes and a vision of glory.
No, we are not planning a summer hike up the side of Mt. Kilimanjaro or backpacking across the continental United States. We are cleaning/de-cluttering/and deeply organizing my basement. If you had seen it before we started, you would understand why this feels so herculean. And also, why you have not been invited to see it.
My basement is where memories and half-filled cardboard boxes go to die. It is the keeper of things. The space for taxable good intentions and not-yet-started Pinterest projects. Bicycles, baby clothes, and broken toys create a macabre consignment section. Birthday banners and rolls of 90% off Christmas wrap commemorate with each other about their unused potential. Awards (that I forgot I won) from college lay on their sides, the bin mate of old Jonathan Brandis teen beat posters and New Kids On the Block buttons as big as my daughter’s face. Not the 3 year old, the 8 year old.
My basement is unfinished, mostly not insolated, and probably boasts a proud lineage of descendants from the first spider families to move in when our home was built over a hundred years ago. I think if I looked close enough, I would see a tiny gallery of golden frames on one of the beams, showcasing this patriarchal history.
And while I love all the woodwork, leaded glass windows, and pocket doors that come with living in an old house, the basement is not my favorite. It’s probably more accurate to call it a cellar, but as there is no wine stored down there, that title seems terrifying. Especially since the original furnace still works, which makes me both grateful, and sorry that I spent so much of my childhood watching scary movies.
So, there we were. Standing on the concrete floor, trying to live out the homemaker’s version of Pretty in Pink, and make something beautiful from something far less than appealing. “Oh, look what I found, Jess,” my sister called from across the dungeon. She handed me an unassuming silver bin, it’s lid snapped shut on only one side, and laying askew. I opened it, not thinking anything of it. Isn’t that usually the way great things come to us, wrapped in the ordinary and waiting for us to look further?
Inside this bin was a cobalt box that I hadn’t seen in years, probably a decade or more. My brain prickled with the beginning of recognition. Opening the box, I found dozens and dozens of cards and letters from my grandfather, 18 years worth. How had I forgotten that he always wrote to me? I couldn’t fathom.
I stood there, the foam soles of my Nikes pushing back against the hardness of the floor, and melted. I read letter after letter, card after card. I will confess to you that when I was done, not only was I crying, but I was different.
I had forgotten that I was so loved.
So often when I think about my childhood lately I think about all the lack. But I was loved, you guys. I was loved enough. And somehow I forgot that.
My grandpa was the kind of person you could make a movie about, and still not understand after an hour and a half, just how great a man he was. I knew it as a child, and I knew it when he passed three weeks before my high school graduation. But knowing it as an adult feels different. Reading those letters, felt like reading a crucial chapter of my life that I had accidentally left out.
Everything these days seems to be about identity. We are broken up into columns and rows of who’s and what’s and ins and outs. We are divided, united, and talked about. We are a people condensed into two hundred words or less, a profile page that shows us at our best.
My name is Jessica Rae. I am a wife, mother, friend. I work with foster kids. I like to write, and shop (thus the horror-filled basement). I enjoy travel and the arts, time with my family and friends. I like belly laughs and good wine, and movies with happy endings. I love poetry and music, and orange colored days, when the sky fades from blue to sherbet to the palest ballet of pink. I love people, people are amazing. I love kindness, and mercy, but also justice. I have freckles on my right upper arm that exactly replicate Ursa Major. I love the truth, and those who are brave.
I, I, I. It’s a lot, right? A lot of I’s? But we know this, right? We know exactly who we are, what we are, what we want to be, and feel the sting of what we aren’t, don’t we? And yet, somehow when I was making my lists, I forgot to include that part of who I am. I am loved. I belonged. I was welcomed, and cherished.
A man with dancing blue eyes loved me with fatherly affection. He thought I was worth writing those letters. Even though he worked six days a week, from open to close, standing on tired feet, hands wracked by arthritic pain, he still wrote. He still visited. He showered us with gifts in his home. He taught me how to fish, and to clean and cook what we caught. He took us camping, and out for walks. He gave me his time and attention, and his misspelled words. And, if I’m honest, that seems like more of a gift. The letters aren’t perfect. They have probably at least 3 misspelled words each, some more.
And while my sister and I will keep plunging forward, for that day, I had found what I was looking for. The box is sitting on my dresser now, where it belongs. I see it when I wake up, and when I go to bed. Those feelings of lack can stay with the spiders, they don’t fit in my house anymore. Truthfully, they never did.
I’ve replaced them with words that fit. Words that are actually a part of who I am.
I am Jessica Rae, and I am “verry verry loved.”