The Attic Light

My mother died recently. She was 88, lived on her own in a 932 sq. ft. patio home in Georgetown, Texas.

She moved there when my father passed in ’97, in one of the first homes on one of the first streets in a massive development where you could get lost finding the five pools and twelve Red Hat Society groups.

When I visited, I made a habit of counting the stucco houses as I drove down her street, having walked into the neighbor’s house on one of my previous visits.  There is nothing worse than surprising someone you didn’t mean to surprise. I’m lucky I wasn’t shot.

Before someone shoots judgment, let me explain: I arrived at twilight, on a street of houses with the same shape and in a variety of three beiges. My mother and her neighbor drove the same color and style of car. The neighbor had her glass door open just like my mother generally did, in order to let her dog watch the cars pass by.

As I pulled up my rental car, I could see the bluish tint from the television, which was in the same spot in my mother’s home. There sat a woman in a chair opposite the screen, in the same place as my mother’s chair, watching the nightly news. When I walked in, it smelled like my mother’s house, stale smoke with a shot of Febreeze.

A little dog barked but then growled, and that’s when I knew I had the wrong mom and the wrong dog, and I was in the wrong house.  It could happen to anyone.

On my most recent visit, I did not have to count houses. The state car with ‘Coroner’ on the side was my immediate clue.  

She died in her sleep, and there were no signs of real distress.  My sister and I called the last of the living relatives, planned a small service, and then began to sort and sell the things to which neither of us held special attachments.  It all seemed pretty straight forward and perfunctory until we got to the attic.

Despite a footprint of only 932 sq. ft, the tiny little attic held boxes upon boxes of things that should have been thrown away years ago, like copies of mortgage checks from 1972 and boxes upon boxes of clothes and costume jewelry with fabrics disintegrating to the touch with dry rot from the Texas heat.

Nestled in a box of our baby clothes sat my dad’s leather Navigator helmet, a football from one of his Notre Dame wins, and my mother’s wedding veil. Resting in between the eaves of two by sixes, cardboard tubes contained giant posters from our teenage rooms, anyone from Neil Young to Joe Namath.

I found a box of baby teeth and artwork from us kids as well as trinkets from each of my grandmother’s houses, from Hummel’s to Thimbles. And So. Many. Letters.  

Letters upon letters with brittle rubber bands holding secrets and family history spanning 100 years.  

I felt overwhelmed. I needed chocolate.  And per my mother’s Homeowner’s Association magazine that touted the best-kept secret chocolate pie of the area (a pecan crusted chocolate moose pie with fresh whip cream), I knew just where to go.

I found the restaurant and ordered a whole pie. I worked on it all week, starting with a polite piece, and by the end of the week, just attacking it with a fork and eating it right out of the box. With each bite I agreed with the magazine – it tasted amazing. But a secret? The line was out the door to even get the pie.

As I finished the last of chocolate goodness, it occurred to me that maybe the word ‘secret’ might be a word that is as outdated as BlockBuster or dial-up telephones. A secret, by the creator’s intention, hides something. It keeps a recipe exclusive or maintains a confidence. Secrets box the mysteries.

The World Wide Web culturally shifted our world. We no longer trust answers and opinions, we verify.  I venture to a new restaurant, and despite my friend’s recommendation, I still check it out on YELP. I turn to the Internet for research, news, entertainment, the best deal on groceries, and even a portion of my social interaction. Secrets? What are secrets anymore? I trust the Internet to find the answer.  

Before cleaning my mom’s attic, I believed that secrets were extinct. It was there, in her hot, dust-ridden attic, where I pondered why my mom saved a ticket stub from the summer before she met my dad, why a certain blue ceramic elephant tucked away in an old sock was so important.

The best-kept secrets? They are hidden away in our attics.

And sure, some secrets reveal something the owner was trying to hide out of fear, self-protection, or shame, but many secrets are hidden gems that people just failed to communicate.  Or did they? The evidence is in the attic.

Maya Angelou said that love recognizes no barriers. Reading through the letters of my grandparents to each other during their courtship and during wartime, followed by letters written to their adult children, as well as love letters between my parents, I could feel the evidence. Love knows no barriers, including time.  

Each of us is the living existence of prior love of the people who came before us. Reading the plethora of these attic letters whilst full of famous chocolate pie, I sensed how love has transcended the generations of my family through my ancestor’s written words. And unaware until that moment, I realized I had absorbed all of this love and continue to pass it on myself, almost as a means of preserving my lineage without even realizing it.

This preservation presents itself in small ways, like to the woman giving me my pedicure, or to my husband and daughters, and to my grandchildren to come. Love transcends to the hundreds before and the hundreds after simply by way of us showing up and expressing it in some way, shape or form.

I do plan on writing a few clues in the boxes I save in my attic, lest my children don’t take the time to eat a pie and ponder.

May love never be kept a secret.

April 9, 2019
April 9, 2019