Finding myself in what I left behind

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By Carolyn Ten Broeck, Editor

You can't miss what you never had, goes the old idiom.

But how long does it take you to miss that which you did have?

Is it a day? A week? A month? A year? Years?

Years! I know because over the last two weeks I've become reacquainted with items that were once cherished, but were long since forgotten.

It happened like this.

In 2002, my then-husband and I separated and I moved into an apartment that was barely big enough for me, let alone the annals of my life.

So I took what I thought I couldn't live without and left the rest behind.

Life moved forward as did both of us. I moved to Florida and married Tom.

A couple of years ago, the ex remarried and moved into his wife's house, leaving the mementos of our lives behind.

Last fall, he sold the house where we raised our children and the closing was the Friday before Christmas.

My three children were ordered by their father to go to the house, claim their personal items that date back to infancy and take anything I wanted out of the house. That last part was a generous offer, I thought, but I told Spencer, the youngest, the only things I wanted were my grandmother's china teapot and my high school letter jacket.

Spencer, however, had other ideas.

A couple of weeks before the closing, he FaceTimed me one Saturday as he and his wife sorted through decades of accumulation.

"Don't you want this?" I was asked over and over and over.

Too many times I said no or I wasn't sure the object even belonged to me. After 17 years – and probably more than that – some of the things they all claimed were mine were unrecognizable.

Finally after 45 minutes of telling them no, I finally told Ashley to use her discretion. As a wife and mother, I thought she would recognize important items.

I went to Georgia the week before Christmas to spend a pre-holiday with my children and grandchildren. Spencer took that Friday off from work to hang out with his mom. Ashley took Andi to pick up Number Two granddaughter, Piper, leaving Spencer and me at home alone.

They probably hadn't even cleared the driveway when he said, "Let's go look in the man cave. I brought you six or seven tubs."

What?! Six or seven tubs? For a teapot and letter jacket? I was curious.

For the next two hours, we made ourselves comfortable and went through tub after tub after tub.

I filled two 32-gallon garbage cans with worthless items that held no value – monetary or sentimental. I triaged other things to be sorted through at a leisurely pace.

I sent one entire tub back to his father. It was definitely things that belonged to his family, not mine.

And so when I headed back to Florida, I brought the remnants of a past life and now for the last two weeks, I've been sorting, filing, throwing away and sending on to others.

Among the treasures I discovered:

• a Case knife with my mother's handwritten note wrapped around it – "This belonged to my brother-in-law." Why she had it, or felt the need to identify it, is lost to the ages. I sent it to Ohio to the brother-in-law's grandson.

• a cigarette lighter that belonged to my late brother when he was in Vietnam. A map of the country is etched on one side and on the other some notable cities are pointed out with Da Nang in larger type. Da Nang is where the first American troops landed in 1965. My brother was there in 1967-68. I sent it to my nephew, my brother's son, who will cherish a keepsake his father carried with him.

• the folder that marked me as an "Official member of the Shaun Cassidy Fan Club." Was any teenage girl so enamored over a celebrity as I was with the former Hardy Boy? Hundreds of his pictures decorated my dorm room way back then.

• cards, letters and postcards from my friends around the world – from Sri Lanka to York, Penn. and everywhere in between.

• the wallet my mother carried the day she died, still intact with her AARP and Champus cards – and handwritten directions on her funeral wishes.

The list is endless. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands of items detailing my history – my life – confined to six plastic totes.

Sunday I sat down with one of the triaged totes to sort through it at that more leisurely pace.

It contained nothing but my writings. Handwritten short stories on lined notebook paper and outlines for novels typed on pink onionskin paper filled the tote.

In the days before word processors and computers, I wrote a lot on legal pads and years later typed on the beloved Smith Corona.

I scanned the words, laughed at the rawness of the paragraphs and told Tom I should have been a playwright because there was So Much Dialogue.

The earliest ramblings date back to when I was 12 or 13 years old. Many, many short stories. Some terrible poetry. A few journal-like entries.

I didn't take time to read them word for word. That's for another Sunday afternoon.

But what struck me as I sorted everything is that I knew from the time I was 10 years old I wanted to write and I stuck with it.

I was a horrible writer back then. Horrible. But I sure had an imagination and a dream.

And I had people who encouraged me: family, teachers, community members. The proof of that encouragement is in the cards, notes and edit remarks on some of my work.

As I scanned through the papers, I was taken back to a time when a little girl from Appalachia was convinced she would be the next John Boy Walton. I remembered sequestering myself in my room with those legal pads and a fountain pen, praying the cartridge would last until I finished the story.

I reflected on "writing what you know" and now realize I knew nothing but I continued to put pen to paper anyway.

I'm so thankful I didn't give up on a dream and even more thankful that I had parents who supported the whims of a child because they believed in her.

I'm especially thankful that my son saved those tubs for me, despite me saying no, no, no.

Those early writings are me – the real me – when life was simple and before I became jaded.

Those stories detail love, family, hope and ambition all through the eyes of a naive child who cared about nothing except sharing her imagination with others.

Over the next several weeks, I plan to read every single word of those writings – if I can stomach them.

In them, I will find myself once again – especially the parts that have been missing.

It will be an interesting journey.

Oh, and by the way: I do have my teapot and letter jacket. Guess what. It still fits!