Anyone who's cleaned out the house of a departed parent has come to the conviction that everyone has too much stuff. You resolve to go home and reduce your wardrobe to one hair shirt, get rid of all your books and make do with one plate and a spork.
My late dad's house was not overstuffed, and he wasn't a sentimental hoarder. The shelves aren't crowded with a hundred dusty Hummels. I've found more bullets than keepsakes. But the other day I was cleaning out a drawer, and I hit that point that stops you cold.
Why, it's a tooth.
In a box.
It's not a baby tooth, because I don't think they give them gold fillings. It could be from a long-gone relative, and this is the only portion of them that remains above the ground. Perhaps its existence in a box in a drawer in a closet was something that kept them from passing beyond to their reward, like a sweater sleeve snagged on a hook. If I get rid of it, they're free. On the other hand, it has gold.
What can I do with a dental filling? I could rephrase it in that "drunken sailor" song meter: "Oh, what can I do with a dental filling, earl-y in the morning?" The answer — "Lord God, we've got to drown him" — seems a bit severe. You'd think "put him in the bunk and let him sleep it off" would be the first reply, but no, there we were in summer Bible camp by the fire, lustily calling for an intoxicated sailor to be drowned. Never even considered if he was drunk because it was his day off. Was that their answer for everything?
I tried a Google search for "dental gold resales." This woolgathering consumed seven minutes, and so far I had cleaned the room of exactly one tooth. I figured that I had better put the tooth aside and move on.
That led to finding things that cannot be thrown away. There's a bracelet with my dad's name on it, and I remember a long, long time ago he told me he wore that when he was in the Navy. For the first time I saw that inside the bracelet, always facing his wrist, was my mother's name. His best girl, then.
It goes in an envelope with a note describing who wore it and why. In the box are other survivors from the generations: a butter knife that has an initial of my grandmother's maiden name, the only object I have from that family. There's a picture of Grandma's father, taken before he lit out for North Dakota to break the sod. It's accompanied by his ticket to a GOP convention held in 1896 in Minneapolis. Every time I see it, I try to imagine what it was like to walk the streets, enter the raucous hall with its boiling fog of sweat and cigar smoke.
These objects eventually will pass to Daughter. She will be cursed to bear them forward another generation, until they finally slip from the family grasp, perhaps have a few years in an antique store with the other heirlooms sundered from their meaning. Then, I suspect, they disappear, somehow. Every 12th night, a small object on the shelf just winks out of existence.
At least she'll always have scans of the family portraits. It's easy to assemble visual records, and as long as you don't lose the thumb drive, or forget to pay the cloud-storage fee, or the medium becomes obsolete, they're eternal. Generations from now, your descendants will call up the pictures and say, "Yep, there's my great-great grandfather, good ol' IMG_9322923.jpg."
My dad kept a box that used to hold the Dreaded Slide Projector. When company came over, Dad would get out the screen — a strange silvery thing that seemed to be made of sparkly rolled-up dolphin skin — and everyone would sit through a slide show. Chank-chink. "Here we are fishing." Chank-chink. "Here's another shot of fishing." Chank-chink. "Here's Hank, fishing."
The projector is gone, but he kept the box. It's sturdy, with a latch and a handle. Perfect for the repository of stuff being handed down to the next generation. It doesn't take up much room, and it limits the amount of mementos you can save.
The Realtor who's selling the house advised that it be "depersonalized" because no buyer wants reminders of the previous occupants hanging around like sullen ghosts. I think he gestured at the clock on the wall. It's nothing special, but it calls out the hours in the voices of the birds of the North Dakota prairie, a place my dad loved to go. (To shoot them, but we'll leave that aside for the moment.) Ever since he's been gone, I've thought, now and then, of the birds crying in the empty house.
I'd record the sounds and put them on a flash drive and put it in the Kodak box, but someone two generations hence might wonder why these bird calls matter. Some things you can't explain. Some things don't belong in the box. Some things, once gone, are gone for good.
Note: By "some things," we mean "all."