I find myself, at 72 years of age, in my family room surrounded by lots of keepsakes and the memories attached to them — concert tickets, newspaper clippings, pictures galore. I have containers: a clear plastic tub for keeping things, a cardboard box for recycling, a wastebasket for what can’t be recycled.
I know from reading decluttering books that joy should be filling my family room.
My husband brings out yet another clear plastic tub. It’s been 20 years since I’ve looked inside this one.
The musty smell overwhelms me as I open it. I pick up a package — two books about friendship tied together — Joan Walsh Anglund’s A Friend Is Someone Who Likes You and a Hallmark Friendship Keepsake, both inscribed to me by “Kathy” in 1966. We must have done something special over a weekend, as her inscription noted “a great weekend” and a wish that we “stay very best of friends.” She signs it, “Your story book friend.”
In a flash, I remember her dorm room down the hall from mine where we frequently talked into the night.
Kathy Meiher lived on my dorm floor during my first year at Southern Illinois University. She transferred to another school the following year and was on her way back home from a visit to those of us who were dorm mates when she was killed in her car, which failed to stop in bad weather. It slid under the rear of a truck.
I would have never remembered her last name were it not for the Carlinville newspaper clipping, which I had placed inside one of the books. It describes her death, how it happened. There is a note to me from her mother: “Kathy spoke so fondly of you. I hope that we can meet some day.” We never did.
Now, a mother of young adults, I know that her pain must have been excruciating.
Her death was the first among my peers. My reactions come back to me in a flash — the disbelief, the sadness, the meaninglessness of it all. The memory of that despair is set against her recording of the warmth of our friendship in these small books.
Who is the “I” that kept these books and papers for over 50 years? Perhaps my 19-year-old self saved them as a way to bind up the shock of her death and in doing so kept it from overcoming me with the realization of my own mortality. In untying the package all these years later, I process her death more fully. I realize that she is still telling me that I knew how to be a good friend and that I need to hear that, even now.
Something deep inside me feels healed.
I could keep these documents, for myself, to review again at some later date or for my children and grandchildren as evidence of my ability to be a friend. In the midst of other papers, though, it might burden them.
I have what I need.
I pay homage to my storybook friend in a ceremony. I say her name out loud, telling her that she has remained my lifetime friend. I thank her for continuing to teach me about friendship and love, which I now have inside me, and I gently place the package, books and all, in the cardboard box.