First My Husband Left, Then My Stuff

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Three years after my divorce, I gave my youngest daughter my wedding shoes. They fit perfectly, their pale blue leather straps showcasing the arch of her foot and their three-inch heels elevating her elfin grace. Once upon a time, I slipped these shoes from my feet and dug my toes into the sheepskin rug of a vintage car that drove me to a registry office in England.

It was July, and the roses were magnificent.

These shoes have been sitting in a storage locker for years, and they would probably still be there if I hadn’t listened to a radio show about Swedish death cleaning that told me my life could be lived more lightly if I were to let things go.

I want that, a lighter life. Some days the weight of my sorrow bends my back and threatens to break my shoulders.

When my oldest daughter, on break from serving as a reservist in the army, visited our home in Vermont, I announced that we would empty the storage locker together. I thought it would be a visible sign of my healing, demonstrate that I was moving forward with my life. I envisaged an act of military precision. But I couldn’t find the key.

“Happens all the time,” said the woman at the storage facility who answered my call. “My husband charges $25 to cut locks. Cash.”

Twenty-five dollars isn’t much, but it was more than I was willing to pay. My marriage had cost me too much already.

I rummaged through every drawer, unearthed packets of seeds I had never planted, rifled through vouchers for items I had never bought, leafed through recipes for meals I had never made. The key finally turned up among a pile of credit card receipts in the top drawer of my desk.

We drove along back roads to the storage unit, my daughter and I, on one of those perfect New England spring mornings when it seems the bleak monotony of winter might be forgotten. I was grinning when I opened the storage locker’s door, then sadness resettled like dust.

Three and a half years earlier, after an unhappy stint in rehab, my ex-husband decided he would rather live alone than return to the family home. Unable to afford our large house on the mountain by myself, I gave away what I could, kept what we needed, found a smaller house and filled this storage locker.

It took four trips in my daughter’s truck to transport 25 years of my life from there to my living room.

My ex-husband and I met in the early 1990s when we were philosophy students in the north of England. We read Aristotelian ethics, Cartesian metaphysics and the bleak existential visions of Nietzsche. If you were to open any of these books, you would see the annotations he once made in pencil, the shape of his handwriting as familiar to me as his body.

Leafing through the books’ pages felt to me like watching him deep in conversation with ideas I have forgotten. We used to take these books to the park with a bottle of wine, each caught in communion with the words on the page, our feet silently touching.

“What do you want to do with all these books?” my oldest daughter asked.

“Put them in a box and write ‘Goodwill’ on the side,” I said.

The next box I opened was not filled with books.

At my ex-husband’s 21st birthday party, his mother presented him with a bronze statue of Rodin’s “Thinker,” an apt gift for the philosopher son. I was sitting alongside him, watching in wonder as he casually placed the statue among the silver candlesticks, polished cutlery and crystal wineglasses. I come from a northern blue-collar household in a town where the steelworks closed down when I was small; my ex-husband grew up in the kind of affluence I had only read about in novels.

After he left me, I swaddled the statue in a comforter taken from our bed and gave it a box of its own. While my daughter sorted through the things from storage, I inhaled the statue’s wrappings. I wanted to find a scrap of scent to remind me of him, but when I pressed the cloth to my face, it smelled of old hymnals and prayers I no longer believed in.

I put the Thinker on the mantel and turned his face to the wall.

“He can sit there and wait for your father to claim him,” I told my daughter, and then I stuffed the bedding into a trash bag and, disliking the label “comforter” for something that connotes only loss, wrote the English alternative — “continental quilt” — on the bag’s side and asked my daughter to drop it off at the local animal shelter.

We married when I was 25. For our wedding present, my grandmother gave us a beautiful bathroom cabinet made from English oak. My ex and I must have shared a thousand glances in its mirror as we brushed our teeth or combed our hair or readied ourselves for an evening out. He used to smile when he saw me looking at him.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a smile on my ex’s face, and it’s been a long time since I looked at my own reflection and saw anything but sadness in my eyes. I don’t want to see the person I have become in a mirror I used to have, so I texted a friend, who said he would love to pick up the bathroom cabinet the next day.

When my youngest daughter arrived home from school, I showed my daughters where they used to chew the wooden sides of their cot when they were teething.

“You can’t throw that away,” my youngest daughter said. “I want it for when I have children.”

We manhandled it into the attic and covered it in a blanket.

I don’t yet know how my ex and I will navigate our daughters’ futures, how we will sit near each other for wedding services, how we’ll become grandparents together. We have caused each other so much damage, I don’t know if there is anything left to heal.

While my daughters drove boxes to Goodwill, I opened the old suitcase in the corner. The English government gave this case to my grandfather in 1945 after he had spent three years in a prison camp. Years later, my father gave me the case when I left home at 16 and, since then, it’s where I’ve kept my treasures.

Because the brass hasps no longer fasten, an old leather belt holds it shut. I wrestled open the buckle and started to cry. My orange stuffed dog lay at the top. He lost one of his eyes when I was young, but my grandmother stitched a new one from white and dark thread. I don’t love him any less because his eyes don’t match.

Beneath him was the tiny cotton romper our oldest daughter wore on the night of her birth, then envelopes filled with the letters my grandparents once wrote to me and albums of old photographs taken on English streets, which look foreign to me now.

My wedding shoes were wrapped in the blue floral shirt that the man who would become my best friend, then my lover, then my husband, then my ex-husband had been wearing the night we met. I remember the touch of his hand on the small of my back, the candlelight throwing shadows over the ocean green of his eyes, and the white tremble of his throat as he swallowed red wine.

I don’t know where death cleaners would recommend a 50-year-old woman put a shirt like this. It’s too old to wear, too worn to be donated to a thrift store. Although I carried it to the trash can, I couldn’t bear to throw it inside.

After taking the shoes out of the case, I put the shirt back in and buckled the belt as tight as it would go. Losing my memories of how precious things once were is among my greatest fears: Even surrounded with so much we used to share, I can’t stanch the forgetting.

Those shoes, though! I gave them to my youngest daughter at breakfast the next day, and she yelled out with joy. She is planning to wear them this summer at camp. I imagine her dancing late into the evening and then wandering down to the lake in the midsummer gloaming. She’ll stand at the edge of the water with the fireflies flickering and my wedding shoes held loosely in one hand, conjuring a life filled with all the things it will take her years to realize she doesn’t really need to carry.

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