Finding Alice

What I Can't Help But Say

In the Chronicle a month ago, Connie Schultz wrote a column about what five things she would grab if she had to flee her home. I hadn’t thought about it since 1991, when several friends lost everything in the East Bay Firestorm.

I remember taking a box of spare mixing bowls and cookbooks to a young single friend who lost her condo next to the Caldecott Tunnel. When I got home, I filled the empty box with family photo albums and put it by the front door of our Burbank Street bungalow.  After months of tripping over it I realized I couldn’t live day-to-day life in flight mode.

             When Sarah was home the other night, I told her about it. “If I packed a ‘grab’ box today,” I said, “I don’t think I would pack albums. I have digital pictures so losing an album would be sad, but not as devastating as it would have been back then.” We stared into the fire for a few minutes, each of us thinking about things we would put in a ‘grab’ box.

Our house is full of precious things. (Now, don’t go hiring someone to case the joint because my definition of ‘precious’ might differ from yours.) I have collections of petrified sand dollars, battered boat models, rusty vintage coffee cans, and countless Emily masterpieces from preschool on up. There’s a treasured yardstick stamped with the name of my grandfather’s wholesale paper company, and I could host tea for more women than our house could hold and serve each one from a delicate porcelain cup.

In the years following my mother’s death when the girls were little, one of them dropped a teacup, and I cried. “That belonged to your grandmother!” Seeing shards scattered across the hardwood floor felt like losing her all over again.

Something else broke a week or so later, and a third something days after that. From another room, I heard a very young Emily say to Sarah, “Uh oh… Was it Grandma’s?” Both girls were wide-eyed and heading toward tears. As I swept the pieces into the dustpan, I told them it was no big deal.

Things break. I made my daughters paranoid by overreacting to something as insignificant as broken china. In that moment, I realized my mother is gone and a teacup is just a teacup. Having it safe in a cupboard won’t bring her back, and I don’t lose her again if it breaks.

So I won’t grab the teacups if I flee.

            As we sat comparing thoughts (assuming that all the loved ones – two legged or four – were fully capable of unassisted fleeing) I realized the things that matter most to me are memories.

            “Sarah! What if it’s not objects, but memories? What if someone was stealing your memories and you could only save five?”

            She started with our trip to Hawaii years ago – thatched huts, bug-eating geckos in the rafters and stingrays flying through a dark blue cove under the moon. She said another favorite was her first date with Graeme, her true love. He took her wine tasting in the Napa Valley. (He knows people. From first hand experience, I can say it’s pretty cool…) They rode bikes through the vineyards, bought sandwiches from the Oakville Grocery, hung out at a local biker’s bar, and then biked back across the highway as the sun went down. The day went so well that he invited her to stay for dinner.

He said, “I need to warn you first – my family is here.” (Graeme lives in a caretaker’s cottage on his grandmother’s vineyard. On their first date, Sarah met not only Graeme’s doting grandmother, but his mother, aunts and an uncle to boot.) The good news is that it went swimmingly, and their evening ended under a starry Napa Valley sky.

I told Sarah she reminded me of my first date with her father, sitting in the weathered bleachers at an Oakland A’s game. I still remember the coarse cream-colored wool of his fisherman knit sweater as we sat beneath a plaid blanket drinking cheap red wine from a hand-me-down thermos. Not Napa Valley, but definitely romantic…

At this point, Si came into the living room to join us and put his arm around Sarah’s shoulders. He said, “I remember the day you were born. I walked out the doors of Alta Bates Hospital into the sunshine on Ashby Avenue, knowing I had just witnessed a miracle. I couldn’t believe that all the other people at that intersection were going about their days as if nothing extraordinary had happened. I couldn’t believe it! Still can’t…”

            My husband trumped me. I’ll have to spend more time on my memory list. It’s good that I plan to store family memories in virtual “grab” boxes. I won’t limit myself to just five. And when that thief comes to steal my best ones, at least our girls, and their girls, and theirs, will have a spare set stored in a cloud somewhere, to reread long after I’m gone.

            Want to know the best thing about inherited memories? They’re unbreakable.


7 thoughts on “The Grab Box

  1. And just think, Alice, while we are still on the planet, we continue to create memories that are potential candidates for that grab bag! (I’m big on doing that; buying stuff, not so much.)

    Thank you for reminding me what’s truly important in life!

    – Keith

  2. Jaan Kathleen says:

    This is lovely. I have a memory of us drinking tea at Julie’s… let’s make another one soon! ^_^

  3. Si Lewis says:

    Your article is now a treasure to me.

  4. Chris Bailey says:

    LOVE this!!

    Sent from my iPhone

  5. Alice, this is beautiful. You reminded me that its the memories that live on and make me want to create more.

  6. Kathleen C. Woulfe says:

    Simply beautiful. You know that this will be our family’s discussion:)


  7. Leslie Walsh says:

    Alice, only you can capture poetry so perfectly in your prose. A poet’s job is to produce feeling — you’ve produced another masterpiece. Keep up the artistry.

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