I never knew the person my mother used to be until I found the box. It was tucked away in the far corner of the attic, a flimsy cardboard box covered in forty years worth of dust. I hadn’t planned to rummage through it, but after she died and the house sold, well — part of moving out is digging up old memories. Pulling it out from the corner, I opened it without thinking and found a life’s worth of experiences nestled inside.
It was a box of old Polaroids and old postcards, the edges yellowed from age and oxidation. The ink had faded, too, but I could make everything out easily enough. Paris, London, even Tokyo. The postcards were from everywhere, and nestled in the square white frame of the instant film photo paper was a woman I recognized.
“Judy,” I called down from the attic. “Come up here a minute.”
Footsteps tapped against the ladder as my wife clambered into the attic. She stopped at the topmost rung.
“What is it?”
“Come look at this.”
“Darren, we don’t really have time. The movers will be here in a minute, and—”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “But look.”
I heard her sigh before she hauled herself onto the rickety boards and crossed to me. I’d pulled the box out into the open and sat crosslegged beside the box as I turned each fragment of a memory over in my hand. Judy stepped up beside me, snatched a photo from the box and squinted at it. I looked up in time to watch the recognition wash across her face.
“Is that . . . your mother?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“When the hell was she in Paris?”
“Look on the back.”
“Paris, 1982,” she read. “Huh. Did you know anything about this?”
I shook my head. My mother was the definition of stoicism on her best day. She’d been strict in her interpretation of parenting, but she’d treated it like a watershed moment in her life. During my youth — even in my teenage years — she never talked about her life before me or my brother.
“It’s like she lived an entirely different life,” I muttered.
The doorbell rang before my wife could reply. She set the photo back in the box and started for the ladder.
“That’s the movers,” she said. “Bring the box and come on. We can look through it at home.”
I nodded — but I had it in my mind to do more than that.
It was a full week before I got to look at the box again. Between moving my mother’s items into storage and checking the other boxes for any valuable, precious, or perishable items, Judy and I barely had time to live our own lives while sifting through the remains of hers. Friday night, after a long workweek, Judy and I settled down in my office with that box, a beer, and a foldout table from our basement.
There, into the early hours of the morning, we dissected my mother’s life by time, date, and place as we tried to better understand the woman who raised me. Judy would look at a photograph, note the timestamp, location, and people in the photo. I’d type it into a spreadsheet categorically by column and move onto the next image.
It was just after midnight when Judy stopped me.
“Why are we doing this?” she asked.
“Aren’t you curious? You know how my mother was.”
“Yeah,” Judy said, sipping at her beer. “She was kind of a bitch.”
That was true enough, and I didn’t argue. Mother never liked Judy, and there was no love lost there. After ten years of marriage, you’d think she would finally come around. Instead, mother had treated ever encounter like the first round of a boxing match and kept flinging underhanded jabs and wild insults to see if she could scare Judy off. I don’t doubt that she went to her grave thinking she had Judy on the ropes.
“Yeah, but what makes a person do that?” I said. “I mean, look at these photographs. She’s smiling, having a good time, seeing the world. How does she go from this”— I gestured to the box —“to the woman who raised me to keep my nose to the grindstone and my head out of the clouds?”
Judy shrugged. “Maybe the answer isn’t in this box. Maybe the answer is . . . you.”
I looked up at her. “What do you mean?”
“Well, think about it. She’s doing all these things, having all this fun, and then she gets pregnant. Right? So now, instead of leading a carefree lifestyle and globetrotting around the world, she has to buckle down and get a job, support you and your brother. Maybe she was bitter.”
“You think that’s what happened?”
Judy shrugged. “I don’t know. But it would make sense.”
The truth came out half a month later, after I finished sorting through the box and checked the spreadsheet data against the timeline of my birth. Judy was right. About ten months before my birthday, my mother came home from Moscow. It was the last trip abroad she ever made. The photos from that time show a young woman with somber eyes and slumped shoulders clinging friends into tight embraces as though she’ll never see them again.
I don’t know that she ever did. I’ve never met some of the young men and women in those photographs with her. They’d be older now, anyhow.
“Don’t take it personally,” Judy said when I told her what I’d found and how the timelines match up. “She’s not the only one who treats life like a series of boxes.”
“Boxes?” I asked.
“Yeah. Your mother put her old life in one box and left it behind when she moved on. People do that, sometimes. My dad did it after the divorce.”
I frowned. “Doesn’t seem right.”
At that, she kissed me on the cheek and smiled. “Never did to me, either.”