paper trail

by bam

tucked in the spine of m.f.k. fisher i find scribblings for how to make brisket. bedded down in virginia woolf i find a love heart once ripped from a reporter’s note pad and wedged onto my windshield. the biography of dorothy day, for some reason, contains a motherlode: a check, uncashed, from long long ago; a construction paper anniversary card, now faded along the edge that peeked from the pages; the fresh-faced first-grade school picture of my firstborn; and jottings that tell the tale of a heartbreak borne long long ago.

apparently, i leave my life scattered in bits, buried in bindings, waiting to be exhumed at the flip of a page.

it is the paper trail of my heart. the dots unconnected. the ephemera of a life recorded in scribbles.

i never know what i’ll unearth, or when i’ll stumble upon, say, the train schedule that captured the breathtaking quote my little one spewed about his new jersey grandpa as we rumbled home in the amtrak sleeper in the fall of ’98.
or, sorry about this, the surgical photos documenting the removal of the womb that carried my children, two born, three heartbreakingly not.

each scribble is a passage, a dispatch, that matters. whatever it is that i jotted, it moved me deeply enough that i grabbed for a pen and put pulse to paper. whatever i’ve tucked in the folds of a book is something i can’t bear to lose. even when it hurts.

maybe it’s because i write for a living. but really, i think, i write to keep breathing. if i put it in ink, some brain cell tells me, i hold onto this moment, this thought, this jumble of words in ways that otherwise would not hold. life slips away, i have learned. what’s once in your fingers is gone.

so i scribble. i tuck. i leave paper crumbs. i save the story in snippets.

one christmas, long long ago, i wrote a letter to my whole family. one of my early opuses. poured out my heart. my father, an irishman who kept feelings furled, said only this: “you have a real sense of history.”

that was the last letter i wrote to my father; ended up being the letter they read at his funeral. my father, as always, was right (though i did not understand at the time): i do have an eye locked on history. i do watch it unfold. it’s almost as if one eye lives in the present, the other dwells in the future when what’s now will be the past.

were it not for the notes that i scribble, i would not however know this:

that on september 26, 1997, when my now big boy was just four, he said this: “mommy, i have to tell you a little lesson. when you get a little huffy, you need to calm down. that’s what daddy’s talking about when he says, ‘freddy, calm down.’ you could say sweetly, ‘willie, i’m feeling huffy. could you go out of the room for a little while?’ because when you’re huffy, i say, what the heck. why is mommy huffy? did i not clean my room or something? it makes me feel like i live in a house with no friends.”

or, how on october 4, 1999, an autumn when the first-grade playground for him was a very lonely place, he said: “my heart is open but no one wants to come in.”

or, how after saying prayers on the night of january 19, 2000, he looked up and said: “God must love it at night. i bet he waits all day for it to be night to hear beautiful music.”

i think, given the scribbles, given the puzzle they’ll all put together, i’ll never give up writing my story in torn bits of paper, tucked in the hushed resting places that wait on the shelves of my heart.

do you keep your story in scribbles? do you go digging for how to make chocolate fudge cake, only to find a phone number from long long ago? do the bits that you tuck in your books, or your pockets, leap out and replay some story long past?