HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: If you play bridge, you know James Montgomery Jackson--he's an expert who's written an acclaimed book about the game. If you're a Guppy, you know James Montgomery Jackson--he's the Guppy Website liaison. If you like mystery authors, you'll soon know James Montgomery Jackson--his BAD POLICY (which is really really good) will be out in early 2013.
But right now Jim is handling another part of his life. And he has a question for you. About
MEMORIES AND THINGS
by Jim Jackson
My father passed away mid-September. He had a good life spanning 87+years. I’m thankful that as deaths go, his was not too bad. He left us our memories and his stuff. I’ve been helping my mother understand her changed finances and figuring out what to do with Dad’s possessions.
Some things were easy: Clothes went to a men’s shelter; scores of railroad books went to the local railway historical society. Since I have the room, the family history and genealogy records came to me for safe keeping.
What my father chose to keep had twice gone through a winnowing process. My parents had already downsized, first moving from the house my sisters and I grew up in to a smaller condo. More recently they moved to a two-bedroom independent-living apartment. The hundreds and hundreds of books Dad owned were reduced to those he was using for research on a book about the Erie Railroad he had recently finished, a rotating group of new acquisitions, reference books and those with family history attached. In recent years Dad sold some of his collections on eBay, converting former passions and memories to cash.
Sometimes it takes me three blows to the head before something sinks in.
The process of sifting through Dad’s stuff got me thinking (third whack) about what each of us values as evidenced by what we keep. This is personally tough for me (and why I need multiple wake-up calls).
I come from good New England stock—you know, the kind of people who build an addition to the family barn to store the current generation’s excess. Our two rules to live by are “never invade the principal,” (i.e. live off the interest and dividends, not the principal), and “don’t throw anything out because you never know when you’ll need it.”
In 1993 I had to move to Cincinnati for a new job before my house in New Jersey sold. I moved only a few things: kitchen necessities, a table and chairs, a reel-to-reel tape player for music, a bookcase with favorite books and a sleeping pad and bag. For exercise I brought my road bike. I was very happy for the year I lived that minimalist living style. But as soon as my house sold, I bought a large Victorian near the University and brought everything I owned from New Jersey. I even had room for more stuff.
My protagonist in Bad Policy (Barking Rain Press, 3/1/2013 publication), Seamus McCree, is a financial guy. Although he grew up in Boston, he was common-man Southie, not blue-blood Brahmin. He recognizes that not invading the principal is an artificial constraint only the very rich can afford. However, he has not faced the necessity of downsizing, so when his Cincinnati house is partially destroyed he loses all his possessions. The bad guys were responsible in his case, but the how and why don’t really matter. Thousands just lost their homes due to Hurricane Sandy, and thousands before have lost theirs to other hurricanes or tornadoes or floods.
As an author, what interests me is how each individual responds to his personal disaster. What do they most miss?
I had a boss whose house burned to the ground. He told me he most regretted losing his family pictures. That resonates with me. Pictures are triggers to my memory. With them I can recall vast swaths of my life; without them, I remember very little. I do not claim this as a virtue; in fact I see it as a flaw that I need pictures as a crutch. I shared my flaw with Seamus.
Today it appears that many, many Americans are like my New England ancestors: unwilling to dispose of any possession, regardless of its current usefulness. Off-site storage areas have sprouted throughout the country like mushrooms the year after loggers clear-cut a hardwood forest. Our American creed is apparently that rather than make a decision about what possessions we can pass on to new owners to appreciate, we’ll pay monthly fees to store our excesses. Most of what we store we do not really value. Our children hope we dispose of them before we die.
What interests me is which possessions we most want to hold on to and why we make the choices we do. I have the hardest time throwing away any book—even those I think are poorly written and boring. Only after I retired did I pitch most of my college text books.
Yet, like my boss of thirty years ago and my protagonist Seamus McCree, I would gladly give up every book I own for access to my pictures.
With digitizing and cloud storage, I should be able to safeguard those memories—but I have left them at risk. As I write this I am feeling the vibrations of the bell tolling in my head for the third time. When I quiet the ringing, I sing to myself Paul Simon’s song, “Old Friends” from the Bookends album. The closing stanza reads:
We’ve all probably played around with those hypothetical questions about which books (songs, historical people, whatever) you would take with you to the mythical island where you’ll be isolated until rescue. Instead, fast forward your life to when you are (say) 93 and have to live in a single room. What do you choose to keep with you? What are you doing to protect that now?
For me it’s photographs, and I’ve set myself the task to digitize and secure them as quickly as I can.