I shift a pile of books on my desk, and dozens of slips of paper shower to the floor. They’re wrinkled and torn, some no larger than one square inch, each decorated in my dad’s shaky cursive—noting an idea, a page number, the name of a theologian long dead.
My dad threw away nothing. His home office was uninhabitable, full of faculty meeting agendas from the 70s; sixty years of tax returns; yellowed articles about canning tomatoes and pruning apple trees; tattered lecture notes for every class he ever taught; a lifetime of letters from his mother.
During his final year, I pressed him to go through boxes—“What do you want to keep?”—and he would grow quiet, brow furrowed. I scolded him as I sat on his living room floor, sorting bag after bag of junk mail. “Why don’t you just throw these away?”
Going through his things, I sometimes discovered a treasure: the letter written to his congressmen when he was twelve years old, imploring them to help the people of Finland and China; the curled black and white photos of him at eighteen on a San Diego pier in his Navy uniform; notebooks from his first year at Yale, thanks to the GI Bill. Each provided a glimpse into an earlier version of my dad, before I knew him.
But why keep the departmental minutes from 1982? The dozens of church bulletins? The wrapping paper scraps and flyers from neighborhood handymen he never hired?
Now that Dad is gone, it’s up to me to parse what has value and what does not. But now, of course, everything holds more value than it did before—each item or paper or Post-It note a tether back to him.
So, I have become a curator of his things: the faded red tape dispenser and the heavy lead stapler that sit on my desk; his unfinished manuscript, which I emailed to myself for safekeeping; hundreds of his notated books that populate my shelves; his Martin Luther bobblehead perched on my dining room window sill; his prize tangerine tree, which I carefully rotate into the sun. And those many slips of paper decorated in his shaky scrawl—the physical manifestation of his mind at work—those I hold in my open palm like wilted blossoms so that they, too, are not lost to me.
Kate Hopper is a writer, editor, writing coach, and the founder of Motherhood & Words®. She is the author of Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers, Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood, winner of a Midwest Independent Publishing Award, and she’s co-author of Silent Running, a memoir of one family’s journey with autism and running. Her writing has appeared in a number of journals, including Brevity, Creative Nonfiction’s True Story, Longreads, Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times online, Poets & Writers, and River Teeth. Kate has taught creative writing for over 20 years, and lives in Minneapolis with her family. For more information about her work visit www.katehopper.com.