I had kind of prepared this piece earlier this year as a take on spring cleaning but that season kind of came and went. I worked up something about the parallels to Passover and the ritual cleaning of a Jewish home prior to the holiday. I brought in for flavor the Iranian Nowruz, or new year, which is said to include traditional ‘shaking’ of the house. For those of us in the snowbelt, it might go back to the days when winter fireplaces, oil furnaces and poor ventilation left a coat of soot and dust on everything.
But I missed that deadline and the point of the original piece was to mark the 25th passing of my sister Marjorie and the problem of doing something with her personal effects which have kind of haunted my home for a long time. I kept a fair whack of her mementos, some of which she had kept since childhood. She was a bit of a packrat but a very organized one at that. A lot of her more prized possessions were displayed in an old fashioned standing etagere. which I brought back to Toronto from Los Angeles and set out in the house as a shrine of sorts to her. A few years in, however, the idea, if not the display, itself got a little dusty, if not a little too Madame Tussaud’s, and I packed it all up and put it in storage.
This past year I decided to clean up the unit and pulled out her stuff which included a nifty Beatle display that was official, some old GI Joe dolls, and a bunch of other stuff which was important to her….but not to me. I sold off the GI Joe dolls and PeeWee Herman talking doll to a nice kid on the spectrum who came with her mother from about an hour away to pick it up. I am using the money for donations. I found an old undeveloped roll of film that I sent out and actually got back. The shots go back fifty years and were nothing really more than her and a school friend wandering a long lost Toronto, taking shots of the lonely cold streets of yore. Those I am keeping along with a framed cocktail napkin from the old Eden Roc Hotel in Miami Beach in 1966 on which one Bob Kane sketched a couple of his best comic book characters with an inscription to us and a signature. If you can’t figure out who the superheroes are then please stop reading. Thanks to my late mother for that one.
What I do know is that I can’t hang on to what’s left. I know what I have to do. It will be painful but perhaps a little liberating, like when Tom Cruise tossed the dog tags of his dead bestie and co-pilot Goose into the ocean at the end of Top Gun. He let ‘Goose’ go. I have to let Marjorie go, at least physically. There’s other ways to visit with her without invading her privacy.
Yes the notion of privacy came up in a more current sense sometime later in the summer as I had, on more than one occasion, done an email search and come up with correspondence from contacts and friends that are no longer with me but are now ‘Ghosts In The Machine’. I’m talking about those that didn’t leave me any physical detritus but instead digital legacies that are in my possession but in a different form than the letters my sister kept in an old hat box. You have some too I imagine. I know, I have been way too morbid lately and I promise that the next installment will run wild through my crazy sex life. Seriously though, I have given this a lot of thought. We are about 25 years into the email age, more or less, and, well, though their names and addresses are held firm in your directory and history, all of us have lost a couple of contacts along the way. I recently came across an email of four-plus years ago from my friend Michael Turk who politely declined an invitation to my seder. He passed away less than a year later. I deleted the email. I purposely looked up an email from the late wife of a dear friend who joked that the picture I sent her from a day on my boat was a little too revealing, joking that she felt like Elaine in the Seinfeld episode with “the nipple”. I let that one go too. And there’s more.
There isn’t a shit ton of ecumenical or scholarship available in this area of ethical guidance but what are we going to do with our truly dead emails? (I’m not talking about the ‘dead to me’ variety. Those people need to be flushed on a whole different level.)
Personally I find it somewhat ghoulish that our email histories are littered – and will be even more so in the future – with what could very well be interpreted as active conversations with the dead. There’s my former senior Vice-President of Anger Management’s cousin in there somewhere talking about some creative work. A bighearted friend named Irwin Igra talking to me about some golf and then my ex-wife Lisa offering me some condolences when Igra died suddenly eight years ago. I deleted all of it.
Maybe it’s because the letters and the words are still immortal in a sense, oscillating on the screen in imperceptible frequencies. No different in look than the dreck that comes into the Inbox every day. Maybe its because a keyword search will bring one of these up in the same trawler net as an exchange you are having right now. And they surprise you and sadden you and you are unprepared for the sudden onset of regret in not answering a couple of them and the sense of loss that returns on every sad anniversary. Do we need that? I don’t think so.
Look at me. I can’t let all the communication from my late former wife go. It’s been over three years yet I don’t have the strength right now to send Lisa’s fonts to eternity. I know its self-flagellation but I can’t quite hurl the dog tags as it were.
And then there’s the privacy issues. I know that Marjorie’s letters are socked away in only one format – paper. I don’t need some hacker unearthing an uglyish email argument I was having with Lisa when we split up.
As a side note, this extends to the social media accounts of the deceased. Especially on LinkedIn. Don’t know how many times I get, “Howard Lapides is celebrating twenty five years at Howard Lapides Entertainment,” No he is not. “Congratulate Jerry Seltzer on nine years at Brown Paper Tickets.” No, I cannot. To the loved ones bequeathed the passwords, please let your fallen rest.
Am I making any sense here? I think so because just letting this kind of karma pile up in our inbox is a not too distant cousin of that old aunt that has every issue of the Saturday Evening Post collected in a 500 square foot studio apartment. There’s no reason for it. However, because it’s not physically intrusive and we have more digital storage capacity then we will ever need it doesn’t seem like we are hoarding. Yes, it’s an existential crisis as they say. Or something like living in our own megabatty 1313 Mockingbird Lane. Not going to explain that reference. If you don’t get it, as I have said before, please stop reading this.
So think of spending some time before the new year in your inbox. Free up some space on your drive and in your soul. I guarantee you will feel better. And for those emails that you want to keep, try this: Copy and paste your most cherished emails onto Google Docs or whatever writing software you have. Fix it up in a font that might have suited the personalities of those that have passed. Lay it all out in the shape of a personal letter and then print it out. You might even go to the trouble of signing it. Now you have something worth keeping. For your eyes only.
As for Marjorie, I will keep the correspondence between myself and my sister. My Fusilli Jerry too. And that note from Bob Kane. If you know anyone who wants a set of Lucy, Ethel, Fred and Ricky dolls please get in touch with me.