The attic is almost empty. I've been working on it for several days now, and that's after last year's cleaning. We're down to the old pieces of linoleum covering the bare floorboards; the accumulated dust of more than a century, in some corners; the overturned mousetraps and bat droppings beneath the chimney.
Yesterday I put on headphones and listened to all of Mahler's 2nd symphony while I worked, sitting down on the top step of the stairs to listen to the final, choral movement and rest from the heat and humidity. Today, after thunderstorms, it was cool and I finished nearly everything, lugging boxes of old ceramics and metal to be recycled, tearing the covers off unusable hardback books. At the end, there was just a pile of boxes and cases that J. needed to go through, but when I asked him about them, he said, "What that?" pointing to a small brown briefcase I didn't recognize. "That's yours, I think."
"Really?" I said, and went over to get it, shaking off the dust and blown-in insulation from the tarnished clasps. We opened it, and saw a stack of notebooks beside a tied bunch of letters. "Clearly yours," he said, and passed it over to me. For the next hour I sat and read through the notebooks - all from courses my junior and senior years in college - and the letters, all from old boyfriends, one of whom I almost married. The letters were poignant, and painful to re-read, but even more so were the carbon copies of letters I'd typed on my old manual Olivetti as I tried to figure out what to do with my life.
Who was that girl? I looked back and saw myself struggling to find my way into academia or museum work with virtually no models other than professors I admired, and little experience of the world other than my university career, which had started out in difficulty - I was a smart kid from a very small rural town in a big, highly competitive Ivy League university, and it was sink or swim. It took me three semesters to get my feet under me, and then I had to take extra courses, including three languages, to satisfy my new major, classical civ., in time to meet all the graduation requirements and write an honors thesis. I applied to two graduate programs in the conservation of antiquities - at NYU, and at the University of London. One of the recommendation letters written by one of my advisers was in the briefcase:
But... I didn't get in. My chemistry grades, from freshman year, were too low. The rejection letters were in the briefcase too.
When I didn't get into one of the graduate programs, I thought the world had ended. It hadn't, of course, but it would take some time to pick myself up and figure out a new direction. How I wish I could have looked ahead and seen how things would turn out, even though it took a long time for the classics student to become Cassandra. But the years between the days of 10-cent stamps and today are far too numerous and dense to lay out in neat sequence.
I desperately wished today that I could protect that girl, and the boys she hurt with that determination the professor had praised. But all I could do was read the letters and try to learn something new, even now.