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Blog Essay: Garages

Garages have always seemed to be the bane of my existence, or at least my household. We had an old, detached garage when I was growing up. It sat perched in the alley up the hill like a haunted house looking down on us. I hated going in that garage with its one swinging light bulb, feeling around in the dark trying to find the string and hope it wasn’t a well-spun spider’s web. I think I was in my late teens before I would even go in that garage without a “lookout” waiting it the alley to rescue me just in case the old door rolled down with me inside. As I got my own homes, the garage became the house “catch all.” Anything that didn’t “fit” in the house, physically or esthetically, would be banished to the garage to join a miscellaneous group of sundry items seemingly without order.

Nearly two years after the Steve’s death, I took a class that was designed to encourage goals setting and new behavior patterns. The class was six weeks long because it was espoused that doing a behavior every day for that length of time would create lifelong habitual behavior. My big goal for the six-week period was to clean and organize my garage. And yes, it really would take six weeks of an hour a day of work to finally clean out and organize the space. At the end of six weeks, I had a very clean, very organized garage space

Something even more miraculous had occurred during this time period though. I became attracted to a man in my group. Keith had vast intelligence, personal curiosity, a truly sarcastic sense of humor, and deep and abiding love of words. He was in the course to try to get his writing practice on track, as he was attempting to claim the identity of a writer that, from the outside, seemed clearly obvious. Shortly after our six-week course ended, he asked me to go to a bar with him to see his friend’s band. I realized the irony that he was asking me to join him on the second anniversary of Steve’s death.

What I didn’t know until he told me later was that he also realized this and had intentionally chosen that day because he didn’t want me to be alone. What followed would be one of the only areas of contention in our marriage. Was it, or was it not, a date? I claim it was because he drove and paid for my drinks all night. He claimed it was just a friendly invitation without any ulterior motive. Whichever the case may be, that evening sparked a beautiful relationship that would change me and my life forever. Six months later, Keith moved in with me and my garage, once again became disheveled, filled with his moving boxes and plethora of woodworking tools.

After Keith’s death, I moved five times in five years and the garage mess was outsourced to a litany of storage units, all more disheveled than the last. Then, finally, the day came at the age of 43 that I purchased my own home without a partner and lived in it, without children (for the moment). For nearly a year I was able to actually park a car inside my garage…and let me tell you, it was glorious. At least until the day that I was heading off to school and the power was out. I couldn’t get the garage door to open and I was in a near panic. Any teacher knows the worst thing is to be late to your own class. So, I broke the garage door opening mechanism to get the car out and get to work. I broke the thing that made the garage usable. I broke the thing that made using the garage enjoyable. I later paid quite a bit to have it fixed just in time to have not one but both of my children move back in with me, along with their significant others. My garage became crammed full of moving boxes and stayed that way until I sold it.

Flash forward 15 years and I was tackling yet another garage. Grant asked me to help him for a weekend, to organize and move everything out of our garage because he had a friend coming over to refinish the floor. I was not aware that garage floors needed ‘refinishing’ nor did I see the necessity in it, but Grant was pretty excited about how ‘beautiful’ our new garage floor would be and optimistically told me of all the great things we could do in the garage (have a gym, park a car, etc) to sell it to me. After he made the effort to put in a ladder to the attic and built a floor in it so that we would have a place to put garage boxes, I acquiesced. After all, I love an organized space as much as any OCD sufferer, and the thought of several neatly shelved, Rubbermaid boxes with labels gave me a bit of a charge.

And then we started. I had officially moved in with Grant after selling my home the year before and a few months after that, had needed to place my mother in a nursing facility. Therefore, many of the boxes in “our” garage were “mine” to go through. Not wanting to just shove the boxes in the attic, I methodically attacked them with new Rubbermaid bins hoping to do an elimination and consolidation effort. I quickly realized that once again, the garage was going to more problematic than I had given it credit for. The garage, and the boxes in it, had become synonymous with my grieving.

The first box I opened contained photo albums haphazardly dropped inside. The second, a large box of pictures still in frames that had belonged to my mother. I placed them inside the house to go through and consolidate later. After all, the mechanism for coping with my grief consistently could be described as “compartmentalization and deflection.” My moments of grief reminded me of an armed forces shock and awe campaign. Have a tactical approach, create confusion through explosions, feel an intense amount of shock and pain, and get back out before I died. These plethora of totes in the garage were the literal compartmentalizing of my grief.

My dear husband teases me often for being an emotional thinker. We had been together for over 5 years at this point in our relationship, and he had seen me cry, really cry, a few times. Not just the few tears that stream down the cheek during my yearly viewing of “Love Actually,” but real sobbing, snot running, hyperventilating episodes. Nothing though, compared to that day in the garage. I could tell by the look on his face that it scared him. The way he managed to “disappear” shortly afterward told me he didn’t know what to do with that kind of grief.

That day, the chickens came home to roost. The memories that I had stuffed in literal compartments to be dealt with later had their day of reckoning. Each box brought the high waves of grief over me. There was to be no more hiding, no more compartmentalizing, no more “I’ll deal with that later.” I suddenly realized that the garage had always been a metaphor, a place for shoving the unwanted, the undealt with. A place where most people wouldn’t see the mess, I tried so hard to hide. My garage is now clean, it is organized, and the refinished floor is, in fact, wonderful. I fear there are still more than few disheveled boxes and dust bunnies in my psyche.

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