No one has ever called me sentimental. At least, I don’t remember it ever happening. It’s not that unsentimentality has been one of my goals. I never woke up on New Year’s Day and said, “This year I’ll learn to speak German, lose 20 pounds, and become a son of a bitch.” And yet, yesterday when I told an old friend that I don’t really have a list of people I dislike, she looked at me as if I’d said I don’t really breathe oxygen and have a peristaltic process.
I will say that I hang on to a lot of stuff that means something to me, or that once meant something to me, or that meant something to someone else. Or that looks cool, or might fit me again one day, or that I put in a drawer and forgot about. I like stuff, just as my mom did.
Whether or not this behavior is sentimental, it drives my wife nuts. I cannot possibly express how much she does not care about stuff, unless the stuff is a coffee mug or a bottle of honey-pineapple revitalizing body splash with conditioner. I know that she loves me, because she’s come to tolerate, if not respect, my obsession with stuff. And I think “obsession” is the right word, not sentimentality.
My father cares no more about stuff than he cares about any given paramecium in his yard, and he holds an absolute lack of sentimentality for holidays, birthdays, greeting cards and so forth. If you consider those things to be the cozy fire of warmth in the human heart, then he is -273.15 degrees Celsius, and you could shatter bananas on him like they were light bulbs. He’s a caring guy in other ways, but that’s not one of them, and from him I inherited my immunity to the charms of greeting cards.
When I get a card I look at it, think how nice the sender was to remember me, and smile for the benefit of my wife. Then, in most cases, I immediately toss all memory of the card into the recycle bin, along with the physical card itself. I do not add it to a stack of memories boxed up somewhere in my existence.
On the other hand, my mom was created out of sentimentality. She was like a Care Bear that played mournful country music while carrying a book of baby pictures and pressed flowers on her back. She died last year, and about a month later, when my birthday was approaching, I caught myself thinking that I’d see a card from her in the mail soon. I of course stopped that train of thought right away and switched it to, “Well, shit.” Then I realized that I had thrown away everything she had ever written to me.
That realization did not support the festive birthday atmosphere that my wife was trying to create. I moped around a little while trying to look like I wasn’t moping and was instead examining the structural integrity of the birthday cake.
Then my gaze drifted over to our filing system. It consists of four piles lying on the kitchen counter. Three piles belong to my wife. I’m not sure what they contain, but things appear on them, get moved from one pile to another, and somehow disappear, at which point our bills are paid and we’re allowed to continue living in our house. My single pile gets taller and taller until it starts toppling over, at which point I throw away 90 percent of it and put the rest in a tiny pile on my desk. I throw the tiny pile away a couple of weeks later when I get tired of looking at it.
I started wondering whether the card my mom had sent on my previous birthday lay in some stratum of my pile. I dug through it in a casual fashion. It was pretty tall. The postmarks regressed through the previous year, but the last item only reached back to mid-summer. With that possibility shredded, I decided to sit in the library, where my birthday cake wouldn’t be spoiled by the stench of my moping.
A bit later my wife came into the library. She had deduced what I’d been doing, since I’d been muttering about it so loudly that our cats had been peering at me and preparing to hide under the bed if things went to hell. My wife brought me a stack of older stuff she’d taken away from my pile some weeks earlier. She had placed it on my desk in a logical and obvious spot, ensuring that I’d ignore it practically forever.
Without much hope I sorted down through this stack of neglected stuff, and I did not find the card I was searching for until the end. I mean, that card was at the bottom of the pile, the last thing of all. Somewhat stunned, I opened it up and took a peek.
I don’t believe in miracles, or spirits, or destiny. I do believe in the space-time continuum, procrastination, and the law of large numbers. I also believe in my wife’s determination to impose order on a disorderly universe. But setting belief aside, I can say for a fact that on my birthday it’s nice to eat structurally sound cake and read some things that my mom wanted to say to me.