Tossing away another family’s memories

Trash CanLeaving Las Vegas for the final time, I tossed two large boxes of family memories into a motel’s trash bin.

The double-ply cardboard boxes had “U-Haul” stamped on the side and several thick, black words in my late mother’s handwriting. A single red line ran through each after the boxes’ previous purposes were served. Except for the last one: “T’s and P’s Things.”

They were boxes intended for protecting books or dishes, not memories. But for the four days they were mine, I guessed that is what they contained judging by a third item leaning against the boxes when I discovered them.

It was an oil painting of my step-grandfather.

In it, his necktie and eyeglasses recalled an era on the fringe of my memory. The eyes were piercing, more so than in life, and focused on a spot above and behind the viewer’s right shoulder. His own shoulders were forward as if he were leaning in to hear a whisper.

Appropriate, considering his profession. When people came to him, they carried crushing weight in their minds or in their hearts. His medical background informed how to remove the burden and stitch close the holes that had allowed them in. His practice served leaders and followers, criminals and saints, vibrant personalities one wished to either know or avoid. Whole hospitals sought his counsel. Learned men outside medicine valued his insight.

He was imbued with intractable urgency. He finished high school at 15, college at 18, and medical school at 20. By age 22, a medical center had formed around my grandfather’s practice, and he was venerated by colleagues and contemporaries three times older.

But when he reached their age, his prodigious gift trailed a loose ribbon that wrapped around a liquor bottle. As it dragged, it tripped one family – T’s and P’s – and nearly another, all the while his reputation remained sterling. The impatient visionary and civic wunderkind conceded the high ground at home. His heirs, however, remained amicable until another ribbon, my step-grandfather’s wealth, frayed as they tugged on it.

I was enjoined from much of the drama until the responsibility for those boxes and the portrait passed from my late mother to me. They were the last, lonely inventory of a rented storage space I discovered through a store of keys in her bank safe. The boxes were hard against a dusty corner of the space as far from concern as possible.

My calls and emails to T and P elicited no responses. A review of my late mother’s emails as I closed her accounts showed first, second, and third attempts before mine did no better. The disagreements over money had closed the connection. At that moment, T and P, whom I once called uncle and aunt out of familial courtesy, were as alive to me as my mother.

“We don’t have trash cans or dumpsters here,” the storage center manager said. “You want the deposit back on the room, we require it empty.”

The road into McCarran International Airport’s departures terminal furnishes visitors with last-chance stops for cheap memories: dollar gift shops, grab-and-go grocers, postal and package-shipping services, filling stations for topping off rental car gas tanks, and a brace of rental car drop-off lots for tourists too tardy to reach the main return center. Sprinkled between these enterprises are low-budget inns and motels that do their best business by the hour. I grew up in this town watching streets like this one rise and fall. It was suitable that I was leaving Las Vegas for the last time on one of them – a boulevard of dented and deferred dreams.

I had reached the next-to-last rental car drop-off lot before finding a trash bin close to the curb.

As I turned off and parked, the boxes’ contents clanked and clicked. As I removed the boxes from the trunk and pitched them toward the bin, those contents popped and cracked. A flash of regret followed them in. But I had done a favor for T and P: delivered their things to where they must have thought they belonged.

The portrait landed atop the boxes with a splintering crack. My step-grandfather’s empty eyes were gazing toward the airport.