Nonfiction by Maggie Yuan
“Longing to clear out
the debris of keeping, I feed in
records of years I need no record of.
They have gone dry at last.”
Marie Ponsot, “Restoring My House” (1998)
Part I: Rediscovery
In the side yard of my family’s home in San Jose, California, there is a small gray shed. It was probably my grandfather who installed the shed, at least 15 years ago, when I was a young girl. For many years, the shed has housed all the objects that have been banished from our house. Childhood toys and clothes. My grandfather’s old bicycle which he used to ride to the park every day when he and my grandmother still lived with us. Pillows and bedding that are a little frumpy, but still too nice to be thrown out.
All these things, clustered together under a generous layer of dust, sit and slumber in the shed. The shed boasts an elaborate set of doors with geometric patterns, though its grandeur is offset by the gaudy, gray plastic of its material. Above, a ribbed black roof emulates the appearance of shingles. A small lock rests on the door handle, a flimsy protector. The tiny facade seems to quiver in the shade of the yard’s centerpiece—the house. Fortified with wood, brick, and stone, the house stands like a soldier, self-assured in its 100 years of history. It is a grand, regal, and real edifice, making the plastic shed look all the more pathetic.
If you need something from the shed, you have to make the awkward trek over. Out through the back door, around the corner, over the paved path, until you arrive at the little gray shack. There is a quiet embarrassment in clomping over to the shed, especially when the purpose is to retrieve an item that you previously discarded—like shuffling to a lover’s place of residence after having spurned them, wondering if they still want you.
The garage is there too, but because it is connected to the house, it does not feel as removed as the shed. The shed is a separate entity, its objects severed from former roots in the house.
There is a quiet fortitude, though, to the shed’s existence. The small plastic structure has witnessed countless iterations of our home. It was here when the yard sported green lawns, then drought-starved patches, then dirt piles. It was here when my mom and dad painted the house a putrid shade of mint green (a color that has subdued the house’s bragging rights), and earlier, when the house used to be a bland, suburban shade of cream. The shed has seen it all, has lived through every season of transformation that our home has undergone. It stands exactly where it was first installed, now surrounded by blooming flowers and succulents.
To Marie Ponsot, storage spaces yield both painful memories and powerful insights. As she pores over piles and piles of her old writings in “Restoring My House,” she is compelled to remember that which she wished to forget.
All journeys into our past begin with discovery.
Enter our shed and you have your selection of second-hand, no-longer-wanted, once-owned items to choose from. Pick up a dusty metal lunchbox and marvel at its faded cover, a compact airplane soaring across a pastel blue sky. The print was once vibrant, but it has been weathered by sun or shadow. The corners are scuffed silver, showing metal underneath blue paint. Anyone could have owned this old lunchbox. Any child could have dropped the lunchbox while at school, a careless clatter that scraped the edges off.
Items that are less universally accessible also reside in this shed. Wrinkled Costco boxes sit stacked atop black garbage bags in the far corner. Inside the uppermost box, the sleeve of a navy blue cashmere sweater peeks out; it may have been jostled after my mom reached inside to retrieve a down jacket for my brother’s trip back to frigid New York. Rusted paint cans—the last remaining relics of homecoming projects that my brother and I would work on—are crammed into the small nooks in between the large bags and boxes. The bicycle, too, looks expensive with its many gears; though my grandfather used the bicycle daily for close to a decade, and though the metal is rusted now, it looks to be in good condition.
Souvenirs from past Chinese New Year celebrations are scattered in random places. Resting on top of the bicycle seat is a wooden gourd, with red tassels wrapped around its center. Red and gold paper signs, all embellished with the Chinese character for good fortune, 福 (fú), poke out of a shelf of colorful plastic tubs at the front. A string of plush zodiac animals, attached to more red tassels, swing gently from a hook on the ceiling. Many people may be puzzled by why these lovely decorations have been relegated to the shed—are they not Chinese anymore? The answer is that like most Chinese people, we have too many Chinese New Year decorations already in the house. These decorations were the unlucky, un-chosen ones, exiled to the shed.
In being sentenced to the shed, these objects have been doomed. They float in a purgatory where they can only wait to see if their fate will turn, in the form of donation, reuse, or disposal. Are they meaningless now? This is the gray zone between wanted and unwanted—none of these possessions have been deemed so worthless that they must be thrown out yet, but worthless enough to have been exiled from the house.
I think of Ponsot’s lamentation of the “debris of keeping,” the things that accumulate because of our attachment to the past. In the poem, Ponsot helps her grandmother burn old photographs before doing the same with her own writings. This is her effort to relinquish the vice-like grip of the past, to expel these “paper ghosts” that haunt her. Keeping, to Ponsot, can be a curse.
Is our overflowing shed also home to these “paper ghosts?” Stale nostalgia festers like an old wound. I fear that our material possessions, locked in storage, will rot if we fail to do away with them—leaving a space acrid and airless with no room for new memories.
Part II: Rebirth
Several times a year, all the residents in our neighborhood place their unwanted possessions on the street to be picked up for donation. My mom participates in this tradition—it is part of the driving force of her spring-cleaning sessions—and as a result of her diligence, our house and garage have become more vacant over the years. I’ve grown so accustomed to seeing items of furniture on the street that they blend perfectly into the scenery, the old couches and desks as familiar as the neighborhood crows and rabbits.
The act of disposal can be both cathartic and reverential, according to Ponsot. In burning her documents, Ponsot reinvigorates the space of her home and frees herself to focus on the future. Surviving necessitates selective destruction, and burning can engender new beginnings, a “hum of budding comfort disclosing / along a tree of transforming.” What possibilities, then, can spring forth from doing away with the things that are no longer needed, creating room to begin anew?
Occasionally, often following the death of the homeowner, some of the homes in our neighborhood will host yard sales. Many of our neighbors were retirees when we first moved into our house two decades ago. It is common, now, to see adult offspring return shortly after a parent’s death to deal with their affairs—almost always with a storage truck in tow.
Before we called ourselves “rich” (or “rich enough,” as my parents prefer), my mom used to take me with her to yard sales. I remember seeing a smattering of wooden dressers, knit sweaters, and random silverware in our neighbors’ yards. It was an odd, apocalyptic sight for my toddler self to witness, all these eclectic objects that belonged indoors being thrown together on the lawn—the house’s innards all spilled outside.
Recently, while discussing my post-graduation plans to live alone, my mom eagerly recommended that I scope out local yard sales to find full sets of porcelain dinnerware. I had long separated my mom from any image of secondhand shopping, and was surprised by the fondness in her tone at the thought of previously owned fine china. To this day, she still keeps old plates, trinkets, and fabric scraps that she purchased from yard sales in a previous life in San Diego.
My dad once told me about how he and his graduate school roommates would frequent the dumpster at UCSD in search of free furniture. One day, they stumbled upon a treasure—a couch!—and promptly lugged it back to their apartment. The couch was ghastly, he remembered, with an ornery black-and-yellow plaid print all over, and heavy, in part because it opened into a sofa bed. It was so unappealing that its previous owners, deeming it unworthy of being resold, chose to leave the couch behind the dumpster.
Strange that anyone would take home such a bulky, awful piece of furniture. But it was 1987 and my dad, a 19-year-old Chinese immigrant and scholarship student, could not yet afford the luxury of purchasing new things as he wished. To him, finding an old yellow couch behind a dumpster was a fortuitous find (a second-hand “welcome to America” gift, perhaps?).
And so the ugly treasure stayed with my dad throughout his entire stay in San Diego—seven years, until he and my mom purchased their first home in San Carlos and moved away.
Finding and bringing home second-hand objects is a means of rebirth. Yard sales, dumpsters, streets—these are all unexpected sites of endless potential where rejected treasures can be saved from their tenure in storage. This is a chance for renewed life, for Ponsot’s “hum of budding comfort” that stirs within each once-wanted object, which can now be cherished again. Born again.
Our shed used to be a place of new life too. When I was younger, the shed took on a mystical quality. Anytime my mom needed something from the shed, I would eagerly volunteer to make the trip over. The journey was familiar, but somehow, the shed was an exciting, unknown frontier of possibility each time. Skipping along the curve of the stone path, I’d wonder what hidden treasures—a toy, a sweater, a Chinese New Year decoration—lay waiting for me to uncover. It was like finding a lone piece of candy on the kitchen counter, the sweet taste of finding and keeping something for yourself.
There is beauty, yes, to be found in the act of keeping.
Part III: Restoration
Earlier, I mentioned that my mom has dutifully led countless cleaning and donation cycles over the past twenty years. While her spring cleaning sessions have cleared the clutter in our house and garage, our shed remains largely untouched. Very few items in the shed, if any at all, have ever been permanently removed. The small gray shed stews glumly in our yard, swollen with excess but no hope of release.
A few times, I’ve asked my mom why we’d never purged our shed of its debris. The easy solution to the mess of it all would be to donate the things or to hold a yard sale. Why keep it all?
My mom would answer me with a shrug, before jumping into a half-hearted explanation—in part Mandarin, in part English, the jumble of languages she uses whenever she feels comfortable enough to speak casually to me. I could never quite follow her logic (typically, she’d be scrubbing dishes over the sink as I asked her this question, and the sound of rushing water would fill her pauses when she had nothing to say), but I understood that her general sentiment was a “why bother?”
It isn’t so much that my mom is in favor of keeping the items in the shed, as she is in support of keeping things as they are. It’s a hassle to sort through all the objects in the shed, and with very little payoff. The shed is different from the garage. Vacancies in our garage can be used to store our everyday objects; the shed, however, is so far removed from our house that it is not a convenient location for items needed on a daily basis. It was installed in the yard for a reason—to store the things that we didn’t really need, and to put space between them and ourselves.
In a shed of no longer wanted, no longer needed objects, keeping is a privilege.
Deciding what to keep and what to discard does require emotional labor. Take for instance, the shed’s shelf of colorful plastic tubs, which my brother and I used as children to store our toys. If my mom were to toss it out, the guilt of denying future grandchildren joyous playtime would now rest on her shoulders. The risk of future discomfort dissuades any attempts to clean the mess.
“I’m keeping it for the grandchildren,” is an explanation I’ve often received from my mom, when I ask why she holds onto specific objects from our childhood. The thought of my children, clambering onto my grandfather’s rusty bicycle and riding it in wobbly circles around our backyard, does not make a particularly convincing case for the space the bike occupies in our shed. I doubt it does for my mom, either. For my mom, and for most people, it is simply easier to keep things than it is to throw them away.
I have the opposite problem from my mom—I compulsively discard items, only to regret it later. I’ve always been one for preemptively ripping the Band-Aid off, solving a problem by setting it ablaze and removing any evidence it existed. On many occasions, I’ve deemed a rarely worn dress unnecessary and set it aside for my mom to donate. A few months later, when I regret my impulsive disposal, my mom will fish the dress out of one of her drawers, where she stored it for safekeeping. Keeping is my mom’s crutch, but it is also her strength, her ability to see the faintest possibility of happiness on the horizon and to bet on it as if it were a guarantee.
I wonder if I will follow in my mom’s path and become a woman of this order—a keeper of the house and all the possessions that collect dust. Like Ponsot’s grandmother, destroying old photographs, or Ponsot herself, burning old letters. I see my mom gutting our garage of all its old shoeboxes, canvases, and sporting equipment, and I remember my grandmother squatting outside our gray shed, scraping a fish clean with a knife. As a child, I’d wince at the sight of blood and fish scales mingling together on the cobblestone, on my grandmother’s wrinkled hands, but I knew this task was necessary. The ritual of cleaning is violent, historical, sacred—it is female.
My mom tells me that the one thing that she admires about her mother is her love for cleanliness. My grandmother kept their tiny, cramped house in Shantou, Guangdong, tidy no matter the circumstances. In spite of her vicious arguments with my grandfather—the heavy debris that their strained marriage bore upon the shoulders of their three daughters, including my mom, who left for America and swore to never become her mother—the home remained clean.
Though my mom did not inherit my grandmother’s anger, she did inherit her cleanliness. When my mom cleans, she restores order and peace to our home. The signs of her hard work are familiar: polished hardwood floors, closed cabinet doors, the fresh scent of detergent. As if sanctified by the act of cleaning, our house reverts to a virginal state.
I wonder if our shed is waiting for its turn too—to be purged of all its debris, released from the disease of its dusty air. Once purified, will its gray exterior glitter with pride? Will its old bones breathe a sigh of relief?
Eventually, I know that the jurisdiction over our household possessions will transfer from my mom to me, as it passed from my grandmother to my mom. Then, and only then, will it be my turn to tend to this shed of unwanted objects, whose futures and histories will be in my hands.
Comfort compels my mom to keep all the things in our shed, whereas instinct calls me to discard them all without a second thought. Are these the “records of years I need no record of,” in Ponsot’s words? I am tempted to do the same as Ponsot did with her papers—to strike a match and set it all alight. It would be so easy to burn, to discard, to forget. Out of sight, out of memory.
And yet, I remember. I want to hold fast to the yellow plaid couch, the porcelain plates, the red and gold Chinese decorations that collect years and dust, until all that remains are smoky traces. These are the things that were once treasures. These are the things that used to belong in a different time and different place.
The truth is I am not done with these things—that I cannot bear to let them go, just as much I can hardly bear to keep them.
Despite my hesitation, my memories beckon me to revisit that which was once beloved. My grandmother, my grandfather, my mom, my dad, my brother: I see them all, clearly, against the backdrop of my family’s thirty-five years in America. In my act of remembering, I become an explorer charting the hemisphere of our history. It is the story of new life, of sowing seeds into tenuous, foreign soil and praying for a future to emerge. It is the story of renewal.
Each memory clears a new layer of debris, recovering treasures whose existences had been expunged from daily thought. Precious things—once restored, they come back to life easily, as if they had never been gone.
Hungry for discovery, I hurtle back into the past, like a gleeful child running into a gray shed.