ERNIE AND ERNESTINA: Searching

Book Two, Chapter Twenty-one: Stuffed

Because I’m having such a hard time throwing out anything Ernie touched — even income-tax forms he filled out years ago — I’m reading Randy O. Frost and Gail Stekettee’s book on compulsive hoarding titled Stuff.

Hoarders, they write, often have a shaky attachment to their parents. They don’t have positive responses to such statements as “my childhood featured a constant sense of support” or “my family was always accepting of me.” As adults, hoarders form attachments to things as a way of comforting themselves and feeling secure. It gets pathological when the attachment is so severe, and the amount hoarded so overwhelming, that the hoarder’s life is made uncomfortable.

Ernie’s business drawer is so stuffed I can barely open it, but I begin the weeding. I toss long expired life-insurance policies, medical bills paid or unpaid, obits — one of a doctor he once went to, another of a fraternity brother. I find clippings from the New York Times on two places we visited — San Miguel de Allende and Paris — with a photo of a consignment shop in the Marais illustrating the Paris article. This looks like the shop where we bought the scarf that kept us so warm during our days in Paris, Ernie wrote above the photo. I still have the long woolen scarf, and yes, it did keep us warm those September days in that cold, tiny hotel room in Paris.

I find a slim packet containing photos. On the outside of it, Ernie wrote: Ernie and Ernestina. I open the packet. I don’t want to, but I do.

Inside is a photo of Ernie I took the summer he wrote Nine Finches and a Parrot, the last summer but one before he died. I gasp. His striped top and straw hat would give him a jaunty look but for the sadness that weighs down his face. His blue eyes stare out, naked in their despair. His mouth is grim, the lips so drawn they almost disappear. He wants to say something but doesn’t. Whatever he wants to say would be hurtful for even him to hear, so he keeps quiet, keeps his feelings stuffed inside him, but they’re written on his face. Anyone with eyes and heart can read this face.

I look at the photo of me and barely recognize myself. I don’t want to claim this face. She looks like a coal miner’s wife, accustomed to a life of worry, the threat of danger ever present. There’s no fight in her, only acceptance of whatever horrible thing is going to happen. She does nothing to stop it, even though the explosion will shatter her life.

I put the photos next to each other. They speak the truth. We didn’t, but they do.

My writer husband’s favorite nickname for me was Ernestina, so in this 3-book memoir, he is Ernie. This is his story, our story, and my story. I invite you in.