By Mattea Heller
Poor Yorick: In your essay, you state, “There’s a story here.” It seems that our lives are made up of a multitude of everyday moments like the one you described in which you were sorting through your father’s belongings. How do you know when one of those moments equals a story worth writing? What was your writing process for this particular essay?
Gayla Mills: When I begin writing, I rarely have a plan. I ask myself what happened recently that provokes my strongest feelings. Often it’s an emotion I’m ashamed of or a topic I think too trivial to address, but I start in anyway. I usually discover something and find my way to an essay and theme that I’m satisfied with.
This was the first essay that I wrote in three sections over a decade. I began with the intense, bittersweet feeling I had when I left my father’s apartment. I captured the emotions of that moment but wasn’t sure what the story was about. When I returned to it years later, the bible became the focus and displaced my father. When the puzzle was finally solved in the third section, he came back into focus, and the different threads of the essay came together for me.
One of those threads concerns possessions and what to do with all those we collect. We invest these objects with a lot of baggage: they represent an image we want to project or the memory of a meaningful person or event or simply the comfort of having extra stuff we can turn to in a theoretical time of need. Letting go of an object is so much more than parting with that item itself.
PY: We Americans are constantly acquiring more and more stuff, and it’s often an incredible burden on adult children to clean out the home of an aging or deceased parent. Have you reflected more on this question you posed in your essay: What does one do with things too valuable to give up but too impractical to do anything with?
GM: The process of giving up all these things is more difficult when we’re making decisions for our parents, whether they’re downsizing or gone. I think it helps, though, to consider what emotional stumbling blocks are making it so hard to give them up. Often it’s the inability to accept our mortality and the idea that we’ll no longer be around to cherish these things.
In this essay, the character (me) has concluded that she’ll never part from an object that makes no real sense in her life: she’s not religious, the item serves no purpose beyond sentiment, and, most absurdly, it’s a book written in a type almost impossible to read in a language she doesn’t understand. And yet she plans to keep it until she dies. Many of the things we keep are like this, though maybe the absurdity of it is less obvious.
PY: Where is the Tanach today and how did you come to your decision about what to do with it?
GM: My cousin Eva suggested that the best place for this Tanach is in a museum, and that makes sense to me. It represents an immigrant story that transcends one family. I now understand better why people decide to donate precious items to a museum: it grants the object a type of immortality.
PY: What are you working on now? Where can we find more of your work?
GM: Although I continue writing personal essays, which are my favorite way to explore and share the world, I’m currently spending most of my writing life on a book: Making Music After 40: A guide to playing for life. It will be published by Dover in 2019. My published essays and fiction are posted on www.gaylamills.com.