We are a house of notes. My husband, a night-owl artist, writes to me in the dark of the quiet house as I fall into dreams. I awake to fluorescent sticky squares, legal pads, and junk mail envelopes on which he has jotted doodles and reminders, jokes and nicknames, references to art and news, proclamations of love. As he sleeps, I make coffee and write him back—about taking a walk, errands, how I love him more than our gigantic sweet gum trees, and p.s. we need stamps. He emails a link to an article about a movie he’d referenced at dinner. We text in nonsensical emojis.

I stash these scraps in large envelopes that burst with fourteen years’ worth from four houses across four states. I file the digital ones in a folder marked with his initials. I tape the drawings to the sides of my computer screen.


In my desk drawer, I keep a note from my father, humdrum details of an out-of-town trip he’d dashed off on yellow legal paper. I don’t remember when he wrote it, only that it’s one of the few I have in his hand, though I suspect more may be clustered among the sundry cards and letters I’ve saved. His spidery scrawl more and more matches mine.

My father, a mechanical engineer-turned-repairman—my small town’s “Mr. Fix-It”—died suddenly at age fifty-two after three days of what we thought was the flu. In the ICU hours before he died, when he no longer recognized me, he reached into the air and turned imaginary knobs, mumbled gibberish numbers and calculations—a final repair. But he couldn’t be fixed.

When my husband, creator of fantastical creatures and worlds, recently turned fifty-three, I let out a long, uneasy breath. Along with stockpiling his notes, I track the shape-shifting color of his eyes (today, the enigmatic blue of twilight). I watch his steady hands.


My father’s mother’s scrapbooks, bound with boards and leather straps, bulge with photos and letters and cards, tickets and brochures and taped-down foreign coins; her mother apparently saved everything, too—one sewing box in her belongings was labeled String, Too Short. These albums and stories are all I have to reconstruct my grandmother’s life, one shaped by losses: her first husband in an elevator accident, her thirteen-year-old son in what newspapers deemed an “accidental hanging,” her second husband to cancer.

I return often to photos of my grandmother and my young father the summer after my uncle was found hanging on the jungle gym at school. They traveled across the country, posed at campsites and roadside attractions. I look for signs of the howling grief that must have been burning in their lungs. I imagine her pasting down these remnants, tracing the corners, reviving the dead through the alchemy of memory and touch.


My father had his own version of too-short string: several motors in boxes labeled Doesn’t Work in his legendary crammed-to-the-roof garage, which took us weeks, including a three-day yard sale and a giant rented trash bin, to wrangle. A complicated kind of hoarding. He wasn’t planning to keep these things; he wanted to bring them back to life.

I kept a red step stool, a dustpan, and a tape measure. I liked their retro metal heft, their clangs and chipped paint. When I hold his belongings, of course I think of him. “Memento” means “to remember” after all. Yet I don’t need objects to conjure my father. The image of his scrabbling fingers, those hallucinatory calculations, comes unbidden, burned behind my eyes. I do my own math: I am a complex sum of my own memories and of others’ memories of me. When I subtract him, who of me remains? Who are we when the people we love are gone?


Another morning, another note in handwriting I know by heart. I squint and grab my glasses. Updates about our Netflix queue, an inside joke we won’t remember the next day, smiley doodles galore. All these useless strings and faulty motors. Still, I will tuck this one in with the others. I’ll cradle the envelope, marvel at its heft. I’ll ward off thoughts of a time when all I may have is what lies between the lines.

The coffee brews. I open the blinds, his words in my hand. I’m more awake each moment. Down the hall, he sleeps. Soon, I’ll write him about the day.

Bryn Chancellor
 is the author of the novel Sycamorea Southwest Book of the Year, and the story collection When Are You Coming Home?which won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in NELLEBlackbird, Colorado Review, CrazyhorseThe Common, Publishers Weekly, and elsewhere. A native of California raised in Arizona and transplanted to the South, she is a grateful recipient of fellowships from the Alabama, Arizona, and North Carolina arts councils and the Poets and Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award. She is a graduate of Vanderbilt University’s M.F.A. program and teaches at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Artwork by Dev Murphy