Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
Ideas Left Behind
I’m not supposed to be writing this piece. I’m deep into another blogpost that’s been practically writing itself, about an earlier time in my rambunctious youth. But as life does its thing, buffeting us around in random, unexpected directions, I’m now off on a temporarily different track.
As the weather has gotten considerably warmer, I’m turning my attention to the list of outdoor chores that’s been growing steadily for months. I live in a place that’s too big for me, both inside and out. Four of us used to live in the house and now it’s just me, unless you count Michael’s constant invisible presence. The house, built in 1893, has ten rooms, two bathrooms added twenty years later and a basement. Built on sizable double lot, there was room for us to build a double garage.
Beginning in 1930, when the Depression likely dictated that the maintenance of such a large residence was too expensive for a single family, it was converted into three apartments. In 1978,when we moved in, we lived on the first floor. As our family grew, we eventually reclaimed the whole house. Its condition was reminiscent of the home featured in the 1986 film, The Money Pit, the story of a young couple’s efforts to restore an old home.
Over the years, we poured in a lot of sweat and cash, recreating a home to replace the broken up set of rooms suited to transient students attending the local university. As I approach the end of my seventh decade, I find it overwhelming to maintain. Ordinarily, I would think that downsizing would be the wisest approach at this time, selling and moving into a smaller more manageable place. I’ve thought about the possibility of returning the house to a partial rental state, maybe finding some quiet graduate student to move in and reduce my responsibility to this demanding space. But yet, I do so dearly adore it, despite frequent feelings of being enslaved by the sheer amount of chores and repairs which are and will be endless. There is no real “done,” except for perhaps a few brief moments.
The other major consideration in staying here is that I have the gift of living across the street from my daughter and her family. Who would be crazy enough to move away from the people who chose to stay so close? Not me. I’ve budgeted funds to help myself with the jobs that I hate the most, lawnmowing and housecleaning. In addition to normal maintenance, the tasks of going through a lifetime’s accumulation of stuff remain, after an initial flurry of activity I initiated and then abandoned, right after Michael died. The recent inviting weather which drew me out to prepare for this year’s garden reminded me that it was time to begin attending to the some of those deferred jobs. The other day after a couple of hours in the dirt, I decided to begin purging some of the piles in the garage. I
For the last two years, short of driving vehicles in and out, and occasionally retrieving a shovel or a rake, the garage has remained untouched since Michael’s death. His work tables are cluttered. He was working on projects that were left undone. There’s a mostly finished cornhole game he was building for our grandsons. I can’t move it – it’s too heavy. Once finished, I expect it would last for many years, just like the climbing structure he built for our kids about 30 years ago.
That thing is still sturdy and is now the host for my climbing honeysuckle vines, the delight for hummingbirds and the safe zone for the other backyard birds who are permanent residents. Michael loved wood and was a self-taught carpenter. The first bookshelf he built in 1976 is still in use in our house.
Over the years, he built display racks for his music business, racks for cassettes, CD’s and vinyl albums which ultimately filled three stores. Then he modified his design plans to build smaller units for our personal collections along with more bookshelves which eventually filled four rooms in our house.
He fenced the backyard and roofed the garage. Back in the times when cars were simpler than the computerized vehicles of today, he regularly disassembled carburetors and engines. There were years when the carburetors floated in murky fluids on the kitchen table. My son-in-law, another wood lover and tool aficionado, commented that he was surprised at the great number of automotive tools that he saw amidst Michael’s wood tools, the saws, routers, planers and clamps.
As years went by, Michael turned his attention to what he called his idiomatic art projects. A person with tongue-in-cheek humor and the kind of jokes that make people groan, he started to create 3-D versions of the idioms and phrases which are part of the commonly shared vernacular. He managed to complete 15 of those, leaving behind a list of more than a hundred more that he hoped to finish. While remembering those funny Warhol-ish pieces and looking around at the piles in the garage, I realized that he had created a legacy that extends beyond his life.
The question of how we make a mark on the world has always interested me. As a person who worked primarily with numbers and computers, I wondered if after my death, there would be any tangible, creative remnant of my life that existed beyond my stay on this planet. I felt like there might be nothing but a paper trail which I produced at work, unsigned and ultimately consumed into the anonymity of the computers which governed my office. I mulled over why this should matter? For me, I identified the need to somehow transmit into the void that I was here, I had an impact, I once existed. I think that impulse is relatively common. Lovers carve their initials on trees. The concrete worker traces a name and date into a square of sidewalk before the wet dries. Caves and walls along river beds bear the silent testimony of those who scratched their lifestyles into rock, fulfilling a desire to leave a permanent mark that transcends time.
I took cognitive steps to leave my mark in the form of knitting, making jewelry and drawing. My writing, too, will pass on to my family. I’ve been deliberate about making these choices. They are part of my intellectual process.
As I looked around at Michael’s work space, I realized that what he’d done was fueled from an organic need to create. His head was stuffed with ideas – making them real was limited only by the time constraints of living a pretty traditional lifestyle where a job defined a great deal of what he could get done in limited time. My process about legacy was mentally driven while his stemmed from a visceral internal impulse to make his ideas tangible. I stood at one of his work tables, ready to plunge in and eliminate some of what he’d left behind.
There were a few painted and stained pieces of wood which I assumed would be supports for more of the idiomatic art. I wondered how he would go about translating the language into the physical. Our minds worked so differently in this area. I wish I could have seen how he would solve his dilemmas.
As I sorted things by type, I unearthed unexpected surprises. The first was a two inch thick rubber banded stack of old credit cards, both his and mine, going back 40 years. I remember him asking me for expired ones which I gave him without questioning why he wanted them. Many of the issuing banks no longer exist.
They were next to a box of old phones. And then there was this overflowing metal tray, filled with old bolts, washers and other bits of metal that I can’t identify.
To top those finds off, I found two big boxes of old comic books. The comic books were always a bone of contention between us. His parents had dumped his childhood collection when he left for college which made him sad and bitter. He began collecting again when we first started out together in 1972 and ultimately, had so many boxes they needed their own closet. In a house which was originally built without closets, I found this use of the few that he built in to be a ridiculous waste of space. Most of them had no value as they weren’t protected by in preserving sleeves. So he finally parted with them, ostensibly recycling them all. Except he didn’t. I found boxes stashed in the garage. I gave my eldest grandson a big stack, threw away the ones that were badly damaged and found myself unable to part with the rest.
I know I’ve unearthed not just a bunch of stuff to be discarded but rather ideas and plans that never came to fruition. I’m fairly certain that the credit cards and phones were likely to be some projects that would illustrate a point that he wanted to make with his students, some comment on history and contemporary life. All the metal objects and the comics were clearly going to be some mysterious art that I can’t ever figure out. As with his complex line drawings that he made throughout his life, the end result was never what I expected.
My garage is packed with unfulfilled creative impulses. I know I can manage to part with them sometime soon. I’ve got the photos to remind myself that today’s technology allows me to peek into private recesses of Michael’s private interior landscape. This offputting chore has turned into a posthumous gift from him to me. An unexpected turn in the road which is how life works. Doesn’t it?