Last night I spent Family home evening with Grandpa and Grandma Pratt. I thought going into it that it would perhaps be my last.
I wasn't ready for it. Not in the least. But when Ellen called and asked if I could come down and take some stuff from Grandpa's house, I decided that the best course of action would be to simply face it. But how do you put closure on a lifetime, or on two lifetimes? Sure I know all the cliches about what you collect during your life, what you can and can't take with you, the mark you leave on the world and the general worthlessness of things that, no matter what they cost, in the end are still just things. But there is something to be said for what is left behind. After all, as descendants of the deceased, no matter what it amounts to in boxes or bank accounts, it is ours to sift through, seeking to attach some meaning to the life now past, and hoping to attach the title “legacy” to some part or whole of that houseful.
So I threw an extra large back of M&Ms in my car and went to Salem, and I opened the door of the house I haven't been in since I spent the night there, the night he died. And it still smelled like them. And it still felt like them. And even if the furniture was gone, and there were simply piles and boxes strewn across the floor, it still felt like he should be sitting in the kitchen reading the dictionary or shelling walnuts, and she should be puttering around, putting some food together or collecting another stack of family history documents. And I was glad that Ellen had me come over alone at first, since it took me quite a few minutes to regain my composure. I stumbled around the house, opening cupboards and closets, not really looking for anything in particular, but finding every memory that I didn't know I sought. And just as I finished staring absently at a closet full of thread and thimbles, Ellen came in and began to give me a run down of all that was there and all that had been laid claim to. And I began to understand that while we each knew the same two people, we each treasured different things, and surely we could each find a different legacy to treasure in all of the things that were left. It seems a shame to divide it all up, when you consider the whole of the two people that assembled that collection. But somehow, we each need certain parts of that whole, and to try to simply take on the whole would be as disastrous to our minds and spirits as it would be to our basements and garages. So I looked at the whole of what is left behind, and I sifted out the things that were most important to me. Walnuts. Music. Good books. Thimbles. Thread. Bread Pan. Photograph. Dictionary. Apron. Hat. Bag. I'm still not ready for goodbye. I won't ever be ready for that. Good thing I believe in an eternity where I don't have to say goodbye. But at the same time, what are the lessons, the legacies, I need in order to survive my sojourn as well as they did?
Every book I opened had some photo or postcard stuck in the pages (I do that too). Every drawer had a collection of pencils and pens to rival Office Max (I do that too). Every cupboard had at least one food storage can of wheat or dried apples or beans and a stack of music and Family History info blended together as if they made more sense as a melange ( I do that too). Every closet contained some article of clothing that had been created from a sheet or some curtains, or else, the fancy clothes, the real store bought items, were the items I recognized as being church clothes. Grandpa hadn't touched Grandma's things. Everything was as if they had both continued up until that night I stayed there. The grocery list was still on the counter, where I left it the morning I was faced with too many phone calls. It's contents were just a little too poignant, touching and descriptive. M&M's, Yogurt, Ranch Dressing, and Melissa's Phone Number. The dresser still had her jewelry box and was scattered with their temple name tags. Also on the dresser were his pocket watches and her brushes. It recalled for a moment the Gift of the Magi, but that was quickly supplemented by what Grandma would have had to say about the story. “What a lot of silly nonsense, spending money for frivolous things. If you have such a gift as a pocket watch from your father, you shouldn't sell it for hair combs. And if you happen to have such beautiful hair that could be sold, then buy food or food storage, or put it in savings. (And once your hair is short, dye it a fantastic shade of red)” Grandma would never have spent money so freely. She saved it her whole life, and then took great pleasure in slipping a $20 to her grandkids that popped by for a visit. “To cover the cost of gas” she would whisper as she slipped it in my pocket. “Don't tell Grandpa” Meanwhile, Grandpa was taking the momentary distraction as an opportunity to sneak some ice cream bars out of the freezer, to slip to you under the table during that Scrabble game. “Don't tell Grandma” he would wink, as she pretended to not notice. And everyone knew perfectly well what both the right and left hand were doing.
I have a vivid memory of Grandma sewing a scripture case for me. It was on a red calico print, and she whipped it out pretty quickly, with no thought to pattern or size. As an 8-yr-old, I took no thought to how remarkable a skill that is. I remember vividly being fascinated by how quickly her fingers could work a needle, including the flashing of a thimble poised on her fourth finger. Have you tried to sew with a thimble lately? It is no small feat. She told me stories while she sewed. About how her daughter had sewn her fingers in a sewing machine, about the trouble my dad had gotten into as a child, about her ancestor's sacrifices for religion, and about her own life and the friends she had made and lost through the years. I didn't know then, as I anxiously waited for that red calico scripture bag, that in 25 years I would treasure the thimble and the stories.
I have a vivid memory of Grandpa, at work in his dark room, and that revolving door, always maintaining a light lock in the room, and being terrified of getting stuck in that black plastic circle that the door revolved around. A photograph is so much more than the image it retains. A memory is so much more than the event that it recalls. There is an image in my mind of him laying on the living room floor, in precisely the same way my dad always lays on the living room floor, listening to music. Knowing every work of that opera... Gilbert and Sullivan? And 25 years later, when I too knew every word of the opera, and we had sung it on the phone together, and we sang it in the hospital room the day before he passed away, I finally understand that not every child holds a memory of a dad or a grandpa lying on the living room floor. Does the music sound better there? Absolutely.
Once when computers were still a novelty and sound cards we the latest and greatest exciting gadget, Grandpa was programming his computer (with the orange typing on the black screen, using something you young kids haven't heard of called “DOS”) to play the melody lines of simple songs. He would write a short program, and Run Program, and you would hear a brief synthesized melody, and from the kitchen Grandma would call out “Oh Hurley, you are so clever” And Grandpa would smile and say, in his most Eeyore voice: “It's not that hard to do, but whenever I make the computer play a song, your Grandma tells me I'm clever, and that tickles me, so I do it again”
It's not about closure. I don't need closure. Why should I close the door on good people who lived great lives? And they don't want me to close that door any more than I want to shut it. Sure, there is something to be said for moving forward with our lives. But if we move forward without the legacies that have been left for us, then we move forward alone and we waste the proffered gift. So I'm leaving the door open just a crack, and I am pressing forward with a thimble on one finger and a scrabble tile on a necklace. And if there is an extra photo in my pocket or book on my shelf, well, my own descendants will have to forgive me the clutter. When it's their turn, they can sort through it and choose the pieces that mean the most to them.
And we move forward, the sum of their earthly existence becomes a part of the whole of my existence. And every time spend a Monday night with a quilt and a thimble, every time I put a little Gilbert and Sullivan in the stereo and lay down on the living room floor, every time I have M&M's or hotcakes or Apricot Jam for the treat, then I am spending Family Home Evening with them again.