Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Things We Leave Behind

My dad died a couple of weeks ago, it's been a horrible and long road this year. He is done suffering and out of pain, we will miss him forever but we know it was time to go.  I feel like I should be more grief stricken at losing him, but I keep thinking about the fact that he was supposed to die a long time ago.  He had a massive heart attack in 1990 that should have killed him at the age of 48 but it didn't.  We got 25 bonus years and he got to see all the things he wanted to see, all four of his daughters grown and married to good men, all eleven of his grandchildren born and all old enough to have good solid memories of him and even two great grandchildren.  He was never "supposed" to see any of it but he beat the hell out the odds.  How sad can we be, knowing he got 25 extra years with us?  I'm sure I'm going to crumble at some point, but for now, it's okay.
We also lost mom this year, although she is still technically alive, her Alzheimer's has taken her from us with even less pity than death. I wish she was dead. There, I said it. Sometimes I feel like a horrible person for thinking, much less saying that thought out loud, but most days I don't because death is kinder than this disease.

We've spent the past couple of months getting their house ready to sell, another death like loss.  My parents bought that house in 1972, I was four years old and have only vague, gauzy memories of living anywhere else.  So many great and notable things that happened to me from the age of four are centered on that house.
Three bedrooms, one and a half bathrooms, a spooky basement and that incredible front porch were the center of my world. Growing up in the 1970s and 80s in that neighborhood was a wonderful thing.  Tons of kids and the St. Paul Seminary campus across the street was basically an extension of our own yards. The Mississippi river was just a couple of blocks away and we were walking distance to Davanni's for pizza or Mr. Orth's tiny little store for candy (don't tell mom we crossed Cretin Ave and I'll buy you some).  The families in our corner of the world were prolific, very few had only one or two kids, the rest had at least four, Us, Cheneys, Nichols, Faricys, Brandts, Vellengas, Hoffmans, Gassmans, Hannigans, Lepaks, Mauns...the list was seemingly endless and there was little chance you wouldn't find someone to play with, sometimes more than you wanted.  Games of Ditch and Spider went on for hours into the summer evenings, kids spread all over "the Sem" and our parents frequently congregating on one of the facing front porches to theoretically keep an eye on us.  

My dad hung a rope swing on a huge cottonwood tree directly across from our house that quickly became a legendary thing.  The knot took on a life of its own with the frequent additions of old t shirts, torn bath towels and the like until it was the size of a small child and very comfortable on the hundreds of butts that gave it purpose.  The Nichols boys next door could usually be counted on for a heart stopping, thrilling push that sent you soaring over the street, a moment both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.  My sister Emily was just a tiny little thing, maybe four or so, and was completely fearless on that thing, much to my mother's eternal horror.  An "around the world" push took you in a huge circle, occasionally swinging just far enough to touch the trunk of the tree as you went past, an overzealous push could send you painfully bouncing off the trunk like a ball in a pinball machine but you'd take it like a man.  A true test of your kid credit was when one of your pals would grab your ankles and spin you as fast as they could.  The trick was keeping your legs locked around the rope and a light lunch. The swing lasted until St. Thomas College bought the Seminary campus and the grounds crew began to wage war on us neighborhood kids.  It took a lot of concentrated effort and I'm betting a whole lot of swearing to get rid of that swing, culminating in a very memorable day when the groundskeeper tied it to the bumper of his pickup truck in an attempt to make the rope snap.  It didn't break, but both the bough of the tree and his bumper did.  Served him right, the fun killing rat bastard.

The process of clearing out a lifetime's of stuff is not entirely heartbreaking, although heartbreak is certainly one component.  Lots of feelings pile on, you have sadness, of course, but there are also moments of fondness, a lot of happy memories bubble to the surface and we found plenty to puzzle over, more than we imagined. 
My family is quirky, to say the least. We found the mundane, usual kind of stuff you'd expect from 40 plus years, four kids and eleven grandchildren, but then we started to find the weird stuff, the unexpected stuff and then the downright mysterious.
The usual stuff included boxes upon boxes of photographs, scrapbooks and a crap ton of Christmas decor.  My mother hosted all the holiday dinners and had a prodigious amount of fine china (Lenox with a 14K gold rim), stemware (Waterford, Tramore pattern) and at least three full silver service sets.  My mother used to say she was going to smash all the Waterford and the china before she died so we wouldn't fight over it until I informed her that none of us is classy enough to own it except for my oldest sister, Jenny.  We found thousands of address labels from Easter Seals and the March of Dimes, decks of playing cards, cloth napkins for every season and, inexplicably, hundreds of greeting cards for any and all occasions.  They had more magazine subscriptions than they could possibly have ever read in a month and I suspect those were the result of my father's soft heart and a schoolkid with a fundraising packet.  There was a lot of evidence of the many, many holidays hosted at that house, shown in the sheer volume of stray, forgotten serving dishes and baking pans found in the back of the kitchen cupboards.  The basement yielded a treasure trove of newspapers from as far back as the  killing of Dillinger, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon and 9/11.  He saved every newspaper from the Grand Forks flood of 1997, as it affected me and my family directly.  He had pennant sets, buttons and papers from both of the Minnesota Twins World Series wins, all carefully saved in clear plastic totes.  I have no idea what he meant to do with the Coca Cola Christmas six pack bottle sets he had accumulated, but there were decades worth down there.  Jars of nails, screws, bolts, nuts and washers were meticulously arranged on the shelves alongside oddities like the broken propellers from the model planes we used to fly together.  There were a few pieces of old furniture sitting along the wall, partially hiding the seven foot long, fully functional slide rule that he got from his brother one birthday. Emily and I found truly the only thing in the house I was really hoping to find, the ugliest mugs known to mankind.  Carved wooden beer mugs that I remember vividly from my youth. I hadn't seen them for many, many years and they turned up in the very back of the very bottom shelf in the cabinet behind the dining room door.  At first we only found two, so we decided we just wouldn't tell the other two sisters we had found them but the other two turned up a while later.  I was absolutely overjoyed that we could each have one.
They're Glorious!

Mom had all of our wedding dresses, along with my paternal grandmother's, a bridesmaid dress from her sister's wedding and a mystery white dress no one could identify.  Our baby books were all there, Jenny's (the oldest) faithfully filled in almost every page, Melissa's (number 2) pretty well filled in for the first three or so years, mine (number 3) has some stuff in it, but mostly abandoned by about the first birthday and Emily (number 4) MIGHT have her name filled in and hospital tag stuck in the pages somewhere.  A testament to good intentions swallowed whole by the reality of having four kids.

That's really what's in here
A fine vintage
Personally, I think the best thing unearthed was the jar containing my great grandmother Minnie's gallstones (a whole damn lot of them, poor woman), bottled in July of 1934.  Seriously, not even kidding.

I am so lucky to come from a family that not only appreciates the absurd but celebrates it.  We seek out the odd, relish the weird and give it a place of honor in our lives. Why would you do anything but?  I cannot wait for the day that someone notices that strange little jar on the shelf in the living room and picks it up to take a better look and is either grossed out or completely delighted by it.  My kids better take note of all my weird stuff, that's their inheritance, right there.

We've also discovered two very strange and poignant mysteries. The first contained within a nondescript manila envelope, one of many in an old trunk in what used to be my bedroom but has been a tv room/computer room/sunroom ever since I moved out.  There were several in the truck, innocuously labeled "DFL", "SCHOOL", "MISC" and one marked "ADOPTION".  Emily and I both paused for a long moment until I turned to her and said "See? I always told you you were adopted."  She still doesn't think it's funny, trust me, it is.  Along with a battered and well-loved copy of "The Best Loved Doll" was a sheaf of paperwork, completely filled out and notarized (by dad's brother Joe) for the adoption of an eight month old Korean baby girl.  They were one signature away from this adoption and never filed the paperwork.  We asked both Aunt Carol (Joe's wife) and my mom's sisters and not one of them knew anything about it.  My parents had never even mentioned to possibility of adoption to anyone, not their closest relatives or, upon further investigation, their closest friends.  I think I will always wonder what became of that child, my almost sister.
The other, even more mystifying item wasn't found until after my father died.  Carefully tucked behind the pictures of his wife, daughters and grandchildren were two other photographs, small black and white photos of a strange woman none of us had ever seen before, taken in the summer of 1958.  That's not even the most mysterious thing about them:

The fact that they're mugshots set us back on our heels a bit.  Dad would have been just a month shy of seventeen in July of 1958 and as far as we knew, hadn't been to Florida yet.  She doesn't resemble anyone we know, he never spoke of a friend in prison but carried these photos in his wallet until the day he died. I doubt we will ever know this particular story.

Finding these two mysteries made me realize that as well as I thought I knew them, my parents had secrets they kept their whole lives.  They're entitled to their secrets, aren't we all?  Maybe we shouldn't try to figure these things out, but that goes against out very nature.  It certainly puts an interesting light on my boring old parents...yeah, I can't say that with anything even close to a straight face.

Someday, I'll tell you all about them.