By Wayne Allensworth
He wanders among his progeny, lilting subtly as he walks, occasionally slowing to a shuffle on the worn carpet. Sometimes he points his cane at a chair or at a picture, at something, and asks “Does anybody want this?” And sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. If they don’t, he shakes his head in disbelief. “I thought somebody’d get that for sure,” he says, and then he ambles over to the next item to be scrutinized and he eyes it closely, as if he were seeing it for the first time. In a way, it is a first. It’s the first time he has viewed a particular item knowing that he and that thing are parting company, just as he had inevitably parted company with the people those items had been attached to by circumstance and memory.
You are liable to get a story out of whatever has caught his eye.
My father points to a wooden lampstand and says he made that for his mother when he was a boy. The old rocking chair belonged to my mother’s great grandfather. A worn looking Stetson belonged to her father. He provides the details of why they were special to their previous owner, and about when and how he and my mother, gone these six years, acquired them. I know all that, but I let him tell the stories anyway. He picks up the hat, for example, and recalls that “Happy,” as my maternal grandfather was known, had worked for a hatmaker for a time. My father’s older brother had worked there for a while, too. “That was way back there. Before the war.” He ponders this point and moves on.
Sometimes he sighs and says something about everything having to go, but there’s no way around that. There’s just nothing else to do, is there? And then I remind him that there are a number of items he wanted to keep that we are setting aside. Nobody will get those things, and nobody will buy them in the estate sale. “It will be with us, at our house,” I tell him. “Your new home.” He seems to take some comfort in that.
The collection of kept items is made up mostly of pictures of my mother, of their parents, of kin people of every degree of separation, but there’s also an old baseball bat, a tiny chair and desk, a beautiful wooden level, and a stool he had made for his mother that has his name written in a boy’s tentative cursive on the bottom.
And there is his older brother’s Purple Heart, and a picture of him in his flight suit, “somewhere in England,” as his letters to his parents read, sometime prior to his B-24 going down on D-Day. There is the letter from the War Department saying that he was missing, and a picture of my grandmother in a black dress receiving his medal, but neither the medal nor the stated gratitude of her country could ever fill the space the loss of her elder son left behind. She never really recovered, as so many mothers like her never did, and my grandfather had to live with it, and he had badgered an indifferent bureaucracy about any news of his son or his downed plane or the remains of the crew that were never, ever found, and that had to make it even worse. There was no chance to say goodbye, even to a coffin or a grave. There’s nothing good about war, even the ones you “win.”
My father repeatedly asks when the estate sale is scheduled to take place and we remind him again that it is still weeks away, and he nods and I don’t know whether he is happy about that or just wants to get it all over with. Sometimes he says that, that he wishes it was all finished. And at other times he has wanted to come back and look at the house again, just to take a looksee one more time and once more and once more. And we try to accommodate him.
He wanders out into the garage, where shelves and drawers and hooks on the wall contain and hold and secure tools from his carpentering days. And there are tools my grandfathers and great grandfathers used that made their way into this garage so far from their original homes. Sometimes they made their own tools. Grandad’s trowel that he welded himself. A marvelous wooden device with apertures cut into the top section, the wooden pieces fitted carefully together. I can’t remember what the thing is, and my father tells me it is a mold he made for casting his own fishing weights. “In them days,” he says, “If we didn’t have something, we made it for ourselves.” He seems proud of that, as he should be, but also a little bit puzzled that such a statement of fact needs explaining.
He asks whether I want some of the tools, and I take a hammer I remember him wielding many a time, and another wooden level, and a few other things, one of them a yardstick, the aged wood imprinted with a reminder that Orlie Coulter’s lumber yard was located three blocks south of the courthouse in Ardmore, Oklahoma.
The wistful feeling I experienced that day–that many of us who were there on that last day at the house felt, I think–was more than sentimental nostalgia. The lives those people, my people, led were often hard lives, with infants dying and children killed in accidents. One of them, my grandmother’s younger brother, was killed by a rattlesnake bite. Mental illness haunted one side of the family and alcoholism plagued a number of family members. There was disease and unemployment and wondering where the next meal might come from in Depression days.
But there was something else. All of those people my father calls our “kinfolks,” all of them that we knew, and we knew our great grandparents and grandparents, as well as cousins and aunts and uncles, all of them lived in a world held together by thick social and cultural ties. Less mobility, larger families, ceremony and ritual, and lifelong friendships supported their world with an invisible safety net that was sensed and experienced and never needed explaining. As bleak as times could be, they had a home to go to and some assurance of who they were. Every story ends, and they knew that theirs also would end, but it would not end in isolation as so many stories end these days.
I don’t recall my departed kin people dwelling on the worst things or growing bitter, but I do remember their laughter and a positive sense of resignation that told them there were some things you just had to live with. And that got them through. I’ve grown to envy them.
As family members filtered out of the house that day, I went back in to look for my father, who was not outside with the others as they prepared to leave. I found him in the hall with all those pictures. He was bracing himself on the wall by his right hand and holding a picture in his left hand. He was silently studying a portrait of my mother.
Wayne Allensworth is a Corresponding Editor for Chronicles Magazine. He is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel Field of Blood.