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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Box In The Closet

{ My dad's U of L t-shirt, it's my favorite and I'll wear it till it's in tatters }
My dad was a great story teller, but he told the same ten stories over and over again. When he asked if I'd "heard this one before" I didn't have the heart to tell him so I listened intently and laughed in all the appropriate places. These stories were often told around the kitchen table over beers on the first night of a visit. My parents divorced when I was 10 so visits were the norm, but we were always happy to see each other, especially that first night.

There was the one about his old roommates and the apartment they shared over a Convent in Louisville. Hygienically challenged, the brothers would only clean their bathroom once a year when they had a huge party because they put the beer in their bathtub. Then there were the ones about running around his grandparents farm in Lexington with his brother Jimmy causing general mayhem. Tractors were broken, horses were "borrowed" and cream was stolen from the basement.

{ My dad (in front) and my Uncle Jimmy (in back) on the farm }
Then there were the ones he told about his Dad. My grandfather William, or "Butch" as my grandma Dora called him, died of a heart attack when he was 53 and I never had the privilege of meeting him. She never talked about him much but my Dad shared a lot, both good and bad. We are all both I've learned. Sometimes in the middle of one of these tales his eyes would get wide and he'd jump out of his seat, stomp over to the closet and pull out a large cardboard box. In it he kept all of his father's possessions that came to him after his father's death. He'd pull out something to show me and inevitably we'd empty the whole thing on the floor and joyfully look through trinkets and memorabilia, mementos and history. Absent memories, the last fragments of a life.

{ My grandfather Butch laying telephone wire in Kentucky }
When my own father passed, also of a heart attack, I had to go to his house to get a suit to bury him in. This was the first time I'd been there since it happened and as soon as I opened the door I felt his presence all around me. There was a half-eaten sandwich on the kitchen table. His bed was unmade. His cherry Maalox and razor were on the bathroom sink. He had no idea that would be his last day. He, and I, had no idea we wouldn't get to say goodbye.

Nor did his co-worker know she would be the last person to speak to him as he realized his bus was leaving without him and ran to catch it. Nor did the Nurse on board know she would have to do chest compressions on the gentleman who just boarded and immediately collapsed until the ambulance got there. Nor did the emergency room physicians and nurses know their attempts to bring him back would be unsuccessful. We never know what will happen each day. 

{ Kentucky's Finest }
Back to my own tale....That night at his place I grabbed the suit I thought he'd like best and looked around the rest of the house a bit. The thought of going through everything and deciding what to keep and what to throw away was too much at the time so I resolved to get through the funeral and then begin to think about that. When we all did come back a short time later I already felt his presence less in the house. I don't know why but it felt like he wasn't there anymore. We did the best we could saving what was important and trying to figure out what he'd want. Then I drove home from Atlanta with a fully packed car, life moved forward as it always does and I got around to the business of mourning.

{ I got my Dad's record collection and my sister got his drum set }
Speaking of life, it's terrifyingly cyclical. The other day I was in my living room brainstorming ideas for a wall collage I'd like to put up and suddenly had a great idea! My dad's high school pins would look so beautiful in a shadow box on the wall. My eyes got wide, I ran upstairs to my back room and pulled out a large cardboard box from the closet......What a moment. I can't really explain how it felt so I'll just leave it at that.

Things are just that, things. They are not a person nor do they make up the value of a life, but for those of us who have lost someone close they are a way to hold on. Not so tightly that we can't move past loss, but gently, so it's safe to remember. The measure of a life is who you love and what you do while you're here.

{ My great grandmother's quilts and spoons }
I actually found quite a few things in the box that day that will shortly be making their way on display in my house. I obviously can't put out everything, my grandfather's duffel bag from the war doesn't really go with my current bedroom scheme. But more will find it's way out. More should find it's way out. And when my nephew Jack spends the night at my house I'll walk him around and show him things of Dad's and tell him stories. He will come to know him in the only way he can now, through these things and my memories. Hopefully I can bring him to life for Jack. Hopefully I'll do him justice. His life wasn't long, but it was complex and productive. 

My father's life wasn't wrapped in a bow. 

My father's life is something to learn from. 

My father's life will be more than just a box in the closet.

His birthday is this Friday. He would have been 64....

Happy Birthday old man......

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