Simplifying: not always so simple

Last night, at the end of a long day, I went downstairs to confront the sorting of piles once again. In the traditional Christian story of the Creation, God separated the light from the dark to create day and night. In my current story, I separate pictures from the letters from the notebooks from the concert stubs, from the family history records to create piles upon piles.

I grabbed another notebook of dad’s to look through and decide if there was anything in there I wanted to keep. The one I grabbed was not his usual ranting, sad poetry, or angry letters to be sent later. This one was nearly full of letters he wrote to women in response to classified ads they placed in magazines like The Enquirer. I don’t know if magazines still have these kinds of ads – perhaps it is the early equivalent to Ashley Madison or other dating sites. Anyway, this notebook was plum full of letters my dad wrote. “Dear Ms, I am a divorced, 5’9, 190 lb man living in Minnesota,” (he was none of those things…except living in Minnesota) each of these letters would begin – and then he went on to share his version of woo-ing the intended recipient. Some of it was sharing his dreams of moving south, some of it was piling flattery on some details she may have shared in her description, “you love to cook? That is perfect, because I love to eat!” In some of his letters, he spoke about how his “ex” wife didn’t understand him, didn’t meet his needs, didn’t live up to her “wifely duties.” He ended each letter with expressing how he couldn’t wait to meet and giving our home address and phone number.

These letters were mostly dated around the year I was 16. He would have been 52. ‘

I can’t say the letters upset me all that much. It’s not like I have any illusions he was a perfect man or that his marriage with my mom was without difficulty. I’ve been married long enough to know that sometimes things can happen that drive you bat-crap crazy. Maybe mom and dad had been fighting and one of the ways that he got through it was imagining a different life for a while. I don’t know if he ever sent one of those letters but I do know he never met one of these women. He was a hermit – he never left the house. In fact, he could barely walk down the driveway so he most likely would have had to ask mom to mail those letters.

No, I think these letters were a gasp at life and freedom and excitement for my dad whose real life had already become so severely limited by physical and mental ailments that he was desperate. “Is this all there is? Is that great opportunity never coming to find me up here on this hill where I hide? I’m scared shitless of this gray hair, these wrinkles, this expanding midsection, this unending sickness of spirit and body.”

Was this my dad’s version of a mid-life crisis? Writing letters to imaginary women in the far-off warmer climates where he always wanted to live? Dreaming of himself as taller, thinner, free-er, healthier, just different than he was?

No, these letters don’t upset me. What upsets me is knowing he felt trapped by circumstances – ones that were both within his control and beyond his control. He had all sorts of longings – like all of us do – but he felt powerless to change. He was so infinitely afraid…and unfaced fear eventually turns to anger.

The anger was what we got to see. He may have had all sorts of complex emotions roiling underneath, but what we saw and how we remember him is by the anger.

I tossed the notebook in the garbage.

 

 

The Jewelry Box

The other night I remembered the jewelry box played music – the tinny notes it played had been part of its’ “magic” to me when I would admire it as a young girl.  The box has been sitting in my bathroom since I brought it home from Minnesota a few months ago – Jesse likes to open it and look at Grandma’s bits of jewelry.  He calls them her “shineys.”  I turned the key to see if it still worked and there was only silence.  I wish I could remember what song it used to play.

My mom did not have a lot of fancy things.  She and dad lived very simply – partly out of necessity – money was tight since Dad couldn’t work for most of his adult life due to his disabilities, but also because of a fierce thriftiness they both held.  If they could make something keep working, keep serving its’ purpose, no matter how bad it looked or how many times it had to be taped together to keep functioning, they kept using it.

Every penny mattered.  They didn’t say things like “it’s just twenty bucks, why not get it?” – they said things like, “waste not, want not.”

There were times I felt my dad took this to the extreme – like when the window in my upstairs bedroom (which had a beautiful view of the hills and woods in the distance) broke and rather than get a new window, he just told my brother to nail a board over it – first stuffing the window frame with insulation so that it could now keep the cold air out more efficiently.  The fact that my room was now a dark tomb with no natural light was not a consideration.

Or there was the car we had when my brother and I were small – it needed a screwdriver stuck somewhere in the engine in order to get it started.  Rather than fix whatever was causing this, mom and dad just dealt with it and drove it that way for years.

And particularly unforgettable were the years when there was something wrong with our well and we used the outhouse out back and washed clothes at the Laundromat in town and filled jugs of water at grandma’s house to use for drinking and bathing.

Some people had more than us and some people had less.  Us kids might have thought our inconveniences were terribly lame, but we knew we weren’t deprived. We had no frills, but we had enough.  Mom and Dad would always figure out a way to make do.

There’s so much of this I admire.  I imagine I would have all my student loans paid off by now if I managed my money and “made do” half as well as my parents did.  As it is, I lean toward the frivolous more often than I should.  Particularly with my children – I like to buy them things.  I think it shocked my mom when she came to stay with us how much stuff we bought for the kids.  I remember admitting to her, “They are spoiled.”  She did not deny it, she said simply, “Yes.  But they are cute.”

For however little material possessions mom wanted or needed during her life, it became even more extremely this way the last year of her life.  When she came to live with us, I ached to be able to ease sadness that she was carrying.  Since I didn’t know what else to do – I would try to bring her little “treats” – things that she would normally have enjoyed – some nice soap or a pretty cup, some fresh stationery or even a tall, cold bottle of diet coke.  She would politely thank me and bring them into her room where she would place them carefully in her bedside drawer or closet.  She did not need them or want them or even barely consider them for longer than it took to store them away.

Sometimes I think, whether she realized it or not, her vision was already set on the Next place.  Her whole life she had needed so little but for where her journey was leading her now, there was absolutely nothing she needed or wanted.

After mom died, my brother and I went through her house in Minnesota and took care of what was left behind. There was nothing of great value – but much that was precious, of course, including that jewelry box.  It is pink with pink satin and velveteen on the inside.  I remember as a child creeping into my parents’ room to open that pretty box and look at her treasures.  When I came across it after her death it still contained many of the same things I had remembered she kept in there – some earrings she used to wear when she was right out of college and worked in Minneapolis, her high school Letter, a locket with a picture of dad, and dad’s wedding ring.

I took dad’s ring and slipped it onto my thumb.  It was just a few days earlier that I had put on mom’s wedding ring.  When she was in ICU they had to take it off her since her fingers were swelling so badly.  I put it into a plastic bag along with the only other piece of jewelry she wore, a black hills silver ring I had given her some years before.  I told her I would hold onto them until she got out of the hospital.  The night she died, while I was still in the hospital room trying to gather the strength to stand and leave and go home, I kept looking at her hands and seeing the indentation on her ring finger. I remembered the rings still in my purse.  I took them out and slipped both those rings on my finger.  I had planned to just bring them back to Minnesota and give them to the funeral director to have them buried with her – but when I got there, I couldn’t do it.  I felt guilty about that because her thin gold wedding band had been on her hand her whole life.  She had held us as babies while wearing that ring.  She had cared for my father wearing that ring.  It rightfully belonged buried on her finger, but I couldn’t part with it.  Mom would have to forgive me for that – because I knew I somehow needed it to help me get through the rest of my life without her.

It makes no sense that a thin gold band should help me feel near to my mom who cared so little for material things.  Yet perhaps it does.  This ring was one thing that did matter to her.  It stood for a promise she made that mattered to her more than any other in her life.  I look at it and I can see her hands still.  Truthfully, I would give away every single possession I have before I would get rid of this ring.  It rests on my finger just below my own wedding band.  Like a firm and gentle reminder from my mom about the things that matter most: persistence, promises kept, and love.  Always love.