My fears, those small ones that seemed so big
For all the vital things I had to get and reach
And yet there is only one great thing
The only thing
To live to see the great day that dawns
And the light that fills the world.
- Unknown Inuit
My Dad still owns the same house I spent the majority of my childhood in. The Montana home was rented out, then sold. The vacation rental cottage was long gone, the waterfront property sold to developers after my first Mom died and replaced with condos with all the ambiance of a dental lab. But the home of my childhood, as it stands, is still pretty much the same as I remember.
The 70's shag carpeting, thank the Lord, is gone however.
Driving in the rental car from the big city airport, I head down a street that as kids, we used to fly up and down, on foot or on bikes, playing secret agent or soldiers. I pull into the driveway and it's like going back to another lifetime. The giant motion detector spotlights are still in the driveway (thanks Dad, that went over REAL well with my dates in high school), the fence Big Bro knocked into when he first got his drivers license and the tree my Dad planted while we were in high school, now shading the porch.. Every thing's still pretty much the same, the big picture window, ablaze with light, greeting me with the smile of a trusted friend.
Walking into the house, I can see the marks of our lives there, framed pictures on the wall, things we crafted for our parents when we were kids. The ceramic squirrel I made in First grade with a teacher overseeing the firing, a small statue that looks more like zombie than squirrel, yet still to this day, sits on Dad's desk. A pair of praying hands from a church bulletin, carefully cut out and shellacked on a stained plaque to hang on the wall in the laundry room. Other things, other memories, one of Dad's many hats perched next to a pair of boots, curtains my Mom had sewn, shadows lingering on the walls as the family found comfort and acceptance around the family dinner table.
This time I'll drive to see my brother, and I'll take Dad with me. Dad is still in that house, 92 years old, having outlived so many he has loved, including his first born child. He will enjoy the drive and the visit will be all that is found at home, laughter, board games, meals prepared together, prayer, bad jokes and hope.
Children tend to think of their parents as always having been old, of not really experiencing life, its heartaches, its joys Certainly I was no exception to that thinking growing up. Until I found the photos. There's been a few framed photos of when they were first married, my parents seated on a prim and proper chair that looks about as comfortable as an old Lutheran church pew. Dad's hand is on her knee, not as a brand of ownership, but as confirmation of the look in his eyes. But the album was something I had never seen.
I found it when I was doing some cleaning and organizing at Dads, buried in a drawer. an album covered with soft brown fabric, as worn as leather, as soft as velvet. In it were the pictures I had never seen, of my parents and their brothers and sister as children, as youngsters and young adults living in the same small town. Dad's home life was not good, for reasons I have never known exactly. But he and his siblings, as children spent many hours at my Mom's house, getting there, what they was lacking at home, despite his Mom's best efforts to make things normal, to provide.
He never spoke of his Father. My Mom hinted that it was something not to ask him about, that he, his siblings and mother, were dealt a harsh reality in that home and to leave it at that. He still has a picture of his Mom on his dresser, a woman whose eyes had seen so much, a look I later recognized, yet she still looked proudly into the camera. Her jaw was set, her mouth a thin, tired line, features kilned in the heat of soul or environment, eyes alive and determined in a face of fired clay. He never mentioned her either but the picture was carefully framed and dusted, where he could see it as he got up before dawn to dress and go to work to care for his family.
A picture, but few words. But decades later, unknowingly driving him past the place where she was accidentally struck and killed by a car while walking to get food for her family, he broke down and sobbed. It was a sound I never expected to hear from him, an echo of heartbreak that sounded from that trammeling memory, never to be mentioned again.
But I looked at those pictures and see people that I previously knew, but only as a "parent" or an "aunt" or an "uncle". Who are those kids splashing along the edge of the lake, someone appearing to have caught the seat of some one's pants with a fly hook? Who, later on, is that woman posing provocatively for the camera? She's giggling because she is, and always would be, innately shy, except around my Dad. Dark auburn hair over one ice blue eye, looking at the camera like a lover come home.
Who is that fellow posing in a sleeping bag with a photo of my Mom by his side surrounded by peanut shells and what looked to be a mug of coffee. That's my Dad. There are the photos of them before they were married, hiking and fishing, both avid outdoors people.There are many pictures of Dad and his siblings with his Mom, four tall, strapping redheads towering above her, the boys all in military officer's uniforms. There is not a single photo of his Father.
A lifetime in those photos, all of the people in them, except my Dad, long gone. The photos lay there on the table now, expended laughter and corporeal touch; the spent ghosts of voluptuous movements and temporal hearts, captured in a moment of time. How many times have I been in that house and not really looked at them.
We miss so much, as we rush through life, here or there. We race, as if headed south before that first icy blast of winter, race with silent feathering of rigid wing, so driven in that instinctual quest for something, that we miss the perfect sanctuary standing in stark relief against the failing sky. We fly to work, to home, to heartache, with hurried pace, as if we functioned in a steadfast conviction that time was an illusion.
In our flight, we often soar blind, missing cues, missing direction.
I noticed it because of the trees, planted between my house and its remains, the branches now growing though openings in the roof of the original homestead, time and decay dissolving its structure. I softly approached it one day I was alone, placing my steps carefully among the footprints of invisible deer, who left their mark on beds of slain flowers. As I entered what was once the main living area, I was careful not to fall through rotten floors, just to take a look at something I'd lived near and never really noticed.
The trees, however, I noticed, the fledgling leaves laying like hands against the roof of the house, the branches jutting into splintered form, rain coming inside, streaming flatly upon the driving air, moving in. Squatters rights. Ruin, mold, rot was evident in everything, yet something caught my eye, a glint. It was a doorknob made of glass, sparking even under the layer of dirt that had settled on everything. Probably a wedding gift for a bride from back East, who had came to this house in the 1800's when it was built.
I took it, and cleaned it off and set it where it could be admired. How long had it lay there, disregarded upon its possession? A hundred years? I'll never know. Little things, important things, owned but not cherished, allowed to gather dust and never truly seen.
It was on one of my visits to my Dad years later, that I thought of this again. I was out behind the house.. My eyes were constantly on the move, for predator and prey, for places I may stumble and fall. How well though, do I see the world, in what is so familiar to me? A thunderstorm stirred overhead, one rather late for this time of year, when snow was spotting the ground. The air smell of a burnt match, my form creating unpalatable shadows against a stand of trees. There, a flash of light up ahead, a rumble of thunder, the sound not racing away in a flash of its own, but ringing in my ears, as if the sound had congealed in the air, waiting to be found.
I'd best run to the house, the storm was getting close. As I ran, I saw it, not far from the lights of the house. A crumbling, crudely made grave marker, tiny, as if for a small thing, the piece of wood washed clean of words but not thoughts. The memory came to me in a flash of light. A small bird we had found fallen from a nest, injured and attempted to save, the wind whipping its small chirp up and away like a tiny, fragile scrap of cloth against the wind, where only the sky and two small children saw it. My Mom knew well it was futile, but let us try, feeding it with a dropper and keeping it warm. It was to no avail, and Mom tenderly wrapped up it's taut, silent form and laid it in the ground. Laid it away, back behind the house, where we had a small funeral service as I cried as only the innocent can.
How had I forgotten, I thought? I stood there looking, as rain slumbered against my face, enveloping me as sheets of lighting let up the sky, the clouds swollen as if with child, waiting to release life. In my mind, I was still back there at that small moment of my childhood, memories released. In my mind I was not hurrying as an adult, I was running as a child, with the hurried stroke of a piston engine, wet, skinny, tireless, waiting only to get into the house and see my Mom for a hug and warm comfort.
But decades later, as I reached the house, I looked around, REALLY looked around. Yes, there were many things of my Step mom's. But as a widow, come from a good marriage, she realized the place in my Dad's heart my mother would always occupy, and as such, left some of Mom's things there in the house, from which we would all draw comfort. There on the little wall by the cabinet, a small plate I'd bought my Mom for Mothers Day with my name on it. On the table a candy dish of my Grandma's, crystal, filled with the candy that we kids liked, but no one else did. On the sofa in the family room, a blanket crocheted with the colors of a sunset, that Mom had made with an antique wooden crochet hook.
We all have our markers of remembrance, we have our memories. I've another picture to add to that family album, one of my grandfather's grave in the mountains of Montana, where Dad made a special trip this last Fall. It was not a place he had ever been in my memory, the power that created that place which he could not wait to escape from, had in turn, taken him safely away from it, to a place where he could be happy without forgiving it. It was time to go back.
On the stone, was my grandfather's name, the dates of his birth and early death, the etched images of saddled horses, standing as if waiting for someone to mount up and ride away. With Dad's age and health, that trip was one that drew on his last reserves, the last trip he said he'd make anywhere, to visit that grave and make, as he said, his peace with his Father of earth and of Heaven.
It is a tree that grows close to a home, its branches breathing against the house upon the infinite air, driving in an open window the forlorn scent of its need. It is the glow of a fire someone has laid for your arrival, the subtle wag of a tail. It's things that are often not noticed or taken for granted, because no one was looking, signs missed, opportunities wasted. Of small things that bring joy, when we learn to let go of the past, of love that was always around you and will forever remain, simply waiting for the light that would make you see.