Saturday, February 22, 2014
It's the Small things
The small house stood on an even smaller lot, among a cluster of homes that went up when the War ended and so many young men came home to settle down. There were dozens just like it, neat and ordered, awaiting those that survived to light their rooms with freedom. The house stood there, some 60 years later, most of its kind gone. The small, aging homes sold as generations moved away. It was now surrounded by tall , narrow townhouses, stark white between bland homeowner association approved blues and greys that loomed over it like Easter Island statues. The small white house stood defiantly among them, the owner refusing to sell or move when the Californians moved north and took over the neighborhood.
It was my Aunt's house, my Dad's oldest sister, where I had spent many wonderful days during vacation exploring the tiny yard and garden while the adults sat in the tiny living room, sipping cold tea and listening to music from another era. But the voices in that house were stilled, the house with a pending sale looming upon the death of my Aunt many months ago.
Friends had urged her to sell when my Uncle passed away years ago. Because of its location, the tiny spot of land she was on was worth an incredible amount of money, enough to get a really nice condo anywhere she wanted, leaving money for travel and luxuries.
Change your life, they'd say. Get out from under your house and get a condo, forget your garden and your flowers, you'll have more freedom, you'll have more money. Change is good.
She'd have no part of it. She continued living in that house, with the same furniture she'd had as a young bride, photos and books from their trips around the world, a perk that only slightly dulled the pain of not being able to have children of their own. To we kids, the furniture looked old, shabby, but as an adult I really noticed what she had. Finely made pieces of wood, created with real craftsmanship, rugs intricately woven and meticulous clean. Glass pieces as clear and flawless in vision as I've seen in my generation. Things of quality. Things worth saving.
The house was sold, soon to be scraped to the ground, to make way for yet another narrow town home, dwellings that had yet to acquire either character or memory. I visited it one last time before the keys were turned over, the house quiet, the hardwood floors bare, the flitting shadows on the wall like birds. From beyond the window was the water, smelt and heard but not seen, there in the darkness.
It was hard to say goodbye to that house. As kids we'd visited often and had many happy memories there. But they were both gone, it was time to go. As I headed for the airport, I glimpsed the ferries on Puget Sound, seeing their wake rippling outwards. Watched the wake that moved towards where I watched from a distance, the movement bringing up a smell of the water that was part of my growing uyp. The ferry's shadow moved away as well, towards a bank of fog, disappearing as if it had never been.
To keep it in my minds eye I had to draw upon memory and the echo of it's passing. And that's when I realized, that all all we really have left of anything is the knowledge of what remains, even if you can't see or touch it, those traces of that which has value.You can lose everything, a house, family or a loved one and it's still there with you, reflecting your future, shaping your decisions, defining fury and grace, as you hold on to that which made you strong. Holding on, even as ruthless men corrupt that which made us strong, into something self serving, beyond our intent and our knowing, beating our freedoms into smaller and smaller pieces, into an attenuation of lost ideals, scattered like small stones.
My Aunt knew this, not living in the past because she wasn't strong enough to move on, to change her life, but taking from the past that which had value and using those things to validate the code by which she lived her life. Well traveled, well read, having lived over 90 years, she understood that which went before us, events and words, action and men.
Whether we are rich or have a single possession to our name, we still have those best parts of our past. It's a voice on the phone, stories muttered by brave men, it's words on pages, ideals passed on from one generation to the next. I have the stories of my father and my Uncle from WW II, told to me on their knee two generations after the War ended. I have my Dad's wings, I have a small, crude cross my Uncle pounded out from a nickel on a long march that broke most men. I have the history, the words of my nation, and those men that founded and defended it.
"The Constitution of most of our states (and of the United States) assert that all power is inherent in the people; that they may exercise it by themselves; that it is their right and duty to be at all times armed and that they are entitled to freedom of person, freedom of religion, freedom of property, and freedom of press." -Thomas Jefferson
Those are words that need no change. Thanks to people like my parents and my Aunt and Uncle, I did not grow up with the notion that what was important was being given your self esteem. Trophies were earned, not given to every child for participating. What was important was self respect and what we had of it was earned.
My Aunt did not grow up with promises of free health care, a roof over their head or a steady paycheck. Her generation grew up with simply the freedom to live, to make mistakes and grow. I am sure there were nights in her life that she went to bed hungry. I'm sure there were nights when she went to bed lonely and fearful of what the next week might bring.
But she had something often lost in the panacea of change that's being promoted now. She had the quintessential freedom to make of her life what she wanted of it, large or small. She had the freedom to find her path. She had the freedom to lose her way. She knew to her dying day that freedom would always be the fundamental requirement of any sound man's mind and she would embrace it always. Embrace it, even if in her last year she was increasing dismayed by decisions made simply for changes sake. Decisions made by hands that knew no blood or callus but only the swipe of a pen, spending millions that others had fought for, hands that had not learned through suffering that there is a profound difference between liberty and license.
But to the end, in her 90's, she had her life, on her terms and to the end she retained a clear mind and the ability to pass on what was important. Teaching us to value the old, respect what works and work hard. Like my father before me and my brothers, I raised my hand and took an oath to protect and serve my country, and I ask for little in return. For I have learned that survival is the individuals responsibility, all I ask of my government is the freedom to think, to defend, to act, while being free of the interference of those who don't. Freedom based on a Bill of Rights, which includes the right to fail.
My Aunt maintained her freedom to the end, despite the urging of her more liberal neighbors, people who for whom accepting had taken the place of knowing and believing. She lived her life on her own terms up until her last breath, surrounded by that which reinforced her freedom and offered her comfort in the dark hours. A Bible, books of learned men and of history and one dog eared page from a book by D.H. Lawrence.
Men fight for liberty and win it with hard knocks. Their children, brought up easy, let it slip away again, poor fools. And their grandchildren are once more slaves. ~D.H. Lawrence, Classical American Literature
The other day a friend asked why I switched from engineering to study the science of bones, my fascination with them. I didn't answer him at the time, but I will now. I have studied bones untouched by anything but time. I have studied bones in fragments, co mingled with hundreds of others, burned and broken and laid bare to the elements. Still, I am always fascinated by the strength of that which is unfleshed. They are what lies at the center of us, not the heart, but that part of us that is the last thing to ever be dissolved, even if cut or disassembled or burned. It is the hardest, strongest most unwavering part of us, that which supports us, the last piece of us that remains of this earth, when everything else is lost. It's the surviving remnant of all that was dear to us.
Such are our values and if we are lucky, we hold on to them until we too are simply bone.
As I left her home city for the last time, I watched the ferry move away, its whistle absorbed by the pensive water, soon to be gone from sight. I was amazed by how quickly it had disappeared from view, gone with that swift and cursive ease in which things of value can be lost.
She is gone, but her family remains, a generation of children who were raised to fight for liberty, not let it slip away. Like her, I've spent many nights alone, often in a hotel in a strange land. I've come home with images a person should never see, playing in my head like a bad film, until sleep comes fitfully. Yet I come home with purpose. I analyze what is left, carefully, gently and with reverence, cataloging the bare bones of all that is truly important, so that further loss stays distant. That's what I was raised to do. That's all any of us can do.