Monday, September 20, 2010

Wisconsin, Part IV

Friday night, after the funeral, we gather back at the farmhouse. There's a cousin picture to be taken, so we line up on the hill in front of the barn, as always. Does no one remember, Mark asks, when Grandma called out, "Everyone smile and say 'shit'?" We laugh, smile, squint into the sun.

We're in a bit of a rush; Rachel and Orlando's lives in Indiana are beckoning. These are the first goodbyes.

We've all changed into jeans and sweaters; free from the constraints of skirts and suits and heels, we wander the house, drifting together to watch a heated game of marbles at the kitchen table, falling away to study black-and-white portraits of ancestors who have been gone so long that their very names are lost. We look for resemblances -- can't you see Uncle Don in this face? Doesn't Sara have this exact chin? What happened to the curly hair gene, anyway?

We dine on leftovers from the funeral luncheon -- white bread, cold cuts, pre-sliced cheese, some fantastic salty-sweet German potato salad. Julie (sister of Sara, our somewhere-down-the-line cousins) brings over wine -- her own vintage. The kids, too exhausted to sit still, pad from one room to the next clutching rubber duckies in their fists.

Mom and I sit down with Omi's diary, which someone has unearthed. It's a multi-year diary, each page a date in the calendar year, the lines encompassing Dad's grandma's life between 1957 or so and 1973, the latest entry I can find. Sometimes her entries are solely practical -- "very cold" and "snowstorm" show up repeatedly. Mondays are clearly her wash-days. Birthdays are noted, as well as who came to visit and who left to visit elsewhere. Aunt Caroline's death three months after a terrible car accident is recorded; later, heartbreakingly, Omi writes of the death of her husband: "Dad dies in hospital in Manitowoc -- sick only one day."

"I remember that day," Dad says, prompted by the entry. It was the only Sunday that his grandpa didn't pick him up for church; during the whole service, Dad worried that something bad would happen.

Later, the girl cousins wander through the bedrooms, opening drawers and reminiscing. Our fingers trail over dusty surfaces; we're all aware it's our last time in the house. In the downstairs bedroom, Beth asks, "Remember the fruit candies Grandma stored in here?" I do; once we discovered their existence, we snuck into the room at every possible moment. It didn't matter a bit that the candies were stale, hard and possibly years-old.

In an upstairs drawer, we find a stash of Grandma's costume jewelry which leaves a greasy residue on our pawing fingers. We're mystified by the flapper-length necklaces, but instantly remember the white plastic beads. I can even conjure up the dress Grandma wore with them -- navy polyester with a white geometric pattern, a strange square apron-like flap of material in the front. Grandma's clothes were removed years ago; only Grandpa's shirts and dozens of ties hang sadly in their closet. In other drawers, we find dozens of crochet hooks and knitting needles; Heather finds a "charge plate" to the Boston Store -- the tiniest, oldest and coolest credit card any of us has ever seen. Kim discovers an old camera; it occurs to me that there might be film in it still, forgotten moments from our fathers' lives. "I've got to get going," Mark says, for the dozenth time -- he's got a drive ahead of him tonight. But he follows us anyway, gagging at the sight of his feathered hair in 80's-era photos.

Eventually, working our way in a circle around the upstairs, we reach the attic door. "You go first," I say, pushing Beth ahead of me. I've had many a private nightmare about these narrow stairs, the wooden door that creaks slowly open, the floorboards that aren't use to a footstep weightier than a rat's. All I need is to have someone pull shut the door behind me and extinguish the light, and I'll go crazy, Grace Poole-style.

If possible, the attic is more terrifying than it was when we were children. The overhead light illuminates only a tiny circle of stacked boxes; the rest of the room is hidden in inky blackness. But we're smarter than we were as kids, or possibly only more technologically advanced. Armed with flashlights, cell phones, digital cameras and the impressive flash on Heather's camera, we inch our way around the space. "I found a drum set!" Beth calls from a recess under the eave. I lift a plastic bag to reveal a telephone table which I proceed to fall in love with. "Tons of Christmas stuff over here," someone calls, and Kate asks, "Wouldn't it be cool to have one of Grandma and Grandpa's ornamenets on our trees?" A minute later, Joel calls out, "I found a gun!" "Put it down! Put it down!" we shriek in a chorus of female hysteria; this is how accidents happen, this is how a cousin gets picked off in the dark. "Relax -- it's a BB gun," he says. "I wonder if it's the gun," a few of us say, simultaneously, remembering the pellet once plucked from the white of my dad's eye. Other treasures slowly emerge: a rocking chair covered inch-deep with dust, the long-fabled fainting couch, covered feet-deep with empty boxes.

It occurs to us suddenly that the protesting floorboards may not be cut out for our collective weight, and that at any moment we might be whooshed downward in the fashion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, through the second-floor bedrooms into the first-floor living room.

Overwhelmed by so much history, exhausted by the day's events and fearing the development of black lung, the cousins abandon our noble quest. "I'm really leaving this time," Mark says, and after a round of goodbyes, does. Kim and Heather have a drive ahead of them, too; Joel and Kate (who successfully and admirably navigated the treacherous attic steps in her high heels) have children to send to bed. I'm exhausted by the mere mention of their plans - to leave at four in the morning for a day-long trip back to Georgia.

One by one, we splinter away. Aunt Barb is making airport runs on Saturday; Uncle Ed is proceeding with a planned trip to Haiti. Uncle Don and Aunt Myrene are the next to go, taking their leave on Saturday afternoon. I fly to San Francisco on Sunday morning, ungraded papers and unwritten lesson plans looming. Beth and my parents, catching flights from Milwaukee on Monday, are the last to go.

I should have been used to it, the chain of goodbyes. By the end, I should have been prepared. But the second my feet were on the back porch, my hand on the metal railing, I felt the lump rise in my throat. Goodbye, Grandpa, I thought. Goodbye, house. Goodbye, apple trees and cellar steps and towering barn. Goodbye, childhood second home. At the car door, I turned around one last time and whispered, "Goodbye, farm."

I know Dad heard me. I'm pretty sure that's why his hand came up and brushed against my back at that very moment.

Goodbye, goodbye.

Wisconsin, Part III

The Native Americans, it was said, used every part of the buffalo.

Grandpa came from a different tradition (German immigrants, struggling farmers, Depression survivors), but he had the same philosophy. Nothing should be wasted. Everything had another purpose, a chance at future usefulness.

To stand in his garage for one moment was to recognize this, to stand humbed before a life of so much carefulness, so much appreciation for the value of things. Gallon-sized ice cream buckets stood in teetering stacks; nails on the wall were carefully spaced to hold coiled lengths of rope and every imaginable tool. His workbench had dozens of tiny compartments for nails and screws and washers of every size. If we had been ordered, right at that moment, to build a giant ark to keep our family afloat for forty days and forty nights, we would have been ready.

"Look at that," one of my cousins marveled, pointing to a wooden device suspended from the ceiling which held, horizontally, a number of shovels and other tools with mid-length handles. "It's such a Grandpa contraption."

We stood, marveling.

"Actually, this reminds me of someone else's garage," I said, and pointed across the room to where my dad stood, staring at what I'd come to think of as the spot. "His."

One of my favorite stories about Grandpa was repeated at his funeral -- how, at age 95, his sons bought him a golf cart so he could get around the farm better. Grandpa paid his customary attention to the details, in particular the warranty on the vehicle's battery. "Only five years," he'd noted, critical of the value of this investment. The battery proved durable, but Grandpa was right. He did outlive its warranty.

In the attic, my cousins and I found every box that had ever been shipped to the farmhouse, complete with its packing peanuts and layers of disintegrating tissue. I checked the return addresses - some from Germany, most from the various adddresses of the sons through the decades: Kamala Court, Brookfield; Tucson, Arizona; East Graceway Drive, Napoleon; Carlton Avenue, Modesto; Bakersfield; San Jose; Lookout Mountain, Georgia. Other boxes contained wire hangers, magazines, paper plates and plastic cups still wrapped with cellophane packaging. I counted no fewer than seven vacuum cleaners.

Why would they save all of this? I wondered, although I suspected the answer had much to do with practicality and less to do with sentimentality. My practicality has taken a different form -- I have a small house, and therefore no room for sentimentality. If I won't use it or wear it within a year, it doesn't belong in my life. I don't clean; I purge. I've become an avid "freecycler" -- if someone else can use what I can't, they're welcome to it.

But in this attic, this weekend, I could afford sentimental attachments. I could allow myself to believe that every object had significance. The hangers crammed into boxes had once held Grandma's housedresses and Grandpa's everyday flannels, the boys' starched Sunday shirts, their too-big confirmation suits. Maybe this was the teapot that Grandma brought out for company; maybe it had been packed away in the attic when it was clear she wasn't coming home, and wasn't ever going to serve a crowd again. This wreath probably hung on the front door, an entrance which was never used by family. These were the very toys my dad and uncles had played with -- puzzles, the carrom board, the miniature tractor, the complicated erector set.

We vacillated between wanting nothing and wanting everything; between saying, "Everything's valuable" to "It's all junk." We were standing with one foot in the present, one tippy-toe feeling for balance in the past.

Where will it all end up, all those carefully saved things, the accumulation of more than a hundred years of living? After the weekend, we would all be gone, back to those far-away addresses, our busy lives. It's simply not practical to think of cramming suitcases, filling a U-haul -- even if those arrangements could be made, there would be nowhere to unpack or unload the contents. Disparate lives simply cannot be merged.

But I think it's wrong to assume that because the china is no longer with the tablecloth (and for that matter, neither is the table) that these things no longer have use or purpose. Grandpa and Grandma may have saved things with the family's health and well-being in mind, but now their belongings can go to others. An upstairs bedrame might be perfect for a little boy's bedroom in Sheboygan; a girl passing through a flea market in Milwaukee might fall in love with Grandma's swan vase -- someday, she might pass it on to her daughter. "It's very old, very precious," she might say. "Who knows what sort of life it has had?"

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Wisconsin, Part II

Grandpa died on Monday, September 13, 2010, the day after he attended a birthday party for his brother-in-law, my beloved great-uncle Al. Earlier in the day he had been spotted in his golf cart, rolling down the gravel driveway to the mailbox. Later, he was found in the garage, his body still warm.

He was 101 years old.

Grandpa was a simple, h0nest, hard-working man. He read his Bible, he occasionally watched professional wrestling, he tamed wild cats, who would come running at his slightest, "Here, missy, missy." He could shake a dice like no one's business; it was uncanny how he always got the exact number he needed to send our marbles back to start. He was the gentler parent, the kindly grandparent who said goodbye with a quick smack on the lips.

When Grandma died (after surviving uterine and breast cancer, the bone cancer proved too mch) in 2002, we all wondered What Would Happen to Grandpa. Sometimes this was phrased as What Should We Do with Grandpa. But Granda didn't want anything done. He was content to live alone, travel the short distances between church and home, home and his sister's house, again and again. He gamely submitted to the long plane rides from Wisconsin to Arizona and Arizona to Californa to visit his sons. He refused any suggestion of going into a nursing home - instead, he took his vitamins and chose his steps carefully, perhaps knowing that he was one bad cold or one broken hip away from hospital care.

Dad, hearing about Grandpa's death, was consumed by the sort of guilt a son has for a parent who dies alone, far away. He tried to work out the time frame: What had Grandpa done that day? Had he been on his golf cart to get the mail? Had he eaten lunch, dinner? How long had he been lying on the ground in the garage, had he called for help? What if he had been found sooner?

But consider the alternatives, Dad. Someone sees or hears him collapse, rushes to his aide, performs CPR or other life-saving measures. Paramedics are dispatched, Grandpa is loaded onto a gurney, rushed to the emergency room in Manitowoc. Doctors examine him. Tubes are hooked up. Medications are ordered. A hospital stay is necessary; possibilities of long-term care are discussed at the foot of his bed.

No, Grandpa wouldn't have wanted any of that. It was best to go the way he did - simple, fast, a misstep that led to a fall, or his heart suddenly given out, having beaten longer than most other human hearts ever will.

We learned more details later. Grandpa was in the garage, sorting apples for the applesauce he made so often and ate every day. Had he made it back to the house, Grandpa would have washed the apples and settled down for an evening of peeling them, one by one, before placing them in a pot of boiling water. Or maybe it was a task for the next day; applesauce-making might have occupied several hours. When it was time, he would have walked down the ramp to his bedroom and begun his vocal twenty-minute evening prayer in German, names of his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren popping up in English every so often.

After his funeral, we went back to the farmhouse, which bore marks of Grandpa at every turn. Each object was a relic from a different time - his magnifying glass and Bible on the table near the davenport, his recipe cards stacked on the kitchen counter, his closet hung with plaid shirts.

Out in the garage, we paused over the spot. Bushels of apples on the floor, gallon-sized buckets with sorted apples on his walker and on the garage counter. Dad and I spotted the newspaper at the same time - The Sheboygan Press, dateline Monday, September 13, 2010. Someone (Grandpa?) had placed a weight on top of the paper, so it wouldn't flutter away, caught by the slight breeze in the open garage door. "Well, now we know," Dad said. "He'd already picked up the paper."

There was nothing to say, so I squeezed him on the arm.

Wisconsin, Part I

Fourteen years ago, I wrote a "sense of place" essay about the Treick farm in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. I'd spent childhood vacations there, chasing cats in the barn and sneaking into the attic for a peek at decades-old issues of Time and my dad's old report cards. It was where my dad and his brothers grew up; it was what they had each, one by one, left behind. It was where my Grandpa was born and where he was still living, 101 years later, when he died on Monday.

At the time, I thought my essay was wonderful.

Dr. Schaap gave me a B. In his notes, he wrote: "It will be a good essay one day."

I know now what he meant then. Understanding a place -- really getting a sense of it -- requires distance and perspective. Time must pass, things must happen, in order for an experience to have value. Otherwise a place is just a collection of objects and memories. In other words, it's only a place.

I'm writing this in the San Francisco airport, while seating zones one and two are boarding. I can wait a few more minutes; what's the point of being wedged into seat 21B for a second longer than necessary?

Since I heard the news on Monday night, I've been both anticipating and dreading this moment. The flight, the separation from real life, the reunion with far-flung family in a place that holds a strange, almost mystical attraction for me. I'm coming, I told my Dad. It doesn't matter the price. I'm coming to say goodbye.

Maybe he thought I meant a goodbye to Grandpa, but that's not really the case. When I saw Grandpa this winter (this winter of his fall, the head injury, the trip to the ER on a Sunday morning), I knew it might be the last time. My goodbye was a real goodbye; there are no certainties, especially when you hit the 100-year-mark.

There will be a viewing, a memorial service, family gatherings with fatty foods and laughter and tears. We'll say goodbyes again after a couple short day, and those might be real goodbyes, too. It's horrible to put into words -- but our next gathering may well be another funeral; it's what brings everyone together in the end. But we won't gather again in Manitowoc, Wisconsin - this I can say with reasonable confidence. What will there be for any of us, anymore? The land will be there, of course, but it may not contain a rambling farmhouse, the garage and sheds, the silos, the bar with its date, a proclamation: 1849. All the stuff will be gone, too, to one place or another -- the marble boards, the closets full of Grandpa's plaid shirts, the plastic containers he was always saving for some practical, mysterious purpose.

I'm trying to avoid cliche, but I know it's going to be true: only when it's gone will I finally have a true sense of the place.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Self-Service Furniture

Our first apartment – all 500 square feet of it – was basically a spread from the 2000 IKEA catalog. The walls were lined with BILLY bookcases, the living room was lit by tall paper-shaded lamps that resembled cigars. A bulky blanket shed clumps of red wool that collected in the far corners of the room.

And then there was the TIMRA. We needed a TV stand, and this was about as basic a TV stand as IKEA offered. The TIMRA boasted four bulky wheels, two retro steel bars and a whole lotta beech veneer – which was apparent from the moment we sliced open the box. “This is beech, not birch,” I moaned. “We have to take it back.”

Will gave me his most gentle smile, the one that said without saying, I love you dear, but I’m not driving 90 minutes back to Emoryville to exchange this thing.

An hour later, the TIMRA assembled and wheeled into position by the cable hook-up, I’d made my peace with it. The TIMRA was clearly a temporary fixture in my life. It would hold the TV and VCR, the Playstation (three guesses which of us brought a Playstation into the relationship), stray cat toys, melted candles and random pieces of mail that defied categorization. And soon, we would replace it with real furniture.

Fast forward ten years. Not only did the TIMRA survive the three air-conditionless years in our apartment, but it also made the move to our house, where it has sat for the last seven years, all but buried beneath DVDs of Seinfeld and the Godfather. And at least once a month during this decade, I pestered my dad to build us an armoire.

“Think of your favorite daughter living with beech veneer,” I pleaded. He was always amenable, even sketching plans for what would be the world’s coolest armoire, but somehow always ran short on time. When he wasn’t busy, we were. When he could find the right wood, I was too poor to place an order. Eventually, I stopped pressing the point – mostly because styles had changed. The plans would need to be redrawn, since it would no longer be housing a 30-inch deep TV.

This weekend, overwhelmed by the possibilities of three days off in a row, Will and I made a spontaneous trip to IKEA. I composed a mental list as Will drove: a new slipcover for the “Baxter chair,” some sort of shelving for my classroom, wall art for Will’s office. New potholders, wrapping paper, plant pots. Other random, bright, cheap things. Swedish meatballs.

And then, wandering through the IKEA showrooms, marveling at the 200-square foot apartment and the coolest kids’ bedrooms on earth, Will and I saw it at the same time. A HEMNES TV stand – solid pine, black/brown finish, three drawers, perfect for the flat screen TV we will someday own. We gasped. Our eyes met across an EKTORP sofa.

“What do you think about –”

“I love it.”

Later that night, the unassembled pieces of the HEMNES strewn across the room, I didn’t love it quite as much. I was beginning to wonder, in fact, if it wasn’t easier to just box the thing up again and drive it back to West Sacramento, receipt in hand. There were no less than 31 steps to assembling this beauty, and each step was accompanied by vague pictures of boards and screws that all looked basically the same. It was a warm night and we had the windows closed while the air conditioner hummed. Otherwise, our neighbors might have overheard something like:

“Where did the other allen wrench go?”

(Deleted swearing.) “It looks like we’re missing a dowel.”

“It looks fine like it is. Let’s just leave it that way.”

“Wait – which side is the front again?”

“This thing is impossible! How can an average person put this together? I mean, don’t you figure we’re smarter than the average IKEA customer?”

“Apparently not.”

“Maybe we only need two drawers, anyway.”

“You know, I have a renewed respect for the TIMRA. Simple, elegant in its own way, already assembled.”

At one point, I decided it was best for everyone involved if I took Baxter for a walk. The walls had started to close in on us – and with all the scattered materials and shredded cardboard, there was nowhere to sit, anyway. Will took advantage of my absence and somehow – miraculously – assembled the entire rest of the thing in twenty minutes. Perhaps he had only been toying with me for the past three hours?

Anyway – the HEMNES is beautiful. Black, sleek, practically gleaming in its newness. I mentioned this to Will, who stared at me blankly.

“The what?”

“The HEMNES… hello?”

“Oh, that,” he said. “I guess I’ll always think of it as the TIMRA.”