Monday, September 20, 2010

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?"

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