A View of a Room

Back in 2010, I had my garage fully converted into a library. It’s something I’d hoped to do for years, and I finally had the means to do it, so I did. I’d always wanted a single room where I could store, display, and enjoy all my stuff – where everywhere I looked, I’d see things that represent what I truly care about.

Since then, I’ve turned the room into exactly that. 16 bookcases, three display cabinets, various tables and stands, and every inch of free wall space are now packed with things both big and small that represent my interests, my passions, my past, my aspirations…in other words, who I am. Taken as a whole, it’s a reflection of my life; a place where everything you see represents every aspect of who I am, and reminds me of people, places, events, and interests that make me happy, and give me strength.

A very general snapshot: standing in the doorway, I see photos of my sons, three shelves of my childhood toys, four bookcases filled with the works of Ray Bradbury, and eight others crammed with favorite books by other authors. I see a shelf packed with books that once belonged to my old friend and professor, John Buck, still marked up with his hieroglyphic notes and backward checkmarks. I see three shelves beneath it brimming with books and knick-knacks that belonged to my grandparents. I see a photo of me with Brian May of Queen, a photo of me with Harrison Ford, and a photo of my grandfather in his World War II uniform. More photos: of close friends both here and gone, of the Venice Beach pier, of Snoqualmie Falls, and of the bridge at Spring Creek Park. I see scores of items in display cabinets, along with stuffed animals, a lamp, and masks, all of which once belonged to Ray, who kept them in his library and house, and which I am now deeply gratified to have in mine. I see a set prop from one of the new Star Wars films that a friend from the UK somehow acquired and sent to me, sea shells from every beach I’ve visited, a pair of Roger Taylor’s stage-used drumsticks from Queen’s 1977 tour, and handprint art my sons made for me. I see gifts and postcards from former students, a trowel signed by Kyra Schon from Night of the Living Dead, and a little plaster frog my grandmother painted for me when I was a little boy. I see a grandfather clock my great-grandfather built, mementos from Indian Caverns (which closed for good two years ago), and an unopened bottle of amontillado that my friend and editor Anne Hardin sent me after we finished Darkness in the Valley. I see the bench, red hutch, and stool from my grandparents’ kitchen. I see two shelves holding copies of my own books, magazine publications, and anthology appearances. I see a hand-drawn birthday card from my friend and illustrator John York, a lace doily hand stitched for me by the grandmother of one of my first students, and stones from a riverbed that remind me of one of my favorite days.

That’s all in a glance. There’s far, far more, but you get the idea.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “They’re just things….possessions.” And that’s absolutely true. If the whole place blew apart tomorrow, I’d be fine (unless I was in it at the time), because of course all my experiences, all the relationships I’m fortunate enough to have, and all the people I care about are the only things that are truly priceless. But at the same time, things – the right things – can hold immense value…not monetarily, but (for lack of a better word) intrinsically. They can reflect who we are, yes…But they can also inspire future actions by reminding us of our past, trigger (not always a bad word, even in the 21st century) our deepest emotions, and comfort and give us strength when life is difficult by reminding us how exciting, precious, and beautiful it can be at its best.

That said, keeping it that way sometimes requires work. Certain parts of the library are constantly evolving, so while the vast bulk of what’s in there will remain as long as I do, I also have clear outs every once in a while. Sometimes memories that were once special become negative due to shifting circumstances, certain doors in life shut while others spring invitingly open, interests change, and priorities shift.

So last month I spent two hours pitching things into trash bags, one headed for a landfill, one headed to Goodwill. On top of that, I boxed up five dozen books and took them down to Half Price Books. It was extremely satisfying…as if I’d given everything else in the library room to breathe. The cleanouts remind me of life – of the need to jettison what’s no longer necessary, what weighs us down, what no longer works, and what hurts rather than helps. In doing so, you make room for more of the good stuff.

Because in short, what I really want to see when I look around my library is love. And anything that doesn’t make me feel that has to go.

Every day should be spent, at least in part, by doing something we love. And the physical objects that really matter should remind us of the many ways we do that, and suggest other ways still to be tried. They’re catalysts. To surround ourselves with reminders of what really matters in our lives also reminds us of our own great worth. It reminds us of who we are at our best. It reminds us of what we are capable of achieving. And it reminds us of just how much there is to celebrate during our brief, transitory time on earth.

What you see should be an inspiration, because inspiration is the wellspring of identity.

Inspire yourself to know yourself. Know yourself to inspire yourself. And use love as the engine to do it. In this way, a self-perpetuating cycle is created that will never, ever let you down. It isn’t always easy, and you won’t always succeed. But we must always strive to keep that cycle going.

It is the only way to truly live well.

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Getting Out of Your Own Way

I lost an old friend to lung cancer late last year…never smoked a day in his life, but it hit him hard and fast. That said, he survived several years longer than his doctors expected, and died in his sleep, at home, just hours before a planned trip up to Penn State for a home football game…He hadn’t missed a single game in over a decade, and since it had to happen, the way he went was best: at home, bags packed, anticipating a PSU win.

The indignities he suffered without complaint are too many to list, but so are the people whose lives he enriched through his kindness, compassion, drive, and desire to make the world around him a better place. Every damn thing he did involved helping others, even when he was extremely ill…It was extraordinary to witness. He lived well and he died well. I’m a better man for being able to say he was my friend. His name was Thane J. Fake.

Only twice did I see a spark of anger well up in Thane during those last years. Of course he got irritated every once in a while. Who doesn’t, especially when dealing with issues like that? But real anger? Only twice. And it’s the cause behind one of those two instances that moves me to write today.

What set him off was seeing one person too many make excuses for why they couldn’t do something – why they couldn’t show up for work, why they couldn’t finish a project, why they couldn’t keep a job, why they couldn’t see things through. At the time, he felt the only reason he was still alive was because he pushed himself to complete what others said he couldn’t or shouldn’t even try. He got things done, because giving up was an unacceptable option. Death could take him, but it would have to catch him first…and considering how busy he kept, he forced it to give good chase.

So basically, what he hated were quitters. He was being forced out of life halfway through it. Meanwhile, others were being given far more time on earth, but doing far less with it, and only because of their own lack of character.

Ray Bradbury always said, “Get out of your own way and let it happen.” That is, push away your worst impulses and let your best strengths shine through to meet your goals. Unfortunately, I’ve lately had more encounters than usual with people who have chosen to ignore this advice, and the results have been predictable.

One person in particular comes to mind. I’ve known her for years. She had a promising life – did well in college, earned two degrees, and was virtually guaranteed success, so long as she remained patient and showed fortitude. Nothing insurmountable stood in her way…except herself. After her pursuit of a career in her field hit a few temporary obstacles, she simply gave up on it – even after others provided her numerous opportunities to get her foot in the door. A couple of setbacks, and she was gone. The career is now dead. The degrees are now worthless (though of course the debt is still there). The opportunities have passed her by. On top of that, the attitude that caused this failure has come to dominate other aspects of her life, too. She is now just a shadow of her former self…bitter, stagnant, and living below the poverty line. There is no shame at all in poverty – or, for that matter, in failure, which is perhaps life’s greatest teacher – unless it is self-inflicted and nothing is learned from it. That was the case here. She could have continued to try, but she gave up. Great things, in every avenue of life, are worth fighting for. Somewhere along the way, she forgot that.

In the 1920s and early 30s, my grandfather worked in the Sagamore coal mines to put himself through college. He ended up becoming a teacher, then a high school principal, then an assistant superintendent. By the time he retired, he had made a positive, lasting contribution to his community and family. Those early years working in the mines killed him half a century later, after he developed Black Lung, but I am certain he wouldn’t have traded the opportunity – or the life he lived – for anything.

No one else in his immediate family had ever gone to college. In fact, my great-grandmother was illiterate. All, including him, had known much deprivation, hardship, and loss. My grandfather’s degree was an immense source of pride for him, and he was well aware that earning it was not only due to his own work ethic, but also the help others gave him along the way. Fulfilling his potential after receiving it was not only a matter of honor, but of obligation, and a task that he enthusiastically and successfully pursued.

What a disservice it would have been to him, and to everyone else in my family going back generations, if I, too, had gotten my degrees, then given up on pursuing a career in them at the first sign of difficulty. Choosing a trade over college is fine. Switching majors is fine. Changing careers is fine, and sometimes even healthy. But completing a college education — something millions of other people would give almost anything to have – only to ignore it entirely and settle for a low-paying job that doesn’t even require a high school diploma, is unconscionable to me…as it would have been for Thane, and as it would have been for my grandfather.

My latest bout with depression, along with some other recent events, really brought this topic to the forefront for me. One of the ways I worked through them was by always doing my best to be productive and positive, even when those were the last things I felt I could be. To a certain extent, my circumstances gave me a sense of perspective that I had been sorely lacking for some time. I came to understand that what we often complain about is barely worth mentioning; that what often seems like a hardship is barely a bump in the road; and that those who can’t get past playing the victim will often become one of their own making.

And I have also come to realize that relationships on whatever level with such people are destined to become toxic. Advice, support, and even love can be offered, but if they are all denied or taken for granted, and no changes are made, sometimes the only option left is to move on. Just as we cannot allow ourselves to become a victim of own own making, we also cannot allow ourselves to be dragged down with others who have already done so.

Misery loves company. So does failure.

But the same, thankfully, can be said for happiness and success, even if finding them takes more fortitude.

Choose wisely.

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F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise

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So here it is, the last of my thoughts on some of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s major works, and right in time for summer. It was a true pleasure to re-read these again and write a bit about them, and thank you so much for the positive feedback. I haven’t had a chance to do something like this in a long time.

This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald’s first novel, is the work that catapulted him to fame at the very tender age of 23. While it’s obvious from the first page that it was written by a young author, …Paradise also clearly showcases his developing brilliance.

Here, Fitzgerald flexes his abilities in numerous ways. Stylistically and structurally, he throws everything but the kitchen sink into the book, telling it through third person narration, poetry, letters, and even sections structured like plays. It isn’t tight or nuanced like his best writing, but damn, it’s an extraordinary sign of things to come. And taken within the context of the time, it not only provides a nuanced reflection of the social and cultural era of the young, post-war generation…it helped to shape it. For that reason, its importance to American literature can’t be overstated.

The book was published 99 years ago (I still can’t believe it…or that it’s almost the Twenties again), but despite that, Amory Blane’s college odyssey at Princeton still strikes very close to home…His self-importance, constantly shifting enthusiasms, and self-conscious displays of “transformation” all remind me of the vast majority of undergrads I knew in college…including myself. When you’re young, in an environment that encourages growth, and trying to discover yourself and your place in the world, everything has meaning…Everything has significance…It’s all important. Amory believes all his experiences, all his philosophies, all his realizations, and all his relationships are milestones worthy of public reflection. And, of course, he therefore shares those reflections with everyone around him, whether they want to hear them or not.

That said, Amory isn’t a true narcissist, even though some scholars disagree…He’s just young, naïve, full of himself, and for those reasons is convinced that he is destined for future glory. But after he graduates from Princeton, serves overseas in World War One, and returns home, he learns (often painfully, through breakups and death) that his previous “wisdom” isn’t as sound as he originally thought. A true narcissist, on the other hand, never learns…narcissists are often clever, but never wise.

In particular, Amory learns that self-understanding doesn’t come when willed, but when life provides the opportunity for it to be grasped. He has five relationships throughout the book, all youthful, all passionate, all doomed…but it is only after the war, when his relationship with Eleanor collapses, that he stops using girls and women as props to reflect his own ego. His relationship with her allows him to finally, truly see himself, and when he loses her, he recognizes an important truth: not only does the world not revolve around him, but he is also not, by default, the hero in his own story. That must be earned, and he has not yet earned it.

Only when he acknowledges this, reflected in the famous last line, “I know myself…but that is all,” does he truly exhibit real, hard-won wisdom. And that kind of education, of course, comes not only from living, but from recognizing, through living, that there is much that we don’t know, and more work to be done.

That’s a hell of a motif for a 23 year-old to tackle. But Fitzgerald did head-on, and the book was an overnight sensation. Its success convinced Zelda to marry him. It made him one of the great, shining lights of the Jazz Age. And unfortunately, it also set an unrealistic precedent of success that he fully expected to maintain…and which eluded him for the rest of his life. This often happens when artists explode into mainstream popularity at a young age. Maintaining that level of success simply isn’t plausible, and when it hits very early on, the shifting of public interest that inevitably follows can be extremely hard to bear.

Fitzgerald’s popularity peaked around 1922. When The Great Gatsby was published a mere three years after that, it only went through two printings (the second had not even sold out at the time of his death 15 years later), the general public – perhaps worse than condemning it – just shrugged its shoulders, and he spent the rest of his life trying in vain to somehow repeat that first, early wave of success.

The irony, of course, is that while his reputation stumbled and his finances began a precipitous decline, Fitzgerald’s skills only increased, and his work only got better. Yet much like so many of his famous characters, he would spend the rest of his days trying to recapture the great flush of youth that “year by year recedes before us” – and that haunts us and motivates us for the duration of our lives.

Favorite quotes:

“I don’t want to repeat my innocence. I want the pleasure of losing it again.”

“Experience is the name so many people give to their mistakes.”

“The great tapestries of trees had darkened to ghosts back at the last edge of twilight. The early moon had drenched the arches with pale blue, and, weaving over the night, in and out of the gossamer rifts of moon, swept a song, a song with more than a hint of sadness, infinitely transient, infinitely regretful.”

“…it was only the past that seemed strange and unbelievable.”

“Her philosophy is carpe diem for herself and laissez faire for others.”

“Selfish people are in a way terribly capable of great loves.”

“Those days are over. I have to be won all over again every time you see me.”

“It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being.”

“When Eleanor’s arm touched his he felt his hands grow cold with deadly fear lest he should lose the shadow brush with which his imagination was painting wonders of her. He watched her from the corners of his eyes as ever he did when he walked with her – she was a feast and a folly and he wished it had been his destiny to sit forever on a haystack and see life through her green eyes.”

“Beauty and love pass, I know…Oh, there’s sadness, too. I suppose all great happiness is a little sad. Beauty means the scent of roses and then the death of roses…”

“For years afterwards when Amory thought of Eleanor he seemed still to hear the wind sobbing around him and sending little chills into the places beside his heart. The night when they rode up the slope and watched the cold moon float through the clouds, he lost a further part of him that nothing could restore; and when he lost it he lost also the power of regretting it. Eleanor was, say, the last time that evil crept close to Amory under the mark of beauty…”

“Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a reverie of long days and nights, destined finally to go out into the dirty grey turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.”

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Coming Home

For various reasons I’ve been visiting Maryland a fair amount over the last few months, and this summer I plan on spending a lot more time there, too – starting with another trip in just two weeks. Especially lately, the more I’m there, the more content I feel.

I lived in Ellicott City from the age of 9 to 18 (1987-96), so even though I was born and spent my early childhood in State College, I also consider Maryland “home” in many ways. Those years  there are when I really grew up, and many of the formative events and relationships that shaped who I am, took place during that time and in that place. So even though my parents haven’t lived there since ’96 either, I still feel a deep-rooted connection to my home town.

Many aspects of the 250 mile drive down from Pittsburgh bring a lot of happiness – hitting the Maryland border after passing through Breezewood, feeling the slight increase in heat and humidity, seeing the hills give way to flatter land, and coming in range of my favorite old radio station, 98 Rock, which, because it’s become more of a retro station, STILL plays all the songs I loved in high school when they were new (there’s nothing quite like coming back to the place where you were a teen in the ‘90s and hearing “Plush” kick in as you’re driving down the old familiar highways).

And then I arrive, ready to spend time with old, dear friends who shared those days with me and somehow remained in touch…or, in one amazing case, with an old, dear friend who recently came back into my life after over two decades as if it was the most natural thing in the world – which, in fact, it was. Those relationships are what make these visits really work, because going “home” isn’t possible unless you can still share it with people who were there with you – people who can remind you of things you did together that you’d forgotten, or can finish the endings of your stories for you because they lived through them too.

So a return, as long as the experience is shared, can be a very special thing – a blending of the past and the present, a mix of old memories freshened and new memories waiting to be made. Home isn’t just a place, and isn’t just a time. It’s also circumstance. And when circumstances are right, despite what Thomas Wolfe said, you can go home again. Sometimes it’s still there after all, just waiting for you to come back.

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When the Sun Shines Brighter

Overall, the last few weeks have gone well — busy, and filled with the typical “end of school year” work, but still very positive. I’m on much firmer ground again in both my personal sense of self and my attitude toward the world around me, and that’s something I’m going to continue working on…in other words, the fewer negative thoughts, actions, and reactions, the better. Personal growth is, of course, an ongoing, life-long process, but when you’re coming back from the edge of a cliff, it’s easier to quantify progress as you see the cliff recede behind you.

I’m also sticking to a strict workout schedule and diet, and have kept off the 30 pounds I’ve lost since January, but this time by doing more of the right things. I have more energy, endurance, and generally just feel better physically than I have in a long time.

That’s not to say things are perfect. Shadows, as I mentioned in a previous post, always remain. But staying busy, being productive, spending time with good people, trying new things, and going new places all help to keep them largely where they belong…which is out of my way. Life can and does come at you fast, but the groundwork is in place for a positive and productive summer.

And with that in mind, I’m gearing up for my summer writing routine, which I’ll begin almost as soon as the school year is over. I’m aiming for June 17th as the starting date, and from that point on I’ll do my best to park myself at the local Panera five mornings out of every seven, and also some evenings at the nearby Starbucks, for the next eight weeks — when I’m not traveling or otherwise running around. I know, I know, there’s a whole cliché about writing at Starbucks, but I like being out among people, especially during the summer, when you can enjoy the sunlight or twilight without feeling rushed, and sometimes sit outside and enjoy the warmth too.

There are few quiet pleasures more satisfying than sitting on the patio of a bar or café on a sunny morning or warm evening and feeling the world hum around you. Everyone should have at least one “Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” as Hemingway put it, and everyone should visit it frequently.

One of my favorite memories is from the end of my junior year at Penn State. My friends and I were all 21, it was early-May, the semester was coming to a close, the sun was shining, the temperature was in the mid-70s, and it was a late Friday afternoon, so all our classes were finished for the week. So we grabbed a table and sat on the patio at Café 210 West, right on College Avenue, drinking beer and bullshitting the afternoon away. Other students filled the surrounding tables, and State College came alive the way only a college town entering the weekend in good weather can. It was perfect. We had worked hard to get to that point in our lives; our futures stretched out before us, great unknowns but full of potential; and to me, the sunlight seemed brighter, the beer tasted better, and the world’s hum was more vibrant and euphonious than at almost any other time I could remember. To this day, the sun only rarely seems quite as bright as it did that afternoon…and when it does, I take notice, because it means life in those moments is truly good.

So I do like being surrounded by that hum, and in a place – sometimes familiar, sometimes not – where I can really hear it and feel a part of it. In other words, as I said before, I like being around people, even when I’m working…because those special moments can happen at any time, even when it’s only while writing in a public place on a summer morning or evening. They can’t be planned, so they’re always a surprise. But if you tuck yourself away from everything you can be sure they’ll never come. You must get out and, however dramatically or quietly, be a part of things, whether that means skydiving in New Zealand or writing outside a Starbucks in Pennsylvania.

So if you’re in the area this summer, and you stop by that Panera in the morning or that Starbucks in the evening – where I’m writing this now, in fact – there’s a decent chance you’ll find me there, working on stories from my inner world while also quietly enjoying the world around me.

And if you do, please tap me on the shoulder and say “Hi.” Sometimes even a little thing like that is all it takes to make the sun shine a bit brighter, no matter what time of day it is, or how many clouds are in the sky.

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F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned

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Fitzgerald’s second novel, published in 1922 at the height of his popularity, is a tough read – not because the book isn’t well-written, or illuminating, or because its messages aren’t true. It’s because the main characters are so unlikable, and their lives so damn empty. Whether or not this is their fault, or society’s, or – which is always much more likely – a combination of both, doesn’t really matter. They are empty, entitled people living in a culture that seems to encourage emptiness and entitlement.

Anthony Patch and Gloria Gilbert have both been raised with one ultimate goal in mind: to marry “well”…Anthony someone beautiful, and Gloria someone rich. Anthony is banking off an inheritance that he assumes will one day be his, and Gloria is banking off her beauty. Once they do marry, they are left without any clear goals. Everything in their lives had led up to that moment, and now, once they have the marriage clinched, they are lost. Their relationship descends into arguments, empty affairs, and alcoholism. Neither have any practical skills. Neither have accomplished anything important or meaningful in their lives. And neither of them have a plan for how to fill the years ahead.

It reminds me of a line spoken by Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby: “What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon?…and the day after that, and the next thirty years?”

Imagine The Great Gatsby without the “romantic readiness” of Jay Gatsby. Imagine, instead, if it focused wholly on Tom and Daisy Buchanan as the main and only characters. It would be a penetrating and incisive look at the emptiness and diminishment that comes from living with wealth but without purpose, yes…but at the same time offer no relief through anything romantic, bittersweet, or stirring.

That is The Beautiful and Damned. An excellent book about people who have no excellent qualities, and which is unrelenting in its examination of those people.

Favorite quotes:

“I will go on shining as a brilliantly meaningless figure in a meaningless world.”

“All she wanted was to be a little girl, to be efficiently taken care of by some yielding yet superior power, stupider and steadier than herself. It seemed that the only lover she had ever wanted was a lover in a dream.”

“Two souls are sometimes created together – and in love before they’re born.”

“I don’t care about truth. I want some happiness.”

“Life plays the same lovely and agonizing joke on all of us.”

“Things are sweeter when they’re lost. I know – because once I wanted something and got it. It was the only thing I ever wanted badly…and when I got it, it turned to dust in my hand.”

“How I feel is that if I wanted anything I’d take it. That’s what I’ve always thought all my life. But it happens that I want you, and so I just haven’t room for any other desires.”

“This was his healthy state and it made him cheerful, pleasant, and very attractive to intelligent men and to all women. In this state he considered that he would one day accomplish some quiet subtle thing that the elect would deem worthy and, passing on, would join the dimmer stars in a nebulous, indeterminate heaven halfway between death and immortality.”

“Then I grew up, and the beauty of succulent illusions fell away from me.”

“Beautiful things grow to a certain height and then they fail and fade off, breathing out memories as they decay.”

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The Ritual

A beat-up old picnic table has been sitting on my back patio now for almost a decade, and yesterday I repainted it. It’s something I do every three years.

It used to belong to my grandparents. Some of my earliest memories are of having picnics with them in the shade of the maple tree in their backyard, right next to the little flower garden they re-planted every year. My grandfather and I would play whiffle ball on the sunny lawn directly behind it, and go for walks in the woods behind that. I knew every inch of that yard, and in many ways the picnic table was the heart of it.

A summer was never really a summer without it.

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Me in August 1979. My grandparents’ garden, Maple tree, and picnic table, same year.

Every spring, when my parents and I drove the two hours to see my grandparents for the first post-winter visit of the year, it would magically appear from the shed, cleaned, sometimes re-painted, and waiting for use. Its return was one of the rituals that proved winter was really over, and that the Fourth of July, the Dayton Fair, and all the other promises of summer were on the way.

And every summer, when those special days finally came around, we would use it. My mom and grandmother would spend an hour in the kitchen getting lunch ready – sandwiches and meatloaf and potato salad and coleslaw and fruit salad and corn on the cob, then pie and cookies and ice cream.

Those were the years when it felt like summer would last almost forever – that the days between early June and late August were a gulf of time that could barely be comprehended. Back then, you never knew which family members would show up on any given day. It might just be my grandparents, my parents, and yours truly – or my Uncle Loren, Great-Uncle Tom, Great-Aunt Sis, some cousins, and a few neighbors might stop by, too. If that happened, card tables and lawn chairs were set up nearby, extra table cloths unfurled, and more food would miraculously appear (courtesy of my grandmother) from the bottomless cupboards, overworked Roper stove, and fridge.

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With my cousins Aggie and Bill, 1983

If the visit was near the Fourth of July and evening was coming on, sometimes an older relative would give sparklers to the kids, so we’d run around the picnic table, the tree, the yard, the house, leaving trails of magic fire behind us. And in the evening we’d often sit out there, and I’d listen to the old people talking as I played, until the ice in the glasses began to melt, bugs began to bite, the fireflies became too hard to catch, and it got too dark to see.

My grandfather died on a cold February morning in 1988, a week before my 10th birthday. In the following years, Uncle Tom and Aunt Sis also passed, along with all the other older relatives and neighbors from their generation, until now there are only a few of us left who shared those times together.

But still, for the rest of her life, my grandmother made sure that every spring, the picnic table was brought out, wiped clean, sometimes painted, and always ready.

During those later years, the maple tree had to be cut down, and finally, toward the end, the little flower garden became too much for her to handle, even with help. The picnic table sat alone in the much more empty (but smaller-seeming) back yard. Before she moved to a nursing home I would still sometimes sit out there with her, just the two of us. When one of its wooden planks broke free, I nailed it back. When it needed to be painted, I painted it, just like my grandfather used to.

And when she died at the age of 96, over 20 years after my grandfather, and the house went up for sale, I saw one of the great centers of my life dismantled bit by bit – most of the furniture auctioned off, the belongings of a lifetime divvied up between my parents and my uncle, or given away to more distant relatives, sold, or thrown away.

And when the house was all but empty, as barren as the back yard, and we knew this was the last time we would ever set foot inside it, my dad and I loaded up a small moving van with things I wanted to keep. From the kitchen, I took the red wooden bench, the hutch, and the stool by the stove where my grandfather used to sit. I also took mugs and clocks and books and dozens of other knick-knacks from around the house that no one else wanted, each a catalyst for my childhood memories…In other words, treasures.

And I took the picnic table.

That was ten years ago. Since then, I’ve only driven past my grandparents’ old house once, two years back, when I made a detour through their town on my way to someplace else. I wish I hadn’t. The side porch had been ripped away. My grandmother’s clothesline was gone, along with my grandfather’s shed. The yard was patchy and overgrown. It was the same house, but not. It was the same yard, but different. Everything that had made it theirs was gone. I will never go back again.

But my grandfather’s stool, the red wooden bench, and the hutch from my grandparents’ kitchen are now safely in my den. And outside, on my back porch, the picnic table sits. My sons have grown up using it, and for them, it is now as much a fixture of summer as it was to me. And every few years, like I did yesterday, I re-paint it the same maroon color my grandparents always did.

We leave behind legacies we can’t even comprehend. They are comprised of thousands upon thousands of memories, lessons, and experiences. And some of the most important parts of those legacies don’t have to be grand, or even obvious.

They just have to remind us of love. And when they do, they create more of it.

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Today

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