Responsibility for family documents is a heavy burden. There is so much. So many receipts, records of transactions, legal documents that won't be denied a place in history. But what really matters?
I have been shifting living space for eight years to accommodate my Dad's paper trail. I've sorted through it countless times, trying to decipher what is necessary to keep. But why? He's dead. My mother is dead. His second wife is dead, as is her daughter and anyone who wants any of the documents that validated her life.
I have birth certificates, death certificates, hard evidence that these people lived and died. And I have the memories of my own connection with all of them that still are warm but also cold with recriminations and self-doubt.
I came across a letter I wrote when I was about twelve. My mother was in the hospital, and I was missing her.My dad wrote a note to my junior high explaining that I had to leave school early every day for two weeks (? I think it was that long) because I was needed at home. I had a brother who was just a toddler. I can't remember who cared for him while I was in school in the mornings, but it was my job to come home and help in the afternoons. I don't remember how I got home, either, because my school was a bus ride away. But I was happy to help.
I lived for a long time with someone who was beautiful, winsome, intelligent, persuasive, and mostly dysfunctional. Because I was her child and I loved her with the pure passion a child has for its mother, I wanted to be like her. I thought her moods should be my moods, her pain my pain.
I also lived in the world, where I could see that other people were not quite so volatile. My father was calm, but also darkly moody. However, he was rational. He was stable. And he knew how to navigate the world without obsession or despair. He lived a fairly ordered life in the midst of the chaos my mother created.
Mending and ironing are simple tasks. Tedious, but in some cases rewarding. I spent today doing both. It seemed like my world, and the world in general, had become so muddled and torn that doing something tactile, something I could control, would make a difference, at least to me. And maybe a difference to the keeping of this home, this house, this place where we live and breathe, and create a safe and somewhat serene place for family and friends.
One of the things I came across in the ironing basket, which has sat, neglected, for so long, was a tea towel. I'm not sure why they are called tea towels, because in my whole life long (and it's long) I have only ever known them to be used to dry dishes or hands, or pick up hot pots.
My grandmother Ruth was born in 1892 and married her first husband Norman, my grandfather, around 1916. My father Albert was born in 1918. They lived with Ruth’s mother Mary Ann in New Jersey, a little place called Mount Olive, on a chicken farm.
My grandmother told me that my grandfather was so untrained in practical skills that she had to show him how to use a hammer. He ultimately turned out to be a very good carpenter and then a draftsman/architect. But she liked to take credit for teaching him how to hold a hammer. Who knows? Truth or fiction?
In 1957 I was fifteen. Eisenhower, a member of the Lost Generation, was President. He had recently agreed to defend Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan against invasion. Nixon, a member of the Greatest Generation, was his Vice President. The Civil Rights movement was just beginning. Newspaper headlines revealed there was a Mad Bomber on the loose and the Ku Klux Klan was making big trouble, We were in the midst of the Cold War with daily reminders of the nuclear bomb threat. We practiced drop drills. People were building bomb shelters. Elvis was on every radio, which was, no doubt, why the Everly Brothers couldn't get little Susie to wake up and Buddy Holly was distraught because Peggy Sue had to get married. There were four stage-one smog alerts that year, which meant it was dangerous to breathe.
It is that time of year when there are big changes coming. Some things are replanting themselves without much fanfare. Some are spectacular -- and they may be where you least expect to find them.
There is energy in every aspect of disintegration and rebirth. So much light reflected in this one seed about to be carried by the wind. We saw one of these artichoke seeds resting on the lawn before it took off on its journey. Tempted to place it where we wanted it to grow, we resisted. And yes, I mean we. There were three of us who could have gotten up from our chairs and placed this amazing tiny explosion anywhere in the garden that was more convenient for us.
But being too happy where we sat, we let it be. And then suddenly it was gone. Where?
Under the best of conditions we grow straight and true, perfect images of what we were intended to be. Or are those images for us? Sometimes life throws us curves, or obstacles. Sometimes we have to bend or we will break. Sometimes we have to hide to survive. Life will do what it must, and mostly if we let it, we can trust that in the end we will be enough. We may not be what we think is our perfect image, or even anyone's image, but we survive. Being reminded of that by a carrot is unusual, I suppose, but also very ordinary.
Parker Palmer writes about “withering into the truth” as he ages. That phrase captures both a hope and hopelessness for me. I have never felt so depleted before. Childbirth was a breeze compared to this new age and stage. At seventy-five, and recently recovering both from a bout with the flu and a bad fall, I am experiencing a kind of weariness and dysphoria that is new to me. I can’t seem to get my legs under me to move back into my life.
Whatever worn, tight, cracked and broken shell surrounds me is refusing to let me go. I feel ready to transform into a different shape with a new voice and eyes that can see beyond the limits of my old space. No, I’m not talking about dying. I’m talking about rebirth and renewal, even in the autumn of my life, even in the winter.