by LLyn De Danaan
It could begin with fear of the Internal Revenue Service, that hanging on to every scrap of paper with a number on it started for my father. He kept all the bills and receipts and delivery notices and cancelled checks for a house he built in the early 1950s. He lived in dread of an audit. True, these piles of papers, held together by gummy rubber bands, long past their use by dates, represented the history of a worthy endeavor. My father did not go to the South Pole, but he made for us a home. Here is the evidence of the concrete he ordered for the foundation and of the purchase of a small cast iron solder pot. Here is a bill stamped paid from a quarry where he handpicked the stones for the fireplace and chimney he built. And more. The asphalt tiles for the flooring, the tabs for the roof, the lumber for the studs, the yards of wiring and gallons of paint. A large panel of glass for the “picture window” that was a must in all suburban 1950s houses. It’s all there. I can reconstruct the stages in building the house in my mind as I read through these. I can visualize his line levels and saws, his shovels and trowels. The retractable cloth tape measure and folding carpenter’s rule. His heavy hammers and the manual hand drill with its interlocking cog wheels. With those tools and all those receipts, I could order all the same materials he used and build a replica of our house on my own land.
My father packed these and other papers in heavy cardboard cartons and moved them all over the United States with him and my mother. They left, the papers, Beavercreek, Ohio and found a home in a storage container in Sacramento. They rode a U-Haul truck back to Wellston, Ohio. They hitched a ride on a moving van to Olympia, Washington. The original house itself had long since been sold and the IRS, presumably, had long since lost interest in it. Or how much the cost of the nails and staples that held it, if not my family, together. Still, the papers, the proof of the enterprise and its cost, lived on.
And those were not the only papers that gathered dust and mold and lay yellowing, if not decaying, in boxes. There were letters sent from the South Pacific to his parents and my mother during World War II, correspondence with the Canadian Air Force (he had been rejected by the United States Army Air Corps—too old and bad teeth I believe), Army discharge papers, divorce and remarriage certificates (my parents’ bad spell), and, yes, more, carefully labeled and bound materials for the IRS.
My father was a life long employee of the United States Government. He was a rule abiding man who, as he made his way home from “the base” each day, passed through a gate arched by a sign that read, “What you see, what you hear, when you leave, leave it here.” He took no part in politics of any kind. He seemed to have over interpreted the Hatch Act, a bit of 1939 legislation that dictates the degree to which Federal Employees may be involved in the democratic process. My mother, meanwhile, ran for office and campaigned vigorously for Democrats. My father remained silent on such matters.
He was, in fact, timid in many ways. His matte black lunch bucket certainly drew no attention. His work overalls hid anything that might have individualized him. A nice man, “well thought of,” who did not smoke or drink (a concession to my Baptist mother and grandmother), had little or no ambition to be other than he was, to make more money, or to buy better cars. He did not pursue higher education though he could have (the G.I. Bill) and was content, it seemed, to slump into the cushions of my mother’s maple Ethan Allen colonial themed furniture with the Dayton Daily News after a workday. We ate dinner, served on her Russell Wright cobalt blue cutlery (the glaze of which may or may not have been slowly poisoning us) set formally on her Ethan Allen maple table (Refinished periodically by my father and polished by my mother after each use. ) around 5:30, soon after his predictable return.
There was with him, however, some underlying fear of and disdain for the government. He seemed to be a man who “lay low.” He wouldn’t fly, at least not after WWII. He did not enjoy driving, at least not when I knew him.
The asphalt tile on the floors of each room of the house was also killing us. The popular tile was made of asbestos fibers that sometimes comprised over 70 percent of the thin, brittle squares. Laid for a floor, they created a cold and hard surface that caused anything dropped to shatter. (My mother’s marble coffee table was shattered, but that was by a bowling ball which my father let loose while practicing in the living room one evening.)
The tile in our living room was a dark green shot with off white. Mother must have disliked it because she covered it with a fairly thin red medium-shag carpet. This carpet was vacuumed every day when she returned from work even before she removed and hung her coat. This manic vacuuming was, I presume, done to enliven the rug’s limp, lusterless nap. In the front door, open the closet, drag out the vacuum, freshen the rug, return vacuum to closet, take off coat, plump furniture cushions, generally “straighten things.” A typical 1950s home? No footprints on the carpet and no fingerprints on the furniture. Nobody impressions. A place for everything and everything in its place. No trace of human activity. Or crabgrass. It was one of my regular household chores to make rounds with a metal digger and root out starts of plants certain to spoil the golf course look of our “lawn.” There is this to be said for it: it look more alive than the flacid carpet.
The “picture window”, a typical a feature of “ranch style” houses in the 1950s, was enormous and from it we had a view of the scraggly sugar maples planted in our front yard, and, across Hanes Road into a field of red sorrel, bittersweet, golden rod and Queen Anne’s lace, a forest of beech and ash and hawthorne and elm in which, now and then, roamed a herd of hapless Guernseys. These were probably Mrs. Johnnnes’ errant cows. They had the highest butterfat content in the county and were the pride of Mrs. Johannes whose other claim to fame was that she regularly forgot to remove the rollers from her hair when she attended square dances.
Mother often reminded us that unlike tasteless women in the other ranch style houses, the likes of which abounded in Beavercreek, she had not placed a large table lamp in the middle of HER window. She was one who did not like to “follow the crowd.” (I was advised to be similarly unconventional in thought and behavior.) The mullionless oversized pane, she believed, was meant to provide access to the outdoors without actually having to be outdoors. Mother, in her dark moods, preferred the curtains to be drawn closed.
At the level of this long window sill and outdoors was a stone planter box filled with unruly phitzer junipers, a nonnative popular landscaping shrub of the period. Mother did not do flowers. We had, my father and I, planted long rows of multiflora roses to demark the boundaries of our half-acre lot. These grew quickly and produced beautiful though small white blooms. The multiflora formed a “living fence” and is now considered one of the peskiest invasives in Ohio. I pray that the intruders did not get their first footholds on our property.
My father’s fear of the government may have been as much a fear of men in uniform as anything else. He had, after being turned down by the Air Corps and Navy, managed to get into the Army. He was committed to being part of the American fighting force. Even though he had a new baby (me) and was the only male support of my mother and grandmother, he persevered. He was 30 years old with a great mop of dark hair and, if pictures tell the story, a certain swagger. He had been a football star and in a small town like Wellston, that gave him a certain cachet. After high school, he went to Oklahoma for flight training and came back home as a daredevil of a pilot who owned his own biplane. He a colorful guy who rode a motorcycle as well as owning and piloting an airplane. Today, he’d be the kind of fellow who would have a lot of friends on Facebook and would post pictures of himself riding into the wind with a white silk scarf flowing behind. He’d brag about a trout he’d caught or show us pictures of his girlfriends. That is, before his marriage to his real “catch,” the glam, redhead Doris, whom he had followed home after she paid a utility bill in his father’s appliance shop. What happened to that dashing spirit? My theory is that he initially chaffed against being told what to do by some fellow with Sergeant stripes or by an officer who was five years younger than he. Then he learned to take a deep breath and do what he was told. Something tamed him. Maybe it was his desperate, apparently nearly suicidal need to marry my mother. There was hell to pay and there were rules to live by. Just like in the Army.
Once, after I had moved to the west coast and he was visiting, we were coming across the Canadian border back into the United States after a few days visit. He was nearly frozen with terror when he was, inevitably and not surprisingly, asked if he had purchased anything while in Canada. The border guard, fully decked out in his border guard best, leaned menacingly into the driver side car window. My father began a recital that included recollections of every meal he had consumed, each piece of fruit he’d eaten, the chewing gum packet he’d bought at a news stand, a newspaper. I believe he stood ready to surrender an apricot. The border guard was quickly bored and flagged us on. My father, his brow dripping with sweat, seemed triumphant and righteous. The rest of the family were mortified with embarrassment.
Yes. It might have been uniforms. Or my mother. Or perhaps he really had done something terribly wrong. Perhaps he had to hang on to proofs of his labors, his existence, his movements. Perhaps he was in a witness protection program.
It was his sister Susan who saved and, more than that, cherished the clippings and photographs that told the story of a family of Irish and Scots-Irish predecessors. My father’s father and grandfather look dour in portraits. Dour or maybe hard and perhaps slightly paranoid. All but Will and Uncle Charlie who are reputed to have been a “bit off.” Still, such mementos did not seem to interest my father. He did make a drawing, once, of the family farm on which he lived when he was a boy. And recorded a lengthy description of how to make a kite, something he did regularly with his mother, the apparent genius and inventor in the family, and brother.
What was left to whom was a discussion I overheard often as a child. Wellston, Ohio, it seemed, was rife with battles for the remainders of lives, those vases and crystal glasses and silver tea services that filled grand Victorian houses all up and down the tree-lined main street of town. I was, it seemed, related in some distant way, to almost all of those householders through my mother’s family. They were the elite of town. The monied ones. The bourgeoise. When the wakes were over, the bodies removed from the parlors to the cemetery, and the last tea sandwiches consumed, bits and pieces of a legacy were found to have gone home with the guests or even preceded them out the door. At least that’s how it seemed to me. I listened through grates and at doors to stories of Aunt Minnie’s vaseline glass and Aunt Lulu’s gold-rimmed dinner plates. Gone with the crystal and the cutlery. The stories were similar: some relative would have beaten the others to the house after the death of the loved one and taken something she (or he) had been eyeing for years. Relatives who lived out of town were out of luck. Relatives who cared for the dear one at the time of death got the best of everything. And who could fault a caregiver? Well, one could suspect that the caregiving was double-edged, that is, perhaps done with a hope for material gain. From the plush backseat of our Plymouth or the depths of my out- of- the- way bedroom with Jenny Lind walnut spool bed, I listened to speculation regarding the sincerity of distant cousins or great-great aunts, all of whom seemed gushily loving to me. They held me close to their cushy perfumed breasts and required that I kiss their powdered cheeks. They could not be two-faced, could they? And anyway, who, I wondered, would sacrifice “the best years of her life” for a piece of bone china. Hard for a child to fathom.
But, yes, remainders were hotly contested but the heat was under the breath, whispered and indirect and the contest might go on for years. Again, under the breath or from across any room the suspect dared to enter.
My grandmothers did not, so far as I know, play the game. One, my father’s mother, was relatively poor and seemed not to mind, at least in the eyes of a child. The other, my mother’s mother, got rid of nearly everything she had owned when she “set up housekeeping” and after her husband died. Even his law books were gone and the only things left to remind her of her only son, Ralph, who died in a plane crash, a lieutenant in the Army Air Corps, were his hat, his Sam Browne belt, and a tinted portrait of his agreeable, smiling face. No letters, no memorabilia. It is as if she had purged herself of all of it in order to live. Of her life, I have boxes of costume jewelry, a few hat pins, and a one or two hats. Nothing more.
Photographs. Yes, boxes and albums full of photographs. Because in our family looking through photograph albums was a regular happy pastime. The pages were made of a course black paper. Photos were held to the pages by little black sticky corners. Each was identified by neat notations made with white ink. I loved sitting with “Nan” and mother looking at these images of my antique relatives and my young mother and father and me, a nude baby on a sheepskin or pinafored and imprisoned in an elegant red leather cushioned high chair or oaken playpen placed in a sleepy summer lawn. And these remain, though cannibalised through the years in order to create other albums.
Remainders of a life. What is it we save and why? What burdens do we place on those left behind when they are left to sort and toss and make the trips to thrift shops with clothing we ourselves have not worn in years? Will the things upon which we place such value mean anything to those we’ve left behind?
Some of my mother’s maple furniture went to my brother and sister in law with my blessings. I wanted nothing. The maple is still quite serviceable as is the silver cutlery mother kept in a velvet coffin-like box and used only on special occasion. The silver tea set made its way, I am glad to know, to my eldest niece. My father’s receipts, well, I believe they are long gone. I hope. Some were eaten by the dog Fred with whom I lived when those boxes were stored in my Olympia Decatur Street home’s garage. He was a living shredder and did away with small piles of papers my father had stored there without my permission. Each day, another. I didn’t care.
But the albums. The photographs. I have boxes and boxes of them, the remains of several lives. These I cannot toss. These I cannot burn. I mean, always, to take a few days to sort them, repackage them, put them into labeled files or envelopes. For whom? I have no direct descendants. No one sits and looks through albums with me. But I hold on to these images, just as my father held on to the receipts from the house he built.
The remainders are, after all, evidence, like the drawings in caves of Sulawesi or Chauvet, that we once walked this earth and did something of value.
*Spoil and gob are terms used in association with abandoned coal mines. In the early 1900s, my family were associated with mining in southeastern Ohio and West Virginia. Reclamation projects, especially of old strip mines, often reference the spoil tips and gob piles left over from years of pretty questionable practices.