Friday, May 20, 2022

Not-so-swift slog through etc.

I saw a bald eagle flying overhead early on my road trip back to Ohio, and as soon as I got home I saw an oriole. The rest of the time I saw a lot of Swifts--not birds but trucks with the word Swift on the back. So many trucks! So many construction zones! So much traffic! I wasn't exactly flying down the interstate--more like crawling.

But it is good to be back home. I spent a few days helping my brother and sister-in-law clean out Dad's things and make arrangements for the funeral (in July, in Florida), which exhausted both mind and body. He had only enough stuff to fill a generous room in his assisted living facility, but it was still a lot to go through: Dozens of DVD's, mostly British mysteries or war movies. Hundreds of greeting cards. Socks, shoes, shirts, pajamas, so many belts. Piles of photographs, many of unidentified people. Crumpled documents covered with enigmatic notes. 

One of those documents contains seven pages of single-spaced notes for a memoir. He wrote a few pages and left the rest in outline form, leaving behind lists of topics that raise more questions than they answer. Next to "Basic Training" he wrote "sick, cry, gas," which makes me wonder what kind of gas he's talking about. Were they eating a lot of beans or what? Next to one relative's name he wrote "temperance society, Calif., usher, leave for AF, suicide try, sickness, State Theater, spanking," while next to another he wrote "money lending, cod liver oil, strict but fair, favored me even though many spats, Charlie McC, school, caddying, last letter, etc." I detect a story there but with all the main characters among the dead, we'll never know.

"Etc." comes up over and over again in these notes:

money, jealous, car crash, etc.
religion, etc.
New Orleans (girls, etc.)
stockroom, not Jewish, etc.

And in fact, under the heading "Grandchildren and Retirement," the first item listed is a large ETC. Whatever that means.

Among this mass of incomplete notes, I find two statements most evocative. First, "How my life was changed by the G/D episode," a reference to an incident that occurred when he was working for General Dynamics in Rochester, New York. I was three or four years old but I can distinctly recall a huge change in our family dynamics, and after that we started moving around every couple of years as Dad struggled to hold down a job. What caused the disruption? Mom and Dad never told us and quickly changed the subject when we tried to gently probe. Now we'll never know.

Earlier in the outline, amidst a list of fragmentary references to his education, he wrote one complete sentence: "I never swam in the deep end." This is literally true since Dad was not a swimmer, but it's also metaphorically true: Dad was a specialist in safety and reliability and was always interested in playing it safe. Maybe he would have been less risk-averse if he'd learned to swim.

Now I don't know what to do with all this stuff. We divvied up the things that were worth saving and I came home with a two-foot-long cobalt-blue shoe-horn (because why not) and a lovely pair of occasional chairs that remind me of Mom, but I also have possession of this fragmentary outline for a memoir that will never be written. What am I supposed to do with all that etc.?

I thought about that during my not-flying-but-crawling drive home, hemmed in by slow-moving Swift trucks, an event that will barely merit an etc. in the story of my life. My father may have failed to leave behind a memoir, but he left a mark on many people, including the assisted-living staff members and residents who appreciated his intelligence and encouragement. He left a mark on all of us, helping to produce children who can work hard together to deal with his effects and arrange a funeral without discord. He made us all aware of risks, but he also made sure we all knew how to swim so we're not afraid to go into the deep end. And he encouraged us to develop analytical skills so that we'd know where to start when life tossed us a lot of etc. 

Whatever that means.

1 comment:

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I'm sorry about your father's death, and about the loss of memories alongside the larger loss. Those fragments are so tantalizing, and so little to go on.