I was not in favor of the upcoming move, in the fall of my 4th grade year. I tried all kinds of clever schemes to change their minds, including an argument that the concrete slab floor would be too much on my flat feet. Yes! I really thought that would be a sound enough argument to have the whole thing halted. My dad would phone the realtor, saying, “Bob, I’ve got some bad news on that house over on Nashville. It’s, well, it’s my daughter’s feet…” and then Bob would say, “They’re flat, aren’t they? I understand. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard something like this. Now, as for that earnest money…” and we’d get to stay.
I liked the little house, the one we were leaving. The side yard on the west was nicely rugged; the back yard (even without my beloved willow tree, whose roots clogged the sewer one time too many) reminded me of fun: swimming in that small plastic pool, making hand-churned ice cream, finding the stray kitten we’d name Finnegan, the swing set, the playhouse. And the bedroom, shared with my sister, with its homemade bunk beds. The kitchen where I could remember my parents developing slide film late at night. The scratchy wool carpet in the living room, with the greasy stain where I’d spilled the Campho-Phenique when I was trying to doctor some itchy mosquito bites. And also in the living room, the fake fireplace that for some reason had shiny blue tiles. Even at a young age, I seemed to have a strong connection with the place.
Surprisingly, the flat-feet plan fell through, and the move was set for the day after Christmas, in 1964.
My sister changed schools, enrolling in second grade at the school two blocks away. I refused and finished out the year at my old school, which was seven miles away and which required my automobile-shy mother to drive over twice a day. I apparently was going all-in on my not moving platform: I stayed with the world’s worst 4th grade teacher, just to make a point.
There were changes to the house over time. Trees got planted in the front yard, to shade the house from the strong, hot afternoon sun. The tile in the den was replaced with carpet. My dad painted the wood panelling in the den, and later, the kitchen cabinets. The old Formica counters got replaced with new Formica counters. Over time, as money was there, my mom filled up the house with her beloved Ethan Allen furniture. It was generally cosmetic changes, not the large-scale renovations that I’ve done more than once as an adult.
As my parents got older, my mother would occasionally float the idea of moving to a senior-living place; my dad declined to even discuss it, refusing to leave his two pecan trees in the back yard and his turtles and (I’m guessing on this part) what he saw as the status associated with aging in his own place. The rate of house improvements slowed, then stopped. The rate of things in need of repair increased; generally speaking, if my dad couldn’t do the repairs, they went un-fixed. And his repairs were mostly of the half-assed variety. He was a brilliant civil engineer, and a haphazard repairer.
It got worse after my mom died; my dad retreated into a few square feet and left the rest of the house to literally gather dust. After his move to assisted living (which was most certainly not his idea, and he’d’ve been the first one to tell you that), the house sat there vacant. Upon advice from our insurance agent, we left the utilities on and kept the household items that didn’t go to assisted living, and eventually my dad decided it was time to sell the place.
The sale of the property and the estate sale of the stuff happened quickly, and one evening, I was there alone in an empty house. I was still second-guessing the decisions I’d made regarding my dad’s living arrangements and the disposal of the house and contents. I felt left in the shadows, felt split by the light of what I’d done, felt more melancholy than ever before in my life.
So I made a photograph.
My mom died suddenly, leaving my dad alone in the house they’d lived in since 1964. By that time, the house was 40 years old and age was creeping up on it. Things needed repair, other things needed replacement, and the general condition could have been charitably described as “cluttered.”
Age was creeping up on my dad, too, and he was starting to need some repairs of his own. In the first six years after my mom died, he had a knee replaced, shoulder surgery, and prostate surgery that he described as a “ream job.” When he was in the hospital for the prostate surgery, the nurse cheerfully told me that in a week, I could remove his catheter. That was wrong on, well, every single level I could think of. My current self would have argued about it right there, but the person I was then accepted that ridiculous statement as The Way Things Are Going To Be Done. As that week limit crept up, though, I phoned the doctor’s office and made an appointment to get the catheter removed.
Even with the repairs, time was winning. My dad got less and less able to take care of the house. At the same time, he got more and more skilled at masking how bad things really were. If there was something that he just couldn’t figure out how to fix on his own (I should probably say “fix” on his own.) he’d call us in for help. On the Saturday morning of what turned out to be his very last week to live in the house, he reported that he’d been using an ice chest because the refrigerator had gone out. I took him to the store and we got a replacement; the exceedingly kind gentleman who waited on us (who surely had an elderly parent of his own) arranged for the new appliance to be delivered that very afternoon.
Then, on that Wednesday evening, my dad fell, spent the night on the floor, ended up in the hospital and rehab and the hospital and a different rehab, and eventually, into assisted living.
After my mom passed away, my dad and I would meet for lunch every Saturday at a place he called “the ham store,” where we’d split a ham sandwich. At one of those Saturday lunches, he told me, “I am going to count on you to tell me when I shouldn’t be living by myself any more.” I held tightly to that card he’d given me, knowing that I would have only one chance to use it.
Maybe knowing I just had one chance helped me to act more slowly than I ought to have: as we moved his belongings to assisted living, it became clear that I should have had That Talk with him much sooner. The place was a mess. It wasn’t clean. Things, a lot of things, didn’t work right. There were piles of stuff all over the place; not hoarder-level piles, but still. In retrospect, we ought to have noticed that he never exactly invited us over; and we’re a restrained family, so just stopping in for an unannounced visit would have been out of the question. That let a lot of things slide past where they should have been. In retrospect, again, I should have been smart enough to stop in anyway just to have a look around.
After about a year of paying utilities and insurance on his nearly-empty house, he directed me to call in my sister, sort through and divide up the contents, have an estate sale with what was left over, and put the place on the market.
The sorting-and-dividing was an ordeal, and I’ll just summarize that part of it by saying that my sister and I are no longer in contact.
The selling went quickly; I told the realtor that my only goal was to no longer own the house. I didn’t want to paint or put down new carpet or stage anything. I just wanted it gone. She came through for me, and within a week had sold it to a couple of women who flipped houses.
And then one day, what had first been the formal living room (which seems unbelievably quaint now) and then had been my dad’s home office was empty of the stuff. And it looked like this: dusty, dirty, forlorn. An old man’s house. And the old man and his house were both worse for wear.
I was a Girl Scout, from early grade school all the way through high school. My Brownie uniform was my only store-bought dress – my mom sewed everything else. She was the Brownie leader; now that it’s too late to find out, I’d really like to know why she decided to take on that responsibility. She was painfully shy, not much of a person who joined something in order to take on a leadership role. In fact, at the time I first joined Brownies and she became the leader, she’d only been driving for a few years. She was never a bold or adventurous person.
(The day my sister ate mushrooms – we’d made a place setting on the seat of the backyard swing, using the mushrooms we’d picked from the grass as plates, and she ate one – we had to take a cab to Dr. Carr’s office to get her stomach pumped. That was it: my dad insisted that it was time my mom learn to drive. She was a tentative driver for the rest of her years. My sister still won’t eat mushrooms. It was a pivotal day in the family history.)
Anyway, Brownie meetings were usually at our house, after school. We lived on 28th Street, just a few blocks from Overton Elementary School; while I do not have a specific memory of this, I suppose all the girls in the troop walked together from school to the meetings. Other than getting to wear that awesome light brown dress, I can’t remember too much about Brownies, but a few things float up if I try:
• Learning to set the table. (It still bothers me if the knife points the wrong way.)
• I was so shy that selling Girl Scout cookies, at 50¢/box, was too much for me. I could barely squeak out a sale pitch to the Strongs or the Simses or the Dennises, neighbors I’d known all my life.
• Sometimes we wore white cotton gloves with our uniforms, for those more formal meetings (whatever they were).
• Our troop took cooking classes at Maxey Community Center. My Certificate of Completion (dated March 30, 1966) is framed and hangs in my kitchen as proof.
• The way we learned to tie a square knot: we sat in a circle, each with a length of white cotton rope that we tied together with our neighbor’s hunk of rope. Then we put the circle of rope behind us and leaned back against it. Knots that were tied wrong slipped apart and the incompetent knotter would pitch backward.
So I progressed onward, to Cadette, Junior, Senior levels. For many of those summers, I’d go to camp at Camp Rio Blanco, about an hour’s drive away from home. My first year at camp was harrowing. I didn’t know anyone there, I didn’t understand camp protocol, I’d never spent more than one night at a time away from home, I was shy. But I stuck it out; the only truly awful thing that happened that year was the day at breakfast when the counselor at our table made each of us eat a stewed prune before she’d allow us to leave the table. (The idea of just refusing that silly demand never crossed my mind.) I could feel my throat constrict as that prune slid past. It was disgusting and it remains the only prune I’ve ever eaten. Even their recent rebranding to “dried plums” can’t erase that memory.
As much as I dreaded camp that first time, I grew to love it and went every summer through the 10th grade. I liked wearing the camp uniform – dark green shorts, white shirt, green knee socks with red garters, and if I was lucky, the double loop of gold braid over my shoulder that marked me as a patrol leader. I liked the flag ceremonies, singing together in the dining hall after meals, hiking to Arrowhead Mesa or to Silver Falls, playing in the creek (wet years only), the swinging bridge across the draw, sitting around the campfire, swimming. And the friends I was starting to make.
We stayed in tents that were built on wooden platforms. The sides and ends of the tents would roll up and on those hot summer nights, we’d usually roll up all the sides to let the breezes cool us off. There were four or five girls per tent; the beds were metal cots with thin mattresses that we’d spread our sleeping bags across. Our footlockers would be stowed under the beds.
My long range plan was to be a camp counselor, and I’d planned on taking Counselor-in-Training the summer after my junior year in high school. But a late-spring bout of mononucleosis left me unable to pass the required physical, and so, suddenly, my Girl Scout camp career was over.
My old footlocker was kept in service, though, in the store room off the garage. It was stuffed full of the random things my parents kept: my dad’s high school diploma was in it, as was a string of beads my mom got from a pen-pal, a broken doll, and a handful of old and faded (and unmarked) snapshots. And inside the lid: the packing list from camp, with a wavy line through the line for bedding. I used a sleeping bag, after all.
Folded into the cedar chest at the foot of my parents’ bed – the Girl Scout leader uniform my mom had worn. So, while I don’t know why she decided to take on that particular challenge, I can safely surmise that she had memories that were fond enough to warrant saving her uniform for decades.
Her uniform and my footlocker went to the estate sale.
Spanish textbooks might not seem like something you’d expect to run across, especially ones like this, which obviously have some years on them.
My dad spent about a year and a half in the mid-1940s in the Dominican Republic, working as a surveyor for Standard Oil. He was 21 when he went down there, a small-town kid in a foreign country. He learned Spanish there, and continued to study it for most of the rest of his life, even going to language school in Mexico when he was in his 70s.
During his time in the Dominican Republic, he wrote letters to his sister Elizabeth, who kept them. I’ve got them now.
For most of my life, my dad’s dry sense of humor has been a source of great entertainment to me; it has gone dormant lately, which makes reading these letters a powerful mix of high entertainment and great mourning.
Here are some of my favorite things he wrote.
Anybody that enjoys living had better not criticize the government (of the Dominican Republic).
-(dated only Saturday, and written in 1944 from Houston, as he waited to go to the Dominican Republic. He got to the DR in March.)
The main hobby of the children around here is to stand outside our door and stare at the Americanos.
-March 26, 1944
There is a fruit they call the guanabana. It grows about 6 or 8 inches long and is sort of egg shaped. It is covered with a tough skin that has a resemblance of thorns on it but they won’t stick you. The insides have a sweet taste but make you think you are eating somebody’s attempt at making synthetic rubber.
-April 1, 1944
I am using a Spanish typewriter that the office in the capital sent out to us. Since it varies slightly from an American typewriter, don’t be surprised at anything that it writes.
-May 11, 1944
We went to the show last Sunday. Among other features was a British newsreel and it sure did tell how the British were winning the war.
-May 12, 1944
I won $4.40 on a horse named Sleepy.
-September 4, 1944 (reporting on going to the horse races)
I bet you thought I wasn’t going to write to you any more but I get lots of fun fooling people like that.
-September 19, 1944
Sparks is now laid up in the hospital. He had a boil…and he let the local doctor (that is just an honorary title) fool with it.
-October 1, 1944
You said in your letter that Ernie went to visit Leon and Betty. I am glad to hear that they had company but I would like to know who Ernie is.
-February 21, 1945
Oh, yes, from the numerous boyfriends mentioned in each letter you write, I would say that you are what is commonly known as “fickle.”
-February 27, 1945
I liked Miami very much, mainly because it was so different from anyplace else I ever was – I dare say that there are more ways to get rid of your money in Miami than in any other city in the world.
-March 5, 1945
You are always speaking of playing cards – what kind of cards do you play – and for how much?
-March 16, 1945
San Juan has a movie theatre so we get to go to the movies once in a while…last night we saw a British film, which I hope doesn’t happen again.
-April 1, 1945
When I started this, I had a lot of things to say, but I seem to have forgotten most of them so I can’t do anything else but quit.
-May 9, 1945
I might consider going to Baltimore but I don’t have any business up there and beside the trend in the Green family seem to be towards becoming —– Yankees so I don’t want to expose myself needlessly.
-May 20, 1945
This is really a nice camp and I wouldn’t mind living here at all if there were someone here to do nothing with me.
-May 27, 1945
There was more, of course. He wrote about the work, trouble with the big bosses, the shortage of tires, what he wanted to do when he came back to the states, things he bought for himself (a camera, a watch, a custom-made suit), his Dominican girlfriend Blanca, and gave lots of (probably unsolicited) advice to his sister. Together, it creates real-time view of events that were pivotal in his life.
But it’s the pieces, the glimmers of his signature humor, that I most treasure. And it helps ease me through the loss of that humorous outlook.
The first thing I noticed, nearly, when I started cleaning out my dad’s house was the huge number of toothpicks lying about. On the breakfast table. On the metal tray where he kept the toaster. On the lamp table beside his TV chair. By the sink. Next to his computer. On the nightstand. On the lavatory. On the kitchen counter. In the junk drawer in the kitchen. On top of the clothes dryer. Next to his briefcase.
I don’t think he’d thrown away a toothpick in years.
Where he lives now, in an assisted living center, I don’t think he has toothpicks in his room.
I wonder if he misses them.
My dad wore braces on his teeth when he was a kid. He’s 90 now, so he was a kid a very long time ago. And it wasn’t like he lived in a city, where even in those early days of orthodontia, braces would have been easy to obtain: he lived in a small town in the Texas panhandle.
His teeth are crooked again now, having found their way back, over the decades, to the places in his jaw where they started out.
My mom was always self-conscious about her teeth, which were very crooked. She finally got braces, as an adult, and seemed to smile a lot more once her teeth looked better.
I wore braces twice. Once for six years, spanning all of junior high and a good part of high school.
Then, I got them again about 15 years ago, and wore them for a little more than a year.
I was a much more compliant patient when I was paying for the braces myself.
I dream about teeth. Broken teeth, mostly. Broken teeth like shards of glass in my mouth. Broken teeth that I keep spitting out, over and over; there’s never an end to these tooth-shards. I often have vivid dreams, but this is the only one that recurs. What in the world? Well, the Dream Encyclopedia* has this to say regarding the symbology of dreams about teeth:
Loosing the teeth may reflect a loss of power as well as a grasp of life circumstances.
I suppose I concur with that assessment. The past year and a little more has been a time of great upheaval, a time when I often felt as though my grasp of things was slipping. But I try to remember that no matter how much upheaval I’ve felt and had to deal with, it is a tiny drop compared to what my dad has gone through. In a short period, he went from owning a home full of his life’s possessions and living on his own and on his own terms, to holding a couple of checks after the house and its contents sold. Everything he owns now is compressed down to what fits into that efficiency apartment, and he has to ask me to run his errands.
He’s never asked for toothpicks.
*The Dream Encyclopedia, James R. Lewis