Pat and Maggie and my lax housekeeping habits have sparked some conversation both here and over on a listserv where I participate, about how the things people leave behind acquire a significance far out of proportion to intrinsic value. It reminded me of a column I wrote for Sage Woman magazine several years ago. And so, in the interest of things left behind, I’ve dug it out and reposted it here. Enjoy!
Finding the Green
I sit crosslegged on the floor, surrounded by half-empty orange boxes. Each carries a series of scribbled labels, some in my mother’s careful hand, some in my father’s impatient scrawl. I look at the labels and see my mother, lips slightly pursed, and my father, huge hand engulfing the Magic Marker, stooping a little because his back hurts too much to bend and he is just too big to do something as fiddly as writing easily.
The labels have little to do with the boxes’ contents. When I got my first apartment Mom sorted through the family Christmas ornaments, put the ones she wanted to keep into new boxes, and repacked the rest into the old age-ambered Sunkist boxes for me, carefully re-labelling each box’s end, side, and top. She has packed the boxes several times since then, each time inscribing a new label beside the old.
Mom believes any label—no matter how inaccurate—is better than none. Labels keep her world tidy. I am her polar opposite. If I want to know, really know, what’s in a box I sit down on the floor, pop the lid, and have a good rummage. It drives Mom crazy. That’s what I’m doing today—opening boxes, sorting, discarding, repacking. My goal is a room where I can set up my altar and leave it up. But to get there, I will actually have to get rid of good stuff.
I open another box and think of Mom and labels. Our relationship today is not easy, largely because we do not share a past. There is my past, in which my father molested two of my aunts, my oldest sister and quite probably me, and in which my mother probably knew, and did nothing. The strain of keeping the secrets pushed Mom, already unstable, over the edge into intermittent madness and violence. That is my past.
In Mom’s past Dad may have molested us, but she “just had no idea,” the craziness was “what we should be doing,” and she “had no choice.” The labels she has slapped on my life have as little to do with my past as the labels on these boxes have to do with their contents. Mom’s past is presentable. Mine makes sense. Neither of us feels like trading.
I pull out the boxes in the back of the closet. You know the kind—you pull the lid off as you’re packing the U-haul, shudder, retape, stick the box onto the truck, and forget it until the next time you’re packing the U-haul.
But my heart is set on making room for myself today in a house filled with yesterdays. I unearth mysterious objects: an old autograph album; a canteen; birthday cards; love letters. The saccharine sentiments belonged to the fifteen-year-old girl I was; they are mine no longer. I sigh, slip them almost reverently into the trash, and yank the tape off the last box.
Mom packed this box years ago when I had a new baby and my life broke. In spite of our battered past my parents were there to pack up the pieces and help me build a future for my son. I toss the lid aside and stare at a small pitcher, a stuffed cow, a tiny diaper. I open the diaper, remember that even this tiny thing was too big for my child in the beginning, and feel the peace of those days when we moved through a haze of autumn sunshine and sleep deprivation, and bright leaves swirled outside while the fragrance of newborn baby filled the house.
I tuck the diaper back into the box and lift the stuffed cow my nephew bought me years ago. The gap in my life where he used to stand suddenly seems very cold and empty. I press the cow to my cheek, swallow, and return it to the box.
And then, under expired Disneyland passes and wrinkled Knott’s Berry Farm bags, I see green. I push the bags aside and there they are: Grandpa’s gardening clothes.
The spring I was fifteen Grandma and Grandpa came to live with us. Every morning and evening Grandpa worked in our garden, his leathery brown fingers easing the morning glory roots away from vegetables, sandy soil clinging to his green khaki knees. Grandpa liked company while he worked, but he didn’t want help. My impatient hands seized the morning glory’s leafy tops and snapped them off at the surface.
“Here, Bodie, let me get that,” he said quietly when he saw my pile of leafy weed tops. “Ya have to dig these things out from the bottom, see? If ya leave anything—even a little piece—it just comes back just that much worse. Every single bit a root ya leave laying around turns into a new plant. Betcha didn’t know that, huh?” He deftly separated strengthening roots from strangling roots. Then he worked in a little compost, drizzled a little water, spooned the dirt back around the roots, knuckled the soil gently and drizzled more water. “Ya gotta be gentle or ya bruise the roots,” he said. “Ya just trickle a little water in as ya go, see, so the air doesn’t get to’em.” I never saw him break a root.
I unfold the pants and touch the knees gently, right where Grandpa would have pressed them into the earth, then set them on my lap and shake out the plaid shirt. Grandpa wore it the summer he drove the grader and I drove the water truck, building ranch roads. All that hot summer we met and jounced past each other, miles away from anyone else.
We packed sandwiches and fruit and ate our lunches sitting on the sand beneath the water truck in dripping shade, sage-and-juniper-scented breeze cool against our damp skin, desert flowers papery and fragile around us. We ate sandwiches and drank deep from plastic water jugs and Grandpa told me stories, over and over. By summer’s end I knew them, letter perfect.
Sometimes we talked about religion. Grandpa was against it. “Oh, I believe in God,” he’d say. “I just don’t believe ya gotta go ta church ta know’im. Every time I go, there they are with their hands out. And all those rules…” he shook his head. “Seems to me if you just treat people decent…ya know?”
“I hear ya, Grandpa,” I said, and I did, not that it did me any good. My own religion would be considerably more complex for some time to come. Grandpa treated me like the plants in his garden—he gently loosened things up, eased the strangling restrictions, saw to it that I got what I needed to develop a better root system, and eventually, to bloom.
Grandpa did something else that summer: He made me a song. He sang it standing in the steaming road, under the truck, and in the pickup on the way home when work was done. “You are my pride and joy/You are my water truck,” he rumbled, his voice flat and soft. In the beginning he sang, “You are my pride and joy/you are my water boy,” but then he changed it.
I was not a boy; I was a girl. Grandpa, who understood the true nature of gardens, churches, and girls, recognized that. “Truck” rhymed better than “girl”, sort of, so “truck” it was. The song became a password between us, a key to the little oasis of peace, love, and safety he carved out for me that summer.
Sitting in my hallway, his shirt in my hands, I can see us there yet, a worn man in green khaki pants and plaid shirt, a tall girl in bib overalls, sunbleached hair pulled into tight French braids, eating sandwiches and drinking from old bleach jugs while the truck drips a gentle, cooling rain around us. We are smiling.
I lay the shirt aside and take up the undershirt, painted with a brilliant blue and red parrot. “I picked the shirt you painted for him,” Mom told me when she gave me the clothes. “He loved the things you painted.” This was true; at a time when everyone in my family, including me, saw my art as a cute trick, Grandpa saw more.
“Get in the car, Bodie, I’m gonna buy you some paints,” he said soon after he and Grandma arrived.
“You don’t have to, Grandpa,” I said, though I wanted paints more than anything. “Paints cost a lot.”
“I have enough,” Grandpa said. We drove to the hobby shop. Grandpa said, “Pick what you need.”
I chose carefully: the tiniest tubes of paint, the smallest bottle of linseed oil, the cheapest brushes, an 8 x 10 pad of canvas. “I think this is it, Grandpa,” I said.
“Ya wanna paint big pictures, don’t’cha?” He reached for the 24 x 36 canvases.
“Thanks, Grandpa,” I said, took my small pad out of the basket and bent to replace it.
“Hold onto that,” Grandpa said.
“But I don’t need two,” I protested.
“Ya want it, don’t’cha?”
Grandpa headed for the paint aisle. “You’re gonna need more paint than that, aren’t’cha?” he said over his shoulder. “Them little tubes ain’t gonna cover much territory.”
“Here, get this one.” He handed me the professional-grade paint collection. The paint tubes seemed huge.
“But Grandpa, that costs—”
“Never mind that.”
I gave Grandpa my first painting. When I got the idea of painting shirts Mom said, “You better just paint on old ones.” And various family members donated shirts—old, limp, studded with tiny holes. Grandpa gave me two shirts—new ones. I painted a parrot on one, and a peacock on the other.
When Mom gave me Grandpa’s gardening clothes I thanked her, folded them carefully, put them back into the bag, and set them on my closet shelf.
A year later I learned that my parents had concealed a web of molestation and abuse involving most of my family. Learning our true history gave new and frightening nuances to events I had simply accepted as things that happened to me because I was “bad.” I started asking questions. Dad said I had a “weak grip on reality.”
It was true. People I loved and trusted had lied about the very basis of our life. I asked more questions. Mom and Dad contradicted themselves and each other, when they answered at all. “Truth” and “reality” became slippery concepts, moving points. Who were my parents? Who was I?
I clung to the memory of Grandpa. Surely Grandpa hadn’t lied? One day I realized that I could no longer remember his face. I searched frantically for the clothes, but they were gone.
And now, twelve years and three moves later, I hold them in my hands again. I stand and walk down the hall to the living room, carrying them flat on my palms like vestments.
“Look, Patrick,” I say. I begin to cry.
“Are you okay, Mom?” he asks.
“Yes, honey, I’m fine.” I swallow, laugh, slap tears from my cheeks, and show him the clothes that were as much a part of Grandpa as his leathery, just-shaved cheeks, the smell of Copenhagen, and Digger O’Dell, his garden trowel.
I lay the clothes on the sofa and go back to finish the last box. The Knott’s Berry Farm bags lie in the bottom. I pick them up, already reaching for the trash bag. But there’s something inside. I upend the heavier bag. Four small gray stones spill into my hand. Each holds a painted animal. I cannot imagine myself buying these things—and yet I must have, because here they are. I rather like the duck and the quail, but I can’t even identify the other two animals. On looks like a mound of sticks, the other like a deer with balloons tied to its antlers. What right-thinking deer would do a thing like that?
I drop them into Patrick’s toy box and shake open the last bag. A small book falls out. I have just dropped Northwest Native American spirit rocks into my son’s toy box, spirit rocks I must have chosen on some long-ago day, for reasons I can neither remember nor understand.
I dig through toys, retrieve the stones, lay them out beside me, and look up their meanings: “Loon…solitude, singing; Moose…survival, headstrong (and festive, with those balloons); Porcupine…innocence; Quail…sacred spiral.”
I think of my broken family relationships and my largely solitary life as a writer, of the strength that allowed me to survive with my soul intact, of the innocence that was Grandpa’s gift to me, of the sacred path I have just begun to travel, and which requires that I examine my life, keep the precious, jettison the trash, and make room for the new. The stones are a message from myself, sent at a time when even I did not understand their meaning.
I gather them up in both hands, and place them carefully within the chest where I keep my sacred things. One day soon I will haul out the last bag of trash and donate the last box to Goodwill. I will cleanse and sanctify the room. I will position the chest, shake out the altar cloth, and dress the candles. But before I set them on the altar, I will open the chest, and I look again at the things I have placed within it: Grandpa’s gardening clothes, and painted stones, gifts from my past to my future.