I packed up my father’s home last week. Not my childhood home, but the place he’s lived since he retired to North Carolina 20 years ago.
Though he is still very much alive, we had an estate sale, my brother and I. And it’s the ball markers that stick in my mind. Not the antiques – they stayed in the family. And not the family pictures – I moved 85 trays of slides I’ll sort someday and salvaged myriad photos. Only the ballmarkers. And the tieclips.
My dad is not exactly downsizing; he’s starting over. Everything had to go. He wants new stuff in the new house he’s moving to in Florida near my brother. It was all the old stuff we had to contend with. Packing it was relatively simple. Displaying it for sale, pretty much a no-brainer. But deciding what it said about one’s life lived – that was the hard part. Consider those ball markers. I found two sets of them in the cupboard that served as my father’s bureau in the dressing room. Think of it: a three-foot high space cluttered with the detritus one abandons to the top of the dresser every night before turning in. Twenty years’ worth. Receipts, prescriptions, cards of drug samples, coins, golf tees, coupons, scorecards, bridge tallies, gold cufflinks (from a long, long time ago), tie tacks, tie clips, belt buckles, shoe laces, movie tickets, three Cross pens (two gold, one silver) and the ball markers, encased in leather, engraved –the brass ones with the name of the pharmaceutical company that had bestowed them and the silver, with my dad’s initials.
“Do you want to keep these, Dad?” I asked for the 967th time as I sorted through the cupboard, and walked over to show him the two cases.
“What are they?” He seemed interested.
“I’m not sure. But they look like ball markers, for golf, special ones, personalized, that came in these fancy little sets. Did you ever use them?”
This was hard on my dad. He had to remember, and he was, by his own admission, already addled by both the physical and emotional exhaustion that accompanies such a move. If he could remember where it came from and what it was for, then he had to decide. Was this an important token or talisman? If he had kept it this long, was there a reason? And did that reason still hold? If he had never used it and was never going to use it – after all, he had not been on a golf course for 10 years – and if space in the new place was at a premium, shouldn’t he let it go? But go where? To the trash? That seemed undignified, and possibly insulting to the gift-giver, in one case a dear friend, the pharmacist, even though he is no longer alive. To the sale? Talk about insulting. “Your brother,” he told me, “would probably try to sell them for a nickel.”
But, then, what were we to do with them? It wasn’t something the realtor would want us to leave behind for the new owners. He sighed, and closed his eyes. I didn’t know if he was catching another of his odd little catnaps, remembering something I never knew, or simply getting me, and this entirely too painful process out of his face. I put the ball markers in a pile of things I knew I’d probably throw away eventually – just not now – and mauled through the old receipts from grocery stores, Talbott’s and the gas station. I could handle the easy calls.
In the end, so he could he. The ball markers went into the plastic trash bag. But during his little rest, I had thrown away two tie clips – ugly little things of no apparent value, much less use (I mean, who wears tie clips anymore? Not even my sartorially challenged dad) – and when he rejoined the effort, he suddenly remembered them and asked where they were.
“Why?” I asked, stalling. Obviously I had misjudged their value to him and I was reluctant to admit I’d thrown them away. Unusually sensitive to that possibility, however, I had not trashed the trash bag, so I presumed I could recover them.
“They’re important,” he insisted, and I laughed.
“For the two times a year you wear a tie?”
“No, because your mother gave me one for our anniversary and the nurses in the O.R. gave me the other one. I want to keep them.”
Enough said. I poured out the contents of the trash bag and – there is a God – found both clips.
“Are these they?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
And I placed them carefully into the soft leather box we were keeping for just such treasures. I didn’t ask about the camera we, his children, gave him for his 60th birthday, which he voted into the estate sale without a second thought. Or the lifetime of fishing poles and fishing tackle he sold to his barber “for a good price, a really good price,” even though my brother-in-law had asked if he could have them. I didn’t question his decision to pack away the good china, all the silver, most of the crystal and many of the serving pieces which had set our family table for decades of birthdays and holidays and celebrations. He said he didn’t need them.
And there was no second-guessing his selection of art (I use the term loosely). Suddenly, it seemed to me, the man who never noticed what was on the wall – after all, he had lived with a huge taxidermied sailfish “decorating” his home for 30 years – was worried he couldn’t live without the works on the brick wall in the kitchen. The sketch of the covered bridge from his childhood home I understood, the certification that he and my mother were Life Masters, nay, Silver Life Masters in the Contract Bridge world made sense. His diplomas from college and medical school and his board certification from the American College of Surgeons belonged in the boxes going to Florida without question (and someone whose own diplomas once graced the space above the kitchen sink in protest and irony both does not ask where he intends to hang them). But I did wonder about his attachment to the souvenir-shop plaques, one decoupage, I think, that declared, “It’s hard to get rich in a small town; everybody’s watching,” and “God does not subtract from one’s appointed time on earth the hours spent playing bridge.” The fact that he chose these over the place-markers my siblings and I had added to the wall over the years as we moved across the country hurt, and colored my judgment a little, I’m sure, but truth to tell, I would have thrown the whole lot out. It just made it very difficult to figure out exactly what was important to my dad. What mattered?
And that was the crux of the exercise. We were taking apart the life he and my mother had built over the last 20 years and asking him – and ourselves -- what, if anything, had meaning, especially now that Mom was dead. For over-achievers like him and me, it was excruciatingly painful. What had he accomplished since his retirement, even over the course of a lifetime, and what did he have to show for it?
We were practical and pragmatic: most of the stuff simply had to be cleared out. But what did a decision not to keep something say about its acquisition in the first place? I wasn’t sure, and Dad doesn’t normally engage in that kind of introspection, at least not in front of me. These weren’t normal times, however, and sometimes his tears flowed freely. “This is so hard,” he would tell me, and my heart would break.
Interestingly, in the end his choices did, in fact, shape a legacy. We kept everything related to his medical practice. “I worked so hard,” he explained. And we kept most of his cooking tools and the pots and pans because they corroborated his choice to live alone and cook for himself rather than succumb to any kind of “assisted” living that provided a meal or two. My personal favorite in that box destined for the kitchen is a cake-cutter, a kind of steel thread strung between two handles which, when pulled through the layers of a cake, makes more layers. And this was important because. . .? “It’s what you use,” he instructed me, “when you make my birthday cake.” (Devil’s food, with lemon filling.)
We saved a half dozen double sets of playing cards and the bridge boards; he plans to keep playing. He sold the antique guns, and as I said, the fishing tackle, the gas grill, the riding lawn mower, the power boat, the Sailfish and the one extra car which he had used exclusively, throughout my mother’s illness, to take trash to the dump. Life would be different in Florida, he declared. Well, yes, he would probably buy a new grill, but there would be no more fishing, hunting, water skiing or mowing the lawn. Very little gardening, either. And all the books could go – to the library or the garage sale. His eyes weren’t all that great anymore. Good enough to watch TV, however – we packed two – and to play Free Cell on the computer.
He had boxed up seven years of his financial records, including every cancelled check, but he let me shred and throw away my grandmother’s as the statute of limitations had expired (as she had) long ago. He had files of insurance policies, deeds, trusts, wills, powers of attorney and car titles, which we moved intact, along with my mother’s most current address book, and a stash of greeting cards I had sent to him to use for birthdays or friends who were sick. We moved all his good clothes, including a fair number of ties, and all his play clothes that weren’t stained or ripped beyond repair, and every pair of shoes in his closet. And he wanted the every-day plates and glasses and stainless steel flatware because, well, he still used them every day.
And that was it. The medicine he practiced. And the life he lived. Nothing else mattered.
That’s when I wept.
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