November 6, 2017
Dear Daddy —
Charles and Dawson are in North Carolina today, staying at the Chocolate House, our vacation home in the mountains that you built over 60 years ago. Like your house here, it’s unfinished, but less so. It’s smaller, so there was less to finish. Dawson sent pictures of your military marker. Your headstone is not yet in place because, ironically, the supplier for the stone itself was killed this past week.
Thanksgiving is coming up, and we’re making plans. Mother wants a Christmas tree in the music room. We’ve never had a tree there before. We’ve never had much of anything in there before, except junk. Although I do dimly remember, when I was in high school, that the piano in the corner was open and available to play, if badly out of tune even then.
So back to Thanksgiving, 2014, when I began cleanup operations. I started in the dining room. I believe, before the holiday itself, I only cleared a walkway around the table. You had so much loose paper piled up, and loose video tapes stacked everywhere. And beneath the loose stuff was box after box of more stuff. As I recall, I carried 12 boxes just of papers to the West hallway upstairs. (One of the boys recently pointed out to me that it’s actually the northwest hallway, as the house intersects parallel on about a 30-degree angle. But “Northwest Hallway” sounds a bit silly to me. It’s the hallway on the side where the sun sets.
Once I’d cleared the papers, I packed up videotapes in file boxes, and then took those and the boxes of tapes you’d already packed upstairs to the crib room—formerly Charles’s bedroom. It was already packed with boxes of papers and almost unusable anyway. All of this effort cleared the front part of the room. The back, toward the kitchen, still hosted about fifty file boxes full of video tapes, all packed around that dreaded stair stepper. When I started moving those, I made a discovery that just sums up your personality so well.
At some point, you had clearly decided that the stair stepper wasn’t going to be used anymore. You left it in the dining room, partly thinking, I’m sure, that it should be there if someone wanted to use it, and partly thinking (correctly) that there was not one more damned cubic foot in that house in which to place it. And, of course, you would never have considered removing it from the house. It might be useful, after all.
But, when you’d decided it was going into a long-term status of disuse, you had cut up a pizza box and made inserts to slip around the bases of the handlebars. You had tied these in place and then shimmed them with blocks of wood, so that you would have a level surface on which to stack your file boxes, and they wouldn’t be in danger of falling. I wonder how many hours you spent flattening and cleaning the pizza box, measuring, marking it, and cutting it to fit? And then how long finding exactly the right sized wood blocks? Or did you make them? You had an uncanny talent for finding scrap wood that would exactly fit the space you needed to fill.
Perhaps it didn’t take you too long, since there were both scraps of wood and flattened pizza boxes literally all over the house—under chairs, behind the couch, stacked carefully in the unused living room—everywhere. Still… really? You couldn’t just say, “Someone take this unused stair stepper to the dump?”
I emptied the dining room of detritus to the point of usability. I believe there was still a solid inner wall of boxes all the way around the room when we sat down to dinner, but we could move, and even breathe a little. I would be disappointed (and frankly furious) when I returned a week later to find that half the space I had cleared was once again filled with new file boxes and stacks of magazines. Where had they all come from?
I didn’t stop with the dining room. The kitchen and breakfast room were next. You had built a veritable mountain of junk in there. I knew I couldn’t just move it out. You would have been furious. You didn’t yet know that, every time you weren’t looking, a bag or box of paper was leaving your house, to be sorted, and largely recycled, once I got it home. No, I had to be stealthy. So I decided to hollow out the mountain. The plastic shelves were near the unusable exterior door, about three feet away from it. Just enough so it could open. But it couldn’t open, because you’d built a wall of magazines and boxes in front of it. So I carefully tore that down, shifted it sideways just enough that I could open the door. Then I went outside and moved another plastic shelf which you had constructed in front of the door from the other side. With the door able to open just enough for my body to fit through, I stationed Christian outside, and I handed him about 20 magazines at a time to go to my car, from whence they would go to the landfill. We kept this up for hours. By the end of the day we had cleared a space big enough to hide a doghouse in, and, wonder of wonders, found one of the breakfast table chairs. Hadn’t seen any of those in years. I assumed they were all under there somewhere.
We continued to hollow out the mountain for at least a week, working a little whenever we could. One day, it may have been after Christmas by this point, we had cleared enough that Christian had room to completely clear the breakfast table, the bench that sat on one side of it, and all its chairs. You came in just as he was finishing and I was using the now-empty surface to sort some of your tools.
We had a fight about those tools. When I was little, you kept your tools in a Craftsman toolbox and a couple of small tackle boxes. You also had some plastic caddies for carrying them. Over the years, you had set those containers, filled to their brims with odds and ends, to the side, and begun using plastic grocery bags to transport your tools, and the cardboard trays that cases of Fancy Feast cat food were shipped in as long term storage drawers.
When you walked up, I was placing the tools from about fifty of those cat food trays into about four Rubbermaid bins, sorted by type. You objected, and said it was much easier to find your tools in a shallow, cardboard container. I told you that only worked if you had enough space to lay out all your cardboard containers and see inside them. Since you had them stacks in columns of about twenty at a time, it was no wonder it took you, on average, three hours just to find a screwdriver when you needed one. It was also no wonder that you now owned enough tools to open a hardware store, since what you couldn’t find, you went out and replaced.
But the clean table was a turning point for you.