Thursday, May 7, 2009
Recently, I went on an archeological dig. Like most digs, I didn’t really know what I’d find, nor know what I was looking for. Like Justice Potter Stewart, when asked to define pornography, I figured I’d know it when I found it. And, like most archeological digs, there was a lot of time spent in the dirt doing tedious things without reward. I conducted my dig in Brunswick, Maine at the home of my grandparents, where they had lived for seventy years and raised my father.
My grandmother just turned 99. She never expected to have to leave her home, but she went blind and developed dementia. No longer safe on her own, I had to put her in a nursing home. She will never forgive me for that. Then I was faced with cleaning out her house.
I loved her house; it was like walking into a cocoon, always warmly familiar and unchanged. The furniture never moved; the wall art stayed the same. My grandfather had collected over 2000 books filling the shelves specially made to hold them. The music stand, where my grandmother had taught hundreds of children to play guitar, stood in the same spot, though arthritis had stopped her playing decades before. Her guitars stood sentinel and oddly, held their tune. Sometimes, I’d pick one up and strum it.
Born in the early 1900s, my grandparents were typical products of their times as children of World War One. After ‘The War To End All Wars,’ they lived through World War Two, The Korean War, The Vietnam War and the Great Depression. My grandmother also survived the German Revolution. They lived conservatively, even meagerly, though they weren’t poor. Saving money was their way of life. They fine tuned not spending to a thin wavering line between art form and illness. They may have been the founding fathers of the ‘Reduce, Reuse and Recycle’ campaign. Not a rubber band, piece of tin foil, string, plastic bag nor piece of paper that came into that house, ever went out. All of it was reused or saved in the event that it might be. They had good reason to believe in frugality, to scrimp and save in case they would need something later. Life had taught them that though times might be good in the moment, without warning, it would all go to hell.
My grandmother had declined gradually, but leaving her home was sudden. Fifteen years of depression, old age and blindness crept up and closed in around her. From the kitchen to where she slept, there were mere paths between piles of papers, clothing, plastic containers, dead geraniums, and god only knows what else. God, and now, me. Getting through it was a nightmare faced often by adult children. Additionally, for years my grandfather said if anything happened to him to check under the attic floor boards. Then, later, my grandmother said she had hidden a year’s income in cash in the house. I started in the attic which was full! I found bundles of letters from my grandmother’s family in Germany. Slammed across the fronts were censor’s stamps, swastikas and postage stamps bearing Hitler’s profile. Most of them had sections cut out or were struck through with black lines so the text couldn’t be read, letters sent from a war zone to the one person who got out. They are all in German; I don’t know what any of them say. But I can clearly read the ugliness on the outside. And sadness. I can only imagine the pain and fear that those letters caused my grandmother. My father always said that his parents didn’t love him. Yet, in the attic, I found packages of his school papers, drawings from when he was five. Who keeps that stuff if not a person who loves someone? It took me days to work through all the junk in the attic. Under the floorboards, I felt through the vermiculite insulation - for what? It took weeks to leaf through the books and sort through the piles, to examine the shards left from their lives. I found unfilled prescriptions for antidepressants. I found a stack of flight sickness bags from Iberia airlines circa 1975. I found 25 palm sized diaries cataloguing the day’s temperature, the price of chicken, the cost of fuel, but not one thing personal. I found Christmas cards from thirty years before. If I listed it all, it would be an endless enumeration of nothing. It was a terribly demoralizing, tedious archeological dig with no holy grail at the end. I had come to hate my grandmother’s house and everything in it, but I had to carry on. So, I commenced to the sewing room. The room was her sanctuary where she was assured of privacy. There was a large, built-in drawer stuffed full of hoarded fabric dating back to the early sixties. It was so tightly packed that it was the one place in the house where mice hadn’t traveled. I shoved my hand between layers to pull out a pile. Feeling paper, I pulled out a tri-fold brochure. Scanning the text and opening the folds, I shrieked, “Oh my God! It’s PORN!” Men and women were doing all kinds of stuff to each other inside that pamphlet; it was the hardest core pornography available! I had hit the mother load after all - my grandmother’s buried treasure!
I had hoped to find something that would make sense of the pain and confusion in my family. Or at least to find money. But, I didn’t. What I did get was this lesson: We are all going to leave things behind. No matter how old we get to be, we’ll leave when we least expect to. So, consider what you’ll leave, even if you don’t plan on going soon.
I hope my grandmother lives to be 100. I visit her regularly, but she doesn’t know who I am any more. There is a flicker in her eyes when I come, though. From deep inside, she still remembers to hate me. I wish she had died fifteen years ago, before her blinds were drawn against the sun, before I found her porn, while her house still smelled like cake.