Thursday, May 7, 2009

ARTIFACTS


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.


14 comments:

  1. Such a sad story of a life lived and soon to end.

    I found after my parents passed away to think of the good times even while sorting through the estate. The things you find when you go through a loved ones home!

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  2. Wow, what a traumatic experience. Some things are better left to be, than be discovered, especially by a loving granddaughter. Your grandmother doesn't hate the only person that loved her enough to rescue her from her illness and place her in an environment where she would be well taken care of 24 hours a day.
    Pam

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  3. I’m struck by the sincerity and savagery of your search.

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  4. Robin, this is your best yet; keep it up and we're all going to be watching you on the morning talk shows flogging your book. Insha'Allah!

    Amazed in DC

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  5. Very poignant. Liked it very much. xxoo HRD

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  6. Interesting blog entry. Someday, when they tear down that house, they'll find wads of cash, diamonds, 5,000 shares of IBM stock from the 1930s, Adminral Peary's porn collection and his REAL logbook - the one that says "oh, to hell with it, we're still a couple hundred miles from the pole, but it's 85 below zero, I'm freezing my butt off, and nobody will ever know, anyway - close enough!".

    That's a good point about the stuff you leave behind. What'll [#$%^^&] think about MY porn collection?

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  7. I really liked your essay on your grandparents home. It was very much
    like what I went through with my brothers when my parents died--my Dad
    had OCD to a huge degree and never threw anything away. As a physician
    he got a stack of ads and sample medicines every day, and these were
    added to the piles in the attic and basement. His examining room filled
    up as well, so that he had to examine patients in the waiting room (the
    front room of the house). Occasionally the rats would get into the
    sample medicines and die in the walls--an unbelieveable odor that simply
    has to be waited out.One of my sons inherited this disorder, and he,
    already at 54 has filled up his apartment so that there is only a path
    to his bed (on the floor) and the closet. If I should die before I get
    through all my papers (I have a milder form of this) I know that he
    would simply take it all to be piled somewhere else. My daughter says I
    am being IRRESPONSIBLE not to go through things now and put them in
    order. But I find it very hard to throw away anything that might be
    useful SOMETIME.

    I take it you never found anything under the attic floorboards?

    Thanks for the thoughtful writing.
    Jo

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  8. Wow- finally had a chance to read this posting- I think most adults at one time in their life will have to go through this tedious, painful task. What I found the most upsetting is not having time to read many of the interesting articles or letters, or even journals. When you think how much of their time on life is found in these missives, it's disheartening to just have to trash it all, otherwise we are creating new piles of "stuff" for our children to have to sort and throw out many years later. I guess the morale to this type of story is to live simply and don't save anything embarrasing?

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  9. Thanks for that comment. I appreciate the time it takes :) I keep telling myself I'll clean out all the stuff packed into my home one of these days, yup, one of these days, so as not to leave it for my kids to deal with. But then, I figure when I'm gone I hopefully won't notice what they think! RRR

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  10. I give up after this...
    It just won't post.. I've done it now 6 time...
    Betty

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  11. A....Robin ... A...
    It took 6 time for it to ...
    Oh well let see how meny time it takes this time.!
    Were is the seal.. Please can I see a seal...!
    Betty

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  12. When I was little My mother use to have us look around my fathers gagarge for old Mr. Boston whisky bottles. She would have us pour them out...(he had a drinking promblem..She hated Alcohaol) One day my brother and I found pLaying cards in his tool chest. ...
    They were hard core porn playing cards. Well.. don't you know... we had to show them to all the other kids in the neighborhood. Oh my.. My father cought hell for that ..! and so did we... Being kids we didn't know what was going on in those cards...I remember asking what are they doing..? I think I was 9 my brother 11.
    I look back on it now it's funny.. My father didn't think it was funny, when All the parent got through giving him a piece of their mind..!
    Betty

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  13. The ending is so poignant. . . . Loss of innocence. In the long run, she'll forgive. Her spirit will understand.
    Pilgrim

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