by Barbara Jessing
As a child I remember taking an occasional look into my father’s top dresser drawer. I wasn’t interested in the clothing drawers. They were everyday boring — though it was surprising to find that he was so neat: such symmetrical folds and stacks. But the top drawer was more jumbled. It held everyday odds and ends – but among them were small relics of his past. Army dog tags, Military insignia – crossed rifles on a small brass disc – for serving in the infantry (though he was armed only with a saxophone as far as I know) – a rosary, his grandfather’s meerschaum pipe still holding the sharp scent of cherry tobacco in it; a pocket knife, silver dollars, a coin commemorating Franklin Roosevelt. Cuff links, money clip.
I can’t remember feeling ashamed about this invasion of privacy. And shame was the all the rage for Catholic children in the fifties. I’d gotten the message: born into sin, in need of redemption. At seven I was already inventorying my small weekly experiences for signs of sin. We didn’t have “elf on a shelf” to remind us that whether or not we knew it we were being watched and judged. But I felt no shame in opening that drawer. I knew to look when no one was around, but it felt to me like a clean healthy and driven curiosity. Who was this man? Where had he been? Why did he save these things? What did they mean to him? Every child is born into a mystery. Standing over that open drawer, that’s what I was trying to solve.
What has taken me back to Livermore? The end of my parents’ marriage; the endings in death of their separate lives. Having the responsibility to deal with the homes and belongings they left behind. Opening the huge top dresser drawer of their entire lives, asking those same small questions again, in loving grief and curiosity – who were these people, and what imprint have they left on me? What did they leave behind, and what does it mean?
From those childhood homes, we moved out, moved on. That house remained like a museum of our origins, though little by little the exhibits changed. I shipped boxes to my new address – college papers, square photos, old letters, baby blanket. These things became part of a new home, a new museum.
Closing the house. My father had died several years before, but until his widow sold the house to move to a retirement apartment, most of his things had remained in place. We had never lived here. We were visitors in the living room. In my grandmother’s home, where I knew every corner, I might have gone directly to the middle bedroom and know that in the dresser drawers I could find baby photos, wrapping paper, or needle and thread. Here, I’d have to ask; I wouldn’t know.
Now, in his quiet absence, everything was open to us. In the hours after his funeral, as cake and coffee were served in the living room, I found my brother sitting silently in my father’s study, in the arm chair in the corner, and I understand why. Here we could be in the heart of the mystery.
A desk positioned into the corner, with wings to both sides, was exactly like my own. Clearly he knew his way around in this order. A book of stamps folded into a small cubbyhole; he would have known where to find them as I know where mine are stashed. Neat stacks of mail, drawers for fishing lures, bills filed by month; photo packets – these I investigated eagerly but most were pictures of wood, and the small works of art he turned and carved with precision on the lathes in his woodshop; his friends who also were woodworkers, guys teaching woodworking classes; things made out of wood; things he saw at art shows that he thought of making. An album of a cruise to Alaska taken several years ago, filled with gorgeous photographs of the inland fiords, eagles, moose, the wet distant back of a whale; but none of himself and few of any human person — as if his eyes were fixed only outward and then mostly on the natural world.
I did not find many pictures of my father, except a picture on his bookshelf — wood books, fishing books — of a young man wailing on a saxophone. His music collection, CD’s mostly, are shelved above the desk. I listen to the sounds I remember him playing on the saxophone. Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughn, Dave Brubeck, Stan Getz.
There is evidence that the disease had begun to encroach on this space in the last few months — an oxygen machine, a collection of pills, a blood pressure cuff, an internet printout suggesting he had grappled here with the cool facts about the disease – chronic, untreatable, pulmonary fibrosis
In a file drawer I went looking for the military discharge papers needed to process some aspect of probate. In the search for that, I discovered his retirement folder, outlining his departure from thirty years of employment at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. And I also found copies of his medical records, obtained in the process of determining if his years of work involving radioactive and other highly dangerous materials, had anything to do with the failure of his lungs in his final illness. These folders came with me to my own study at home, each holding its own questions about the mysteries of my father’s life.
Early that Saturday, the coastal fog rolled over the hills into the valley. In these few days of boxing up my father’s study, I took daily breaks to Peet’s or Borders for an internet connection, real coffee, and public radio. So I happened to catch Scott Simon on Weekend Edition, interviewing Yorma Kaukonen, guitarist with the Jefferson Airplane, who played a few minutes of Embryonic Journey, an intricate guitar solo, a wordless and powerful anthem of beginning. With this song, from the pink covered album Surrealistic Pillow, the spring of forty years ago comes rushing back, this adventure just beginning; into such a future, unknown.
“How long do you plan to live”? This is the startling question I was faced with, the first time I consulted a retirement planner. Having enough money to retire, it turns out, depends on that. How long do you plan to live? In those Embryonic Journey days, how would I have answered that? Thirty seemed far away. Old age, impossible. Retirement from what one has not done yet, unthinkable.
And now here I am, forty years distant from leaving home; not only that, but I have made a home, set two children on their own embryonic journeys; and mine was the home they left.
“In my beginning is my end.”
T.S. Eliot, “Four Quartets”