My Father’s Things, and My Own
My father died nearly twenty-five years ago. Still, I can conjure that time as if it were yesterday: the bewildering, quiet ride to the hospital, with the ambulance lights flashing but no siren, early on Christmas Eve, 1995; his week of decline; his funeral procession, inching past the farm in a swirl of snow. Somewhere deep in that December storm, the barn roof, which had been standing for more than a century, half collapsed. I had to look, then look again, to comprehend what had happened. I hadn’t a clue what to do next. It was then that I realized that all my father owned and everything that had been in his care—his farm, in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts, where he’d spent his entire life, his house, my mother and her failing memory—had become the province of others.
There were many large things to sort out in the wake of his passing—repairing the roof was the least of it. But, after all this time, I remember just as vividly the small portions of grief. Going through my father’s possessions, I found that objects that had barely registered while he was alive seemed just as precious, if not more so, than the ones I’d imagined treasuring. His own father’s watch, which he kept in his desk drawer; a wooden bowl he’d carved in his teens; his notebooks and textbooks from the Stockbridge School of Agriculture, one of which contained a chapter on chestnut trees, for he’d come of age as the blight was ravaging nearly every one of them —these held just as much resonance as his work jacket and boots, which I saw almost daily, and which seemed to define him.
As I sifted through his possession, I began to think about my own. I felt how freighted and cumbersome inheritance could be. And so, after the obligations to his estate had begun to lift, I went to a lawyer to make my will. I thought it would be simple enough. I was single and without children; I owned a modest house and the items that filled it. For nearly two decades, I’d been accreting, carrying things with me as I moved from an island, to a city, and then back to the farm where I’d been raised. Each time, I’d unpack my possessions from my hatchback—books and photographs, ceramics from Italy, an old cream bottle from the family dairy, my grandmother’s afghan, arrowheads I’d chanced upon—and settle into life among the mosaic of my belongings. I told my lawyer that I wanted to leave the house itself to my niece and nephew. The contents, I thought, could go to my brother and sister.
“Oh, don’t do that!” he said. “Nobody wants to inherit the contents of a house!”
I was taken aback at first. Then I couldn’t help but laugh at the realization that almost every object that held my affections would mean little to anyone else. Still, in spite of that recognition, my things lost none of their attraction. In fact, they seemed to mean all the more to me when, a decade later, I moved to an even older house, in Maine, where I still live, and where I imagine I’ll die. By then, I’d acquired chairs and tables and dishes, and I needed to rent a U-Haul.
Do I think these things keep me tied to earth? All I know is that, together, they provide an unquantifiable comfort. Every once in a while, I wonder whether they could be calcifying around me like a shell.
Today, enough people feel weighed down by their possessions to make “decluttering” a social phenomenon. It’s a word that came into use only in the middle of the twentieth century. Almost certainly, I possess more things than everyone else who’s inhabited my approximately hundred-and-fifty-year-old Cape Cod. It was built by a blacksmith, and most of what he and his family owned probably had a practical use: chairs and pots and tables and cooking utensils, a bread bowl and canning jars. This place must have meant a lot to them; it stayed in their family for nearly a century. Surely, they felt a sense of comfort here equal to or greater than my own.
I often think that everything I own now—a mix of the essential and the desired—wouldn’t be capable of making me feel comfortable in the house as they inhabited it. They kept winter at bay with wood heat alone, through stoves and fireplaces on the first floor. There were fewer windows then, so the house would have been darker in winter—darker always, with just the small and wavering flames of kerosene lamps to illuminate it at night. My father would have known that kind of darkness. He was the son of Lebanese immigrants, born not long after the Wright brothers lifted off from Kitty Hawk. As a boy, he slept in the same bed as some of his siblings, and in winter they’d place hot bricks at its foot to keep warm. I have no doubt that the cold, the closeness, and the dark had something to do with the loyalty they felt to one another all their lives.
When I think about the way that even humble possessions can give us comfort, because we invest our feelings in them, I recall a passage from “The End: Hamburg 1943,” by the German writer Hans Erich Nossack. He describes returning to his bombed-out city. In some neighborhoods, little more than chimneys remained standing. There were few discernible streets; people created paths through the rubble and glass. When refugees encountered the intact possessions of others—even of those who had taken them in and fed them—the objects had no resonance at all. “They would walk through strange rooms, touch an object, hold it, and look at it absently,” Nossack writes. “The unspoken question would fill the room: What is the use of still having such things?” Even so, when they discovered that their own possession—a faded photograph, a childhood doll—had been destroyed, they were overcome. “These things have their life from us, because at some time we bestowed our affection on them; they absorbed our warmth and harbored it gratefully in order to enrich us with it again in meager hours,” Nossack explains. “We were responsible for them; they could only die with us. And now they stood on the other side of the abyss.”
After my father died, it was hard to let the merest thing go. Dropping off a box at the Salvation Army felt like a betrayal. His favorite viyella shirt, his desk blotter, his household hammer, anything written in his hand: it took a force of will to do what was required of me. Now that his passing is so much further away in time, it’s not his things that I cling to the most. It’s memories. I’ve watched helplessly as my mother and all of my father’s siblings have died; now there’s no one on earth who remembers him as a child, or as the young man who, caught in a photograph, walked across the farmyard with a fox slung over his shoulder. Soon enough, his middle age will disappear. After my siblings and I are gone, all that will be left will be his grandchildren’s dim recollections of his old age.
Every once in a while, a fragment of my father rises unbidden—I see him dropping off a basket of dark, shining eggplant and ripe tomatoes on the porch, or wading into the cornfield to pick a dozen ears for dinner—and I imagine such fragments must be authentic for being spontaneous. More often, I consciously conjure him: the way, for instance, he would put a basket of apples in the back of the car when we took a family trip. As we moved westward and northward across New England, he’d give his Macs and Baldwins and Cortlands to gas-station owners and innkeepers along the way.
As much as I tell myself that I can still see him and hear his voice in my head, the man he was may already have disappeared. Memory, with its faults and uncertainties, has made him my own creation, and I’ve changed him as desired. The father I have been shaping out of air for nearly twenty-five years is a man more of his later years. I’ve softened some things. What I conjure often feels companionable and comfortable, and I try not to think that, when I myself die, such memories will slip away in an instant—possessions no one can inherit. Of all the things we ever talked about, all the things he ever said to me in our nearly forty years together on this same earth, out of the drift of the decades since, I recall most often a bright, clear May morning in the apple orchard. The Northern Spies are coming into bloom. The finch’s song, the soft breeze, his voice: “Don’t you just like to watch things grow?”