Monday, August 13, 2012

The Things Left Behind

It's strange the things that mean something to you when your parents die.

Years ago, when my father passed away after a lingering decline, I thought I would want something to remind me of his many years as a swimmer and diver. One of his medals, maybe, or an old sweater with championship patches. The Diver, The Swimmer, The Coach -- these were my father's archetypes, the defining edges of his public portrait, the words most used to describe him in the many articles written about him during his life and in the eulogies and obituaries after he was gone.

But what ended up touching me the most as I went through his things was not an obvious symbol. Instead, I was moved by the articles he had written in his high school newspaper. Sure, he was Olympic-bound and fueled by his dreams of broken records and winning teams, but he was also a thoughtful, funny kid trying to make sense of a changing world which, in the late 1930s, was as murky as a pool that had not been cleaned all winter.

I guess I had never realized that my father was also a bit of a philosopher, a homespun good-guy poet with words to spare. By the time I came along three decades had passed. And by the time I was aware of him, he was just Dad. Much older, much more quiet and too busy working (he was The Coach, after all) to write more than mortgage checks and possibly the words to the Sunday crossword puzzle.

So, I kept those articles as a reminder of the father I didn't know: the person he left behind to become the one he needed to be to raise his family. Those articles connected me to that spark we share as human beings. The one that warms and inspires us when we are young. The one we often pass along like a relay torch to our children.

Something similar happened when my mother died a few months ago. I thought it would be her paintings that would mean the most to me. After all, she was an artist for most of my life. I remember her easel set up in the kitchen. It was something she could do while she cooked dinner, she told me. It didn't take away from her time being a wife and mom.

There was canvas after canvas of beautiful, impressionist images. Beaches, wildflowers and iconic Paris street scenes painted in a Texas kitchen by a woman who never traveled further east than Louisiana.

I love the artwork, but what really touched me as I sorted through her things was her old Yashica TLR camera. I remember when she started learning photography. I was in junior high and barely paid attention to what she cooked for dinner anymore. Her easel had been put away and, instead, she said she was going to learn to take pictures like a pro.

A pro, she said, was someone who had to spend more time than what could be done while she was in the kitchen.

She spent long hours in photography classes and even longer hours wandering around town looking for subjects -- and possibly herself. Her photos were similar to her paintings: full of romance, with soft edges. She captured a world in that camera that she wished she could live for herself -- an idealized, lovely world that didn't hurt, didn't age, and didn't let her down.

My mother tried on a few more creative hats after that -- writer, jazz singer -- but always with the same part time hobby spirit she gave to her paintings. Never again did I hear her talk about becoming a pro at anything. Never again did she really take time away from cooking dinner.

My sister shipped me that old camera the other day. As I held it, I not only remembered my own early photography training -- ironically, it was the exact same model I learned to shoot with in high school -- but I remembered my mother from long ago when she dared to expand her horizons through a viewfinder. She wasn't much older than I am now, and I think she hoped she could freeze time in that wonderful, black box. Or maybe make a new time for herself.

I can relate.

I think we don't really see our parents -- the whole of them -- until they are gone. Little by little, we piece together the parts that never made sense when we were children. The things we never noticed, or perhaps didn't care about, are often the ones that make the most sense when we are left behind, sorting through the remains.

I'm looking forward to shooting a roll of 120 film on Mom's old camera. Maybe I'll see the world like she did all those years ago. Maybe I'll find what she was looking for or, more likely, a piece of myself that I didn't even realize was missing. One thing is for sure: I'll probably be late for dinner.

19 comments:

hugO said...

... expressed beautifully--like a pro.

Mister Earl said...

Wonderful.

Judy Williams said...

I have been surprised by what of her things are my most favorite. Not the sparkly jewels she wore, or the paintings she painted with such care and determination. It's the black wrought iron skillet that cooked many a meal, and the bright yellow plastic vegetable scrubber that adorned a crock on the kitchen counter that so many times, amused my kids in her bathtub, along with gold Tupperware measuring cups. Her glasses,the stainless ladle that served up many a bowl of her famous vegetable beef soup are treasures to me. Even her towels, that are now comforting a crying puppy who doesn't want to be in her crate. Comforting, like Mom always did when I skinned my knee or a boy broke my heart. Like you've said so many times as of late, it's the little things......

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a great piece of writing. Thanks for this.

Michelle said...

Brilliant.

Sally said...

Touching and so true.

K.b. said...

Just saw this come across my Teitter feed. I lost my mom recently and can really relate. Great blog and powerful posting.

Kate in UK

dbdubya said...

Beautifully said, Laurie, and timely. I just spent a long weekend with my 91 year old mother who is as mentally sharp as ever, but her body is giving up on her. One of my brothers lives close by but he had to go to Dallas to take his daughter off to start at TCU and he asked me to keep an eye on her while he was gone. She'd recently fallen and needed family near by. I've always been the closest of her three sons to her, even though the Texas bound one sees her the most. That's because we are most alike and understand each other best. It was very peaceful staying with her in her home and I can relate to your comments, and Judy's, about the surprise in finding what is most meaningful at this time. I haven't lost her yet, but completely understand why her camera is so important to you. Thank you for allowing me to reminisce.

TheChieftess said...

Beautifully said Laurie...

I lost my dad 16 years ago...I still have (and wear) an old sweatshirt jacket that we got him when he was in the convalescent home after his stroke. I only wear it at night when it's too cool for summer night wear but too warm for my winter nightwear...it's missing it's buttons, but is in relatively ok shape for as old as it is...and I think of him every time I put it on.

Anonymous said...

Very meaningful and wonderfully expressed.

Shanna said...

As Judy knows, it is her waffle iron that I wanted. I still need to find her recipe, made from scratch, of course. It was those beaten egg whites that made them so crispy.

TheChieftess said...

@I love that you wanted her waffle iron Shanna!!! I have an electric fry pan that I never use...but I have it just in case I want to make some corn fritters like my mom used to make!!!

Judy Williams said...

Isn't this a wonderful way for us all to remember the things about our loved ones, that mean so much to us? I feel like this blog today is a giant hug! aughhhh (as tears roll down my cheeks)

Ben said...

Add me to the group moved by this beautiful essay.

I lost my father last year and I was surprised that what I loved the most from all of his things was a chewed pencil he used on his crossword puzzles. It is more precious to me than his gold watch.

Thank you, Laurie Allee. You're such a treasure in this town for sharing your own life and feelings as well as your views of South Pas.

Laurie said...

Thank you so much, everybody.

I think it's interesting how we all reach out for these tangible THINGS to hold on to when someone we love passes on. I had a similar experience when my best friend Pat died two years ago. I thought it would be her jewelry or her manuscripts that would touch me the most. Instead, I was just moved to tears by a geranium plant from her balcony. Just knowing that she potted it with her own hands made me feel like she was right there. It also made me vow never to let the thing die.

I really appreciate the kind words, and I'm looking forward to shooting pictures with that wonderful old twin lens.

Oh, and Shanna, I have the waffle recipe. ;-)

Love to all of you. Thanks for reading and responding. And welcome new readers. My stats are higher than usual today, so I appreciate the attention.

Trish said...

Laurie---so incredibly poignant and yet, this made me smile.

My mother has been gone almost 2 decades now. Every so often, I open the little tin box she held some things in, including a tiny bottle of her perfume and a few trinkets. The scent reminds me so much of her still that I look around for her when I open the box and wonder if she'll catch me playing in her tin box. Nothing has much more than sentimental value except to me, but so very important to me and my memories.

Your mother was proud of your work and got to enjoy your photos here...I know she'd be proud knowing you'll be shooting with her old camera.

Judy Williams said...

I keep coming back to read everyone's stories. Your blog today has taken all of our heartstrings and weaved them into a beautiful tapestry!!

dbdubya said...

When I was about 7-8 years old, I bought my grandmother a pair of ceramic quail as a Christmas gift. Many years later as she was moving out of her home and into a retirement home, she pasted small stickers on many items and wrote the name of who she wanted her treasures to go to. She had very distinctive handwriting and always wrote with a light blue fountain pen. She remembered that I gave the quail to her and I got the pair back. The two birds have no real significance to me but the sticker on the bottom with my name written in my grandmother's handwriting provides a wonderful reminder of her sweet soul. She's been gone for 30 years and yet I can still recall her voice, touch, perfume, and handwriting.

Laurie said...

I can't tell you all how much it means to me to share your stories here. I am constantly amazed by blogging's beautiful benefits. In my case it has always been an outpouring of friendship that I cherish.

Thank you.