By contrast, I've been lucky to have so much time with my children. The first ten years, I stayed home with them. We were too poor to pay the utility bills until they were pink and featured lettering all in caps, with words like URGENT and RECONNECT FEE. We had one car, and rented our homes, and bought all our clothes used, but the kids and I were together all day and if we wanted to ride bikes to the park and stay there all day, we could, examining the paths of ants and discussing in detail why clouds move the way they do, passing hours in the library. Though Disneyland has only recently been in the budget, I've always carted my children all over the place. Since they could crawl they've been taken to the beach and on camping trips, sometimes when I had less than $100 in my checking account. Back then, in the salad days, happiness was a full tank of gas, an ice chest full of food, and the open road. That example was set for me by my mother and stepfather, who never hesitated to take my sisters and me camping or to the beach on a shoestring budget, usually in a large American car prone to breaking down. I found the breakdowns traumatic, which is why as an adult I own a reliable Japanese car, but my parents never seemed too fazed by them. They didn't enjoy paying the high repair bills that tended to correspond to breaking down in the middle of nowhere, and my mom, driven and schedule-oriented, particularly disliked the requisite waiting, but otherwise they seemed to find the breakdowns part of the adventure, jut another facet of the trip itself. So much so, in fact, that as I was writing this post, a text came in from my stepfather, who, with my mother, is whale watching in a remote part of Mexico. Accompanying the text, which declared a roadside breakdown, was a photo of their car, the hood raised, an affable-seeming Mexican man peering under the hood. The car was now repaired, the text explained, and "all for 600 pesos!" My parents are 70 now, but they still seem to take these setbacks in stride. "I hope there were bales of hay for you guys to sit on," I texted back, a reference to the many times we had, as a young family, broken down in the desert between home and the beach. We had, in actual fact, sat on many a hale bale, waiting for many a small town mechanic to take my parents to the cleaners. "Yes," my mom replied, it being a group text, "but no truckers honking their horns!" I marveled at their sanguine attitude in equal measure to feeling relief I was not on the road trip with them. I am as intrepid as the next guy, but I prefer for the rubber to meet the road uninterrupted, except for the occasional bathroom break.
Childhood fear of stranding breakdowns aside, I've traveled solo a lot with my kids, so much so that Arlo commented on it, on the road home from Disneyland. "I don't know any any other single moms that take their kids on road trips like you do, Mom. Thanks for always making it happen." "Thanks, buddy," I replied, chuckling, "I appreciate that. How many single moms are you hanging out with, though?" He considered this before nodding sagely and replied, "true."
Driving to and from Disneyland, the kids alternately dozing and peppering me with questions like, "how long was I asleep?" I thought about what it's like to be a passenger. Not unlike childhood, if you trust the person at the wheel, you relax, watch the scenery, maybe even fall into a dreamless, if hard-on-the-neck, kind of sleep. There's trust in being a passenger, if you take it on faith that the person driving knows what they're doing. One of the highest forms of praise I can bestow on someone is to doze off while they are driving me somewhere. Very few people in the world get to that level of trust with me. Also like childhood, if the person at the wheel is known to be erratic, untrustworthy, prone to anger or bouts of falling off the radar, being a passenger is no damn fun. You have to stay alert, watch the road, try and spot the caution signs and the gathering storm clouds lest a disaster catch you off guard. Maybe it was the untrustworthiness of the driver, so to speak, that kept my dad from traveling more, both with and without me. Other than a trip back East when I was four to marry his second wife in her hometown, which trip did not include me, I don't know of other traveling my dad did. The family story goes that we had some family land in Greece, dating back to before my grandfather left for America. If it was anything like the family land my grandmother owned in Northern Arizona, it was valueless, undesirable. That particular land now belongs to me, and I'm giving it as a gift to a friend from work who has always wanted land to put a geodesic dome on, because if you have it in your power to make a person's geodesic-dome-related dream come true, you do it. My grandmother owned that land for fifty years, and it has appreciated not at all. Likely it has lost value since the 60's when it was purchased, despite its convenient access to the Petrified Forest, Route 66, and the iconic Wigwam Motel, which by today's standards is probably racist in addition to being inaccurate (the rooms are shaped like teepees, not wigwams).
If the Grecian land is like the Arizonan stuff, I picture it as the one strip of barren dust amid the otherwise lush greenness of its surroundings. While all the tracts nearby are, in my imagination, filled with olive trees and ancient ruins, the part belonging to the American Gigicons has stood empty and unloved for decades, except for maybe one or two interloping second cousins, who know were aren't coming for it, and are working on putting up a geodesic dome there. More power to them, because according to my grandmother, ownership of that land died with my dad.
"We DO?!" I said, eyes wide with surprise, when I learned as a high schooler that our family had some land in Greece. "Why don't we go there?!?" Filled with wanderlust, all I wanted as teenager was to go anywhere, to go everywhere. My grandmother chuckled, her eyes narrowing as she fixed her gaze on my father. "We can't take ownership of it," she said, "unless we go there. It belongs to your grandfather, and we would have to go there to do the paperwork." Who knows if that was factually true, but to me it was no barrier. "Well, we should go!!" I proclaimed. "We can't," Grams said. "Johnny is afraid to fly." This was news to me, so I glanced at my dad, who averted his eyes and said, "I don't like the thought of being over all that water." You didn't hear my grandmother volunteering to fly to Greece and transfer the land on her own, but in her mind, and thus in the narrative of our family, it was my dad's fault we were going to lose it. Were he braver, we might have had something there, but he was going to let it slip away. Held fast by his fears, he'd lose the chance for an adventure - he'd be stuck where he was.
Dealing with his apartment and belongings these past few months, I've had lots of chances to see that stuck-ness firsthand. Not quite an apartment (my grandmother, and on her death, my dad, actually owned the place), his place is also not a house. It's a co-op, which is like an apartment that you own, with a repressive board comprised of a few of your neighbors, who seem to love nothing more than to give you shit for where your guests park and what color you paint your front door. For my whole childhood, my grandmother was cowed by these dynamics. Behind the safe neutral paint of her front door, she would quietly bad mouth the board, call the rules repressive and the downstairs neighbor tyrannical, but never did she disobey or speak up. She unquestioningly signed the annual Occupancy Agreement and creeped around in her stocking feet so as not to offend the downstairs occupant. My dad followed suit, when he took up residence there with her. Friendly on the surface, he was scathing in his commentary about life at the co-op in general. "These busybodies around here," he'd say under his breath, waving politely at whatever old lady looked up as we passed, "would open your mail if they got half the chance." My dad took the approach that his home was more like a prison, one in which it was best to humor the guards to keep the beatings to a minimum.
Possibly intimidated by the "no brightly colored front doors" rule, my dad and grandmother seemed to have taken the modifications guidelines to their extreme and made no updates at all to the unit they shared. Entering it following his death, I saw the same ancient curtains that had been there since I was a small child, covered with all the dust of the forty years that had elapsed. It was disconcerting to see photos of me as a four or five year old in front of those same curtains, my tiny feet positioned on the same carpeting, though it, like me, looked vastly more youthful and less worn than it did in the present day. Nothing about the place screamed "home" to me - it was a place to put your things (in no particular order) and a person could sleep and eat there, but it didn't feel like a home. It felt like a type of prison, I thought, as I considered the substantial dust accumulation on the popcorn ceilings, but it was a chosen thing. My dad hadn't been forced to live there, I considered. If questioned, he'd say he was there for financial reasons. The co-op was paid for, all except the monthly HOA assessment, which was less than $200 a month. And yet, there was plenty of money in the world, wasn't there? That's what people did, they went out and earned money to get into, or out of, the circumstances they wanted to be in, or wanted to escape. I'd done it myself more than once, gone out and found my way in the world with no help from anyone, and so I had little patience as I stood there in the rat's nest of my father's apartment, this 600 square foot rabbit's warren of jumbled items, neglect, dust, and decay. Like so much else about my dad, his reasons for living where he did were inaccessible to me, his motives and decisions impossible to understand. I wondered for the thousandth time about my father's past, his history, what had shaped him into the man I had known.
Headed to Disneyland, we drove though the desert of California, between two forgettable towns that were, as I joked to the boys, not the California we were promised. Between the two towns, I pointed out a little stand of dying palm trees to the boys. "That's where my first husband grew up," I said. "It used to be a thriving community. One time I went there with him, to see his childhood home, and it was like a ghost town. Every house was abandoned, and when we walked through his house he was amazed at how tiny it was. Probably not even half the size of our house, but he said when he was a kid the place seemed vast to him."
"Mom," Owen laughed, "you tell us this story every time we pass here." As a child who grew up in the dark about her parents' pasts, their failings, their errors in judgment, about what exactly had made them the way that they were, it made me laugh to hear the patient exasperation in his voice. "Do I?" I said. "My bad, then." But then Owen said, "his dad was the mine foreman, right?" "That's right," I said, "I guess I have told you this story before." We got to talking about it again, because really it interests them, to think of this me I was when I was 18 and got married, this person who existed before they did, who made such stupid and silly mistakes. And yet, that girl got me to where I am today, I thought as we talked about how Pete's family had to drive 60 miles to a grocery store, how his dad had to fire all his friends and neighbors when the mine was mined out, how his family had moved to the big city so his dad could get a job he hated in a mill products plant. That adolescent me, the 18 year old bride, who had longed to better know and understand her mysterious parents, had become the kind of parent who could take her kids to an amusement park she didn't personally care about visiting, and on the way there discuss with them a regretted chapter of her life, without defensiveness, or recrimination, or blame. What an interesting thing, I thought, that the sins of the father will be visited on the children, but also that a sort of grace comes with it, an ability, if we are lucky, to see the outline of the old path but tread a new one, the way you know how to stay in your lane on the freeway even though the old road lines, the lanes slightly differently laid out, are still visible beneath the new. You recognize the vestiges of the old path, but you take the new one. I wouldn't have dreamed of interrogating my parents about their lives before me, much less about their mistakes, but here were my children gently chiding me for repeating myself as I laid bare my past. Paul Simon played on the radio as we blew past that ghost town, the album of his I always like to play on road trips. "This is the story of how we begin to remember. This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein."
This is how it's been for me, going through my dad's things, like walking through a ghost town recognizing the wallpaper on the remaining partial walls. In my professional life, I know that tangible personal property is hard. I've watched beneficiaries split up millions of dollars in cash and stocks without a peep, seamlessly agreeing on how to divvy up the interest and accrued dividends. But what they do fight about, sometimes bitterly, is the personal property. I've seen litigation over Grandmother's doorstopper, or a pair of valueless earrings, and once got a call from a Trustee who suggested, only half joking, that we buy an additional set of the kitchen furniture over which step-sibling beneficiaries in their 40's and 50's were bitterly fighting. "I just saw the same table and chairs at World Market," she said. "They don't even live in the same state; do you think we could give them each a set and hope they'd all think they've got the original?" We didn't do that, of course. But I gave it a few seconds' worth of serious thought.
Emotion is tangled up in belongings. That's why hoarding is a thing, and why retail therapy is a thing, and why it feels so good to receive the exact right perfect gift. It means that someone not only thought of you enough to want to get you something, but they paid attention to what your life is like and knew what thing you would most want or be able to use. It feels good. Stuff, it turns out, is often just feelings in tangible form. Especially stuff that used to belong to dead people.
I've been picking through the rubble, both emotionally and physically, these last two months. My dad's personal property also contained my grandmother's personal property, their stuff, like everything else about them, impossibly intertwined. Unearthing all their things was a trip, both down memory lane and a little bit like what I imagine a drug trip would feel like, where things swim into view without really making sense. Here were the prized wheat pennies and commemorative quarters in their protective sleeves, next to the reader's digest anthologies and decades of back editions of TV Guide. 40 year old newspapers and magazines, check. Dresser crammed full of my my grandmother's synthetic slacks and worn, cracked handbags, check. In a hall cupboard, inside a mesh basket, was a collection of what could only be my grandmother's hair, saved for what purpose? Norman Bates came to mind, in the split second before I threw it away.
There was a large file in my father's cabinet entitled "kudos" which was filled with ancient fan mail and letters my dad had clearly enlisted people he knew to write to his boss. They were all of a piece, essentially form letters, written by my father's dentist, his neighbor, his childhood friend, to the general manager of the station where my father worked as a weekend weatherman, imploring the GM to make my dad the weekday weatherman. They expressed their admiration of my dad's people skills and on-camera charm, and their certainty that he was the man for the main weather job. It made my face burn with embarrassment to read these letters; they were so similar, so transparently written by my dad and sent by people who were probably too mortified to refuse his request, but yet my dad had kept them, in a neatly labeled file, for decades. What good were solicited kudos, I wondered? If you ask someone to praise you, does it still feel like praise? For me, the answer would be no, and yet clearly they had meant something to him. I was the decider now, though, and so they went on the trash pile with 95% of the paperwork I found. Here were rolls and rolls and rolls of his target practice torsos, riddled with bullet holes and cryptic notations in numbers that meant nothing to me. There were promotional posters of movies and TV show carried on the network for which he worked, 30 years old and covered with thick layers of dust. Here, wrapped in old sheets, were the old family rifles and a BB gun. Here, in the kitchen, were the highball glasses with my father's initials etched into them, which I vividly remembered from my childhood. They were high quality, heavy and well made, probably a gift. I didn't want them, and so we spitballed ideas about who could use them. Maybe there were others out there with the same initials? I could put an ad on Craigslist, which maybe would be answered by a James Nathan Graham or a Juan Nico Gutierrez.
Sorting through all this required me to go to my dad's house a dozen or more times, sometimes with the boys and sometimes without, sometimes with a friend or my gentleman caller but more often by myself, stopping in to check the mail and maybe grab a bag or two of trash to take out. I tried not to be there for extended periods of time by myself, preferring to run in like a child passing a cemetery, holding his breath until he got well clear of it. It was better to be there with people who loved me and for whom the place had no emotional pull, but the truth was, those people had lives too, and pastimes they wanted to pursue, dust bunnies gathering under their own beds. People can't hold your hand and walk you through all the burdens of your life, it turns out. They have their own shit to do. In the wise words of the Three Amigos, we all have our own personal el Guapo to confront, and sometimes your el Guapo is a grungy co-op apartment, filled predominately with trash and sadness and broken things that were well-used by broken people who, by happy accident of birth, you were taught to love. Love, frustratingly, is a feeling that is hard to unlearn, even when it would benefit you to be able to do so.
The last few times I went to my dad's house, I went alone, and got comfortable with the fact that I wouldn't be able to accomplish the task at hand if I wasn't willing to draw breath in the place. I brought a speaker for my music and sat cross legged in front of the piles, sorting them and working hard to face all the discoveries they contained. In a dozen visits, I'd culled a small stack of things I wanted to keep. My grandmother's bird necklace, which I rarely saw her without - I thought maybe my dad's cousin would like to have this. My dad's keychain, monogrammed, of course, with the initials JP - his good friend in Virginia had the same initials and was commonly referred to by my dad as "the other JP." Maybe I could give that to him, when we meet for lunch this year, as he said he'd like to do when he comes to town this spring. My grandfather's naturalization papers, the death certificate of my father's older sister, who died as a two year old before he was born, a handful of photographs. These were the things I wanted, but the rest of it, no. I couldn't picture a future time when I'd feel like switching on the glowing Jesus icon that had always illuminated the bedroom of that apartment, since I'd been old enough to remember. I couldn't see hanging framed photos of the Golden Gate Bridge, which my father had always loved, on any of the walls of my house. Though I was born in the area, those pictures just seemed to me to be an homage to my father's failed attempt to strike out on his own and live the life he'd imagined. What must he have felt, I wondered, stopping in my tracks at the foot of his bed, laying in bed ten feet from my grandmother's bed and looking at a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge? 'Not germane,' I muttered to myself sternly. 'This is not what we are here to accomplish, Meade. Stay on target.' I had to give myself dozens of these little talkings-to just to get through the sifting. It was so easy to be sidetracked by all the thoughts that occurred to me as I went through my father's records (sure, Tony Bennett made sense, but Olivia Newton John, really?), sorted through his sock drawer (so many pill bottles, Dad!) and tried to make sense of items that were now devoid of their backstory (not one but two felt Indiana Jones hats, from Disneyland, tags still on).
In the hall closet was his hamper, the same cracked brown vinyl number I remembered from childhood, brimming full of dirty laundry. The lid was slightly raised because of the quantity of items inside, and as I approached it to lift it out into the light I thought, "so, this contains the last of the clothes my father wore before he died. No big deal." This was my father rising in me, his personality so tied to my own, our dual ability to feel things deeply, to sense on a deep level the unseen meaning tied to ordinary things. 'Just pick it up, I told myself. 'This is normal. It's what people do, and there's no one but you to do it, so do it.' I struggled the thing to the dumpster, never opening the lid. The pockets of his last-worn clothes might have been stuffed with Krugerrands or handwritten letters that would have explained his innermost thoughts to me, but I was never going to know it, because I was not going to sort through the dirty laundry of a dead man, especially if that dead man was my only father.
"What do you guys recommend," I asked some work contacts of mine, Mark and Susie, people who make their living running estate sales for the families of the recently deceased, "for things that have no value? Is there a service that will come and take everything away, donate what's donate-able and throw the rest out for me? What would something like that cost?" A friend had given me a link to an online service, and another had recommended finding someone on Craigslist who could make a dump run. "Let us look at it first," Mark said. "We'll do it for you. Don't trust any random person on the internet." Feeling equal parts thankful and sorry for wasting their time, I set up a time for them to meet me at OGT, as the boys and I had taken to calling my dad's place, after I declared on one of our many long drives across town from our house to his, "guys, we have to think of a new name for my dad's house, because it bums me out to have say, 'I need to go to my dad's house' all the time." Owen, who you can never be sure is paying attention to any given conversation, especially one that takes place on a car ride, replied immediately, "how about Operation Golden Thunder?" "I like that," I said, laughing, "let's go with it." Operation Golden Thunder had been shortened to OGT by the time I met Mark and Susie there early one Tuesday morning. They walked through it like a shop or a bus terminal, as though it wasn't filled with sad memories and archaic ghosts. They went through appraisingly, the way I imagine a farmer assesses crops or a teacher grades tests, the way I look through a client's will swiftly for exactly the provisions I expect to find. They went through, in short, like professionals, and this is why I have such a soft spot in my heart for watching people do their work. I'd be a disaster at making fudge, a sticky mess, but watch a fudgemaker do it and it's artistry in motion. Ever changed your own oil? Sure you have, and unless you do it often, you take twice the time and make triple the mess of a guy who does it all day long. I absolutely love watching people at work, and would have published a coffee table book on this topic years ago if it wouldn't be full of pictures of people with the exact same look on their face, the look of focused intelligence that comes with knowing what you are doing. All this to say, Mark and Susie walked through knowing what to look for, and then they turned to me and Susie said, "there's some value here. We can do an estate sale for you, if you want." This was news to me, and it took me a second or two to register it. Value? The worn and dated furniture, the hodgepodge of kitchen items, the banker's box filled with unopened office supplies - really? I'd been hoping they could recommend someone who'd take it all away for a few hundred bucks, but instead they were envisioning purchasers for the these items. Who were the people, I wondered, who would want to drive to OGT, fight for the three designated visitors parking spots, climb a flight of stairs, and make a bid on my father's never-worn 90's era t-shirt printed with the message: "Impeach President Clinton AND her husband!" I couldn't picture any of this being worth the requisite effort, but Mark and Susie were up to it, they assured me. "Great," I managed to blurt out. "Ok, good, sure." "Are you done here, Nicole?" Susie asked me. "You have everything you want? Because the way we work is, we will take it from here, and after we conduct the sale, we will give you the keys back with the place completely empty."
Was I done here? The thought was liberating and terrifying. Was I allowed to be done here? I'd spent a month sorting and cleaning, organizing, throwing away trash, confronting the past and trying to decide how I felt about it. Could I now just walk away? The answer appeared to be, sure I could. "I have what I want," I said, indicating the thin stack of papers and photos I'd set aside. I handed over the keys and thanked them both, descending the stairs with both a newfound lightness and also a sense of being in trouble. What would people say, I thought, panicky, if they heard that I didn't want anything that had belonged to my father? I tried to conjure up people I'd be in trouble with, but failed. My dad's cousin, I guess, might think me cold for not wanting to save a favorite sweater or one of his many worry stones, that quintessential Greek item. Google "Greek worry stones" or "Greek worry beads" and you'll learn that they are used to 'pass the time' in Greek culture, and are typically manipulated by rubbing one's thumb along the indentation to relieve anxiety. Pass the time? Why couldn't my dad pass the time riding a bicycle or learning to hot air balloon? I wondered, as I got in my car, stressed about all the worry stones I'd callously left behind to be sold to worried strangers, whether my father had been aware that worrying was his pastime. Had he inked it in on forms at the doctor office, on the line for "hobbies"? Some patients parasailed or gardened, hiked or played the violin. My father worried. And here I was, like the true daughter of his that I am, driving back to the office following in his footsteps. I resolved not to worry about my lack of desire to keep his things, and not to worry about the apocryphal relatives or friends who might surface to judge me for it. That was the one great thing about being the last of the Gigicons, I decided: nobody was left to answer to. If anyone ever asked me what I kept, or where everything went, I decided I would reply, "It was a tough job cleaning out the apartment, and I'm glad it's over." That had the benefit of being true, with enough firmness that it hopefully carried the 'fuck off, it's none of your business' vibe I'd need to cultivate, should any unibrowed distant relatives come around with their hands out, looking for their share of my father's anti-Bill Clinton memorabilia.
From a cryptic bill that arrived in his mail, I figured out that my dad had a storage unit. Actually, it was explained to me, when I called, it was technically a "storage crypt," which, it turns out, is a large wooden crate filled with stored items. In my dad's case, the items had been stored since 1989, for $42 a month. My jaw hit the floor as this was all explained to me; doing the math in my head, those fees added up to more than all the money in his estate. 1989 was the year he moved out of the house he'd shared with his second wife, following their divorce and his stint in residential treatment. I knew what would be in that storage unit; dross from that house. Instinctively I knew I didn't want to see it or to keep any of it, and yet, the unit had to be emptied, the back storage fees paid. He'd never visited it, the storage place confirmed. "There's no way to visit these because the crypts are stored on high shelves," the helpful clerk explained. Crypt, indeed, I thought. "Can you give me an idea of what's in the crypt," I asked the woman, "so I can figure out what size vehicle I need to bring?" "Sure," she said, after consulting with the manager, "we can do a one time uncrating and inventory for you, free of charge." She called me back a couple of hours later to let me know that the contents were '30 boxes and an ironing board.' Relating this story to co-workers as I informed them I'd be out of the office the following morning to collect said contents, I said darkly, "he stored an ironing board for 30 years. That damn thing better be diamond-encrusted."
Ever game, Mark and Susie met me at the storage place, in the warehouse district, with their pickup truck. Together the three of us loaded the 30 boxes and the ironing board onto the truck, and Mark and Susie took it away to sort through. They'd add to the sale any items of value, and text me photos of the contents of the boxes generally. The ironing board was unremarkable, flimsy metal with a very 80s-print cover. "Actually," Mark said with a grin as he loaded it on the truck, "it's way nicer than the one at the house!" We got into a little assembly line rhythm as we loaded the truck, Susie standing in the wooden crypt and Mark in the truck, me between them. Susie tossed me a lighter box, with my dad's careful all-caps printing on the side to alert us to its contents, and I joked, "hey, careful! that's an HEIRLOOM artificial Christmas tree."
The estate sale itself was a minor drama; the property manager, together with the co-op board, threw up so many roadblocks that I was left feeling alternately sympathetic toward, and angry with, my dad and grandmother. "The board has decided against allowing an estate sale," the property manager emailed me, "because of parking limitations." Each unit was allotted one covered parking spot, and the residents guarded them as jealously as if they were, say, the last gallon of water on a post-apocalyptic planet. There were three "visitor" spots, as I was well-aware from my high school and college years, when I'd attempt to visit my dad only to have my grandmother admonish me for taking up one of the visitors' spots. "Those are for everyone's visitors!" She'd say, the message being, better not stay long. Why were they always so damned cowed, I wondered in the weeks after my dad's death, every time I went to OGT and parked in the coveted covered spot which now belonged to me. I was a legitimate visitor of a legitimate tenant; why couldn't I have parked there for a week if I had wanted to?
"There is no prohibition against an estate sale in the Occupancy Agreement my dad signed," I wrote back, "and so I will need more information as to the board's authority to deny my request. Failing that, the sale will take place on January 13." The board had to grudgingly agree that they lacked the authority to prevent an estate sale, but admonished me that "the residents like a quiet complex and their rights and needs will need to be respected." "People die," I wrote back, "and their things must be dealt with. Surely this is not the first time a situation like this has arisen, and while I am sensitive to the many, many needs of the residents, I too am now an owner, I have just experienced a loss, and I'd like similar respect for my needs. Thanks so much."
Mark and Susie placed an ad on Craigslist, one that specifically addressed the need to park offsite, and one of the residents, probably someone who wasn't aware that "worrying" qualified as a pastime and was therefore pursuing "busybodying" as a pastime, found the ad and emailed it to the property manager, who emailed it to me. "Here is MY FIRST COMPLAINT," she wrote, "CRAIGSLIST ADS bring in unsavory elements. People will also park in the covered spots." "Parking was addressed in the ad," I responded, "and while I'm sure there are unsavory types out there who will troll Craigslist for estate sale ads and then show up hoping to steal coffee mugs from a dead man, I am optimistic that we will have no such problems."
Fuck you and the horse you rode in on, was what I wanted to write. Fuck your sad position of so-called authority, and fuck all your ilk for terrorizing my anxious grandmother and her fearful son for the last few dozen decades, with this kind of trifling shit. The Gigicons you could push around are all dead and gone, their lives made markedly less enjoyable because of the constant fear of putting a foot wrong with this place. Now you have to deal with me, and I am not afraid of you. Bravery is a muscle, I've learned, and I've had a lot of opportunities to strengthen mine, in ways my father and grandmother never did. I haven't had a soft place to land in the form of a cheap co-operative apartment - I've had to take to the dirt road with my bundle of sticks and build my own wolf-proof house. I wanted to ream that property manager a new one, but really I could not blame her completely, because people and organizations will exert power over you to the extent that you let them, and boy, did my dad and grandma let them. The stupid co-op unit felt like a prison to me, but that's the thing about humans: in a lot of ways, we like our prisons. We stay in an unhappy marriage because it can be the reason we never wrote the book, lost the weight, got the new job. I've listened to friends tell me the same problem over and over, dwelling each time on what the Party At Fault said or what his tone of voice was: typically they don't want my feedback as to how to directly address the problem, they just want my sympathy at how it feels to have the problem. The older woman I know whose troubled daughter bounces in and out of her home whenever she feels like it doesn't want to put her foot down with her daughter, she just wants to complain to those who will listen about how messy the daughter's boyfriend is, how he puts his shoes on the couch.
These are good people I'm talking about, just like my dad was good people. It's just that, so often, it's easier to live with problems you could solve if you were just a little braver, just a little bit more willing to work at it, just a little bit more willing to be uncomfortable. In the final analysis, my dad lived in that unit, under the reign of that board, because people do what works for them until it stops working for them, and that set up worked for him. It's hard and scary to make your own way in the world, and so we often are guilty of staying in less-than-ideal circumstances without the self-awareness to realize that we have chosen that. That we choose to pay storage fees on our memories, almost $15,000 worth of fees, because it's easier than going to collect the boxes (and the ironing board!) and making a decision about what to do with them. There's no shame in this - we've all done it - but there is an enormous amount of sadness in it, at least for me. I hate to see people suffer when they could face the problem head on.
It turned out that the boxes contained old tax returns, school papers and photos of me, every award my father had ever won and plaque he'd ever been awarded, Christmas decorations, letters between my parents during their acrimonious divorce, photo albums documenting the life and childhood of my father's second wife, and a few household things. The only things I saw that I might want were a cast iron skillet and an old Oster blender. I told Mark and Susie to go ahead and sell those, though, and in the end they returned to me 8-10 boxes of personal items I really didn't want to have to confront. "We couldn't throw these out," Susie said, "because you hadn't seen them yet. You'll cry, but we can't make the call for you." Had Mark and Susie not met me at work and helped to transfer the boxes from the back of their car to the back of mine, I might have been tempted to put them directly into the office dumpster, so great was my revulsion at the thought of going through them. It was like asking me to rebuild a house I'd razed, or re-travel an old cart path that I'd planted crops on; I knew the effort that would be involved in going down that road, but couldn't see that it would be worth the cost. The boxes sat on the breakfast bar at my house for a week, until my friend Amy could devote four hours of her life to coming over and going through them with me. She said she didn't feel like she was helping much, but in actual fact her presence was what allowed it to be possible to go through them at all. We had a system, tackling a box at a time, with Owen and Arlo standing by to take things to the dumpster as soon as they'd been sorted through. I rejoiced every time a box contained professional memorabilia (plaques my dad had received for speaking to a classroom or for leading a conference) or photo albums once belonging to my stepmother; we could bear witness to those, acknowledge that they existed and marked some past events, and then throw them away without guilt. My stepmom knew of my dad's death and had let me know she wanted no involvement. Remarried and living in another state, it pained her in some ways to even see the few photos I put on Instagram. I figured if she'd been pining for her high school photo albums for the last 30 years, she knew where my dad was and could have asked for them. No guilt in chucking them out.
The hard part was the photos and letters involving me. Pictures of my parents, appearing happy together, were mind boggling and sad. I didn't want to see pictures of the three of us together, me a bald and smiling baby. That kid had no idea what was in store for her, and it pained me to see her looking so trusting. "Watch the road," I wanted to tell her, "there are bumps in store. You can't afford to doze on the drive!" There was the letter my mother had written when she'd left my dad, just a few lines, with my dad's notation, in the top right corner, of the date, time, and circumstances. There were carbon copies of his letters back to her, many of them, with documentation of what he had decided was my mother's negligence of me. They were on actual 70's era office-style carbon paper, with "originator's copy" printed at the bottom. I was almost totally certain my mother did not have a corresponding stack of these letters with "recipient's copy" stamped on the bottom, tucked in a drawer somewhere. Why would she? What good would it have done her to save them all these years, and what good had it done it my father to pay to store this file of heartache and sadness? Had it somehow brought him comfort, to know that it was documented somewhere? The letters all had notations at the top as to who had been cc'ed. My father's lawyer and, ridiculously, his mother. Even then it had apparently brought my dad comfort to have my grandmother in the loop, to tattle to her about the wrongs my mother had done and was doing to him. Attached to the letters were photocopies of grocery store receipts, with my dad's handwriting indicating that he had purchased milk and soap for my use at my mother's house. Here was the punch to the gut, catching me off guard on the second to last box, just when I thought I was going to emerge from the tunnel without getting hit by the oncoming train. This letter was angrier and accused my mother, as he did throughout my childhood, of not wanting my dad to be in my life. One line stopped me in my tracks, making me ugly-cry as I handed it to Amy. Maybe I was taking it too literally, in that way my mind has of fine tuning to language, dialing in on the meaning of words and the deliberate choosing of one over another. Maybe Amy would see it differently. "I will never stop wanting to see my daughter," my dad had written, in his all caps writing, "until SHE tells me she wants me out of her life!" Until, he had written, when I was two years old. Not unless. Until. "It's like he predicted this," I said to Amy. It felt like, with that stroke of his pen, he'd stepped out on the path that led us to the destination we'd arrive at 33 years later. That letter rocked me like nothing else I found. I cried over it and then, together with 98% of the rest of what was in those storage boxes, I threw it away. From a cost benefit analysis, I'm not sure it was the right thing to do to go through them. Maybe it would have been psychologically better to just set the whole wooden crypt on fire and write a big check to cover the clean up costs. It would have been like something from a movie with a female empowerment lead; I'd walk out in a form fitting catsuit, a bandolier filled with bullets draped across my ample bosom as the fire climbed higher in the background, the warehouse staff shielding their eyes both from the heat and brilliance of the fire and from my badassery. Having opted for the more sane route, though, I guess what I can say is that I proved to myself that I could see the thing through, could follow all the threads down to the end of the line and say I had lived to tell the tale. It showed me that I am the kind of person who can do hard things in a brave way. Though of course, I'd already figured that out years earlier.
The boxes all sorted through, Owen and Arlo took everything to the dumpster and Amy and I ate sandwiches and I felt a little better, like I'd excised all the necrotic tissue.
And then I remembered I still have OGT to deal with.