I have moved around a lot over the course of my life. I’ve lived in eight states and another country. I’ve resided in 13 different homes. Through all of those moves – and the purging of personal goods that inherently comes along with such transitions – certain items remain.
There’s the glass mug that says LHS – Livingston High School – Senior Prom, June 1, 1973. And my Yamaha 12-string guitar which I lugged from place to place without ever playing for 35 years. And the geode with an array of blue-gray crystals that my best friends gave me for my sixteenth birthday. And the rest of my rock collection that has grown to about 400 specimens, some that I’ve had since I was in elementary school.
I think of these things now because I recently had to go through my father’s possessions. He died in June a week shy of his 96th birthday after a long and interesting life.
I faced boxes piled atop one another, taped and carefully labeled. I picked up one that had an ominous message. Do Not Open!
“Sorry, Dad,” I said as I cut through the tape. Inside I found a thick wade of money, bills from the post-World War II Philippines and Japan. Numerous coins spilled out: Indian Head pennies dating back to the turn of the 20th century that mingled with a single New York City Transit Authority subway token and a few 1960’s-era Kennedy half dollars. In an Altoid tin, my dad had another collection of coins. These apparently from some of the countries he’d visited over the years: France, England, Germany, Ireland, Canada.
Inside another box were small black-and-white photographs of my father and his shipmates on board their destroyer escort – the U.S.S. Alvert Moore – during the war, as well a a photo of my mother dating back to 1939. Mom – who is the epitome of strait-laced propriety even today at 94 – appears in a pair of white short-shorts and a halter top. When I presented the photo to her, trying to suppress a laugh, she insisted the woman in the photo was not her. Even when I pointed out her name scrawled across the top, she dismissed the picture as an obvious fashion faux pax committed by someone else.
There were also six pairs of rosary beads and some saints’ cards. Not too surprising for a life-long Catholic. And a thick but tiny book titled Useful Information for Business Men Mechanics and Engineers, with gilt-edged pages devoted to Weights of Flat-Rolled Steel, Heat Colors, and Unit Compression Stress for Main Members. (Don’t ask me. Dad was an engineer. Oddly, he was rather useless at fixing things, still he managed to design and build complicated industrial machines.)
A small cardboard tube caught my attention. Inside were three pages of rolled-up orange paper dated August 8, 1969: a letter I wrote from Girl Scout Camp. “I’ve been scubaing in the jungle,” I said of one of my earliest scuba dives in Saranac Lake, New York. “It’s got millions of water vines and plants all over the place.” The post script read as follows. “Shelly passed into blue cap,” I explained of my friend who had struggled with swimming early on. “Boy, is she happy!”
Another box held a fistful of sobriety coins courtesy of Alcoholics Anonymous. Dad earned over 35 of those awards, an achievement of which he was immensely proud. There was also a theater program from my high school production of South Pacific where I played a Navy nurse and a complicated slide rule in a black leather case with markings indicating my dad had owned it since he was in college at Penn State.
While going through the boxes – several of which were confounding since they were empty – I noticed some trends. My dad apparently collected pocket knives – there were maybe a dozen – and fingernail clippers and dental floss. I placed them in piles wondering what possessed him to keep purchasing these items. I wish I could ask. Perhaps his predilection caused my own. I too love pocket knives and have acquired more containers of dental floss then I’ll ever use. (I’ve put many dentist’s children through college.)
While clearing out my dad’s clothes, I couldn’t help but think of Jon Hamm’s character in the TV series Mad Men. Despite being raised in a family of mostly coal miners, my dad was a clothes horse who wore his Brooks Brothers suits, buffed wingtips, and rakish fedoras with pride as he ventured into New York City to work in the 1960s. I brought some of his clothes home and, as it turned out, they fit my youngest son perfectly, which has me doing double takes sometimes. My dad would have been delighted.
As I sorted through my dad’s belongings, I saved some things and discarded others. Clothing and shoes went to Goodwill. The watercolor of his ship at sea went to my brother, who will eventually pass it on to the great grand children, along with my dad’s service medals.
When I was finished, I wondered why my dad saved the items he packed in those boxes. I will never know. Still, I’m glad I had the opportunity to study the things that were important to him. It gave me the chance to hold onto him a little bit longer.
Blank Slate Press/Amphorae Publishing Group
Price: $16.95 Paperback, $9.99 eBook
As a Vietnam veteran and former Special Forces sniper descends into the throes of mental illness, he latches onto a lonely pregnant teenager and a group of Pentecostal zealots – the Children of Light – who have been waiting over thirty years in the Arizona desert for Armageddon. When the Amtrak Sunset Limited, a passenger train en route to Los Angeles, is derailed in their midst in a deadly act of sabotage, their lives are thrown into turmoil. As the search for the saboteurs heats up, the authorities uncover more questions than answers. And then the girl vanishes. As the sniper struggles to maintain his sanity, a child is about to be born in the wilderness.