musings from boston

screams, whispers and songs from planet earth

Month: January 2018

The Private Investigator

M+Ds_Bureau01

On this day, I spent considerable time playing “the concentration game,” matching empty CD cases with stray CDs.

What else did I do? Looked through about 1/3 of dad’s old classical albums. Continued to find priceless family photos and random items of interest in cartons of electronic devices, hardware, tools and parts. Discovered occasional mathematical calculations or parts lists on index cards and scraps of paper.

It was a magical window into my father’s mind and his life. It was strange to think that despite visits every two weeks since mom died, multiple calls a day and endless long conversations, I did not know him very well. How he must have viewed me, with my spiritualist ideas, running off to rock concerts and posting crazy philosophical articles on my blog, from his scientific and agnostic perspective!

Upstairs, I was in my mother’s realm. While looking through their bureau drawers, I came across two books, hidden away beneath clothes. One was an interesting looking memoir by Vernon Jordan. The other was a guide for women survivors of child sexual abuse. Although this surprised me, it made sense, since she kept her early history tucked away like a terrible yet precious jewel. She told her psychiatrists about her past, but we didn’t talk about it as a family, as close as we were.

Of Mom’s painful childhood, I had known since I was 12, when she had to be hospitalized for an extended period and we had to attend family and group therapy sessions. Dad told me, and I’m not sure how I took it then. I remember being smitten by an eighteen-year-old patient at the facility. As for her reticence to discuss her past with me, I took that to mean that she never really addressed it, but I realized upon seeing this book in her drawer that I was wrong. Just as the subject of incest was considered ‘taboo’ to discuss at the kitchen table, so too was a book about the subject considered too delicate to leave out on a dresser, exposed to public view.

I flipped through its pages and was further surprised to find a small newspaper clipping about a book written about Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo, who was said to be a rampant sexual predator, and his connection with Eleanor Roosevelt, who was invited by him to his country and politically exploited. Between later pages, there was a bank envelope containing $140 in $20 bills. This was further proof that the book had been moms (and not dad’s reference of how to be a supportive husband). She liked to keep a stash of money around the house, discretely hidden, “just in case.” She had asked my dad to keep an envelope of $5 bills handily tucked away in another drawer, to use as tips for the aides and others who would come and go to help care for her.

What other surprises and unexpected windows into their lives would I uncover as I moved deeper into their belongings? As I hunted for family mementos and tried to prepare the house for the estate sale, I felt like a private investigator.

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My Father’s Basement Workshop

Basement_Wood

It seemed to make sense to start in the basement. There was something about beginning at the roots, the foundation, that appealed to me. With some trepidation, I walk down the few concrete steps into the dusty, musty space.

Immediately, I think of Dad, of how he spent his time since his retirement. He never took well to retirement. His work had been all-encompassing. First in his own companies as a research engineer and entrepreneur, and then as a key person in the R&D department of various organizations, he designed and built diagnostic imaging equipment to detect breast and prostate cancers. This is not the type of career one simply walks away from at society’s pre-determined age.

He kept up with his interests and his research into other medical equipment with an old work partner, until the poor gentleman unexpectedly died. At the same time, he cared for mom, who was ailing in later years, as only a devoted partner and engineer could. With the purpose of making his tasks easier and mom’s physical existence more comfortable, he embarked on ambitious projects to address mobility issues and day-to-day care.

The basement décor tells the story in randomly scattered vignettes. There are piles of wood in assorted cut shapes, some with drilled holes and some without. Curious materials such as PVC pipes, rubber components, foam pieces and plastic sheeting are stacked all around. I smile when I see a round wheel attached with short PVC tubes to a sturdy wooden base. Its intended use was to stand Mom on it from her position in bed and be able to turn her to be seated on the commode, without having to hoist her up and sideways — a difficult feat if Dad was alone, which he often was.

A separate room within the basement served as a mini machine shop, with a drill press and various other tools. It was also a dark room, where Dad would develop and manufacture his own printed circuit boards for his various electronic designs. Scattered around were all the necessary supplies and solutions. It was the home of a brilliantly mad scientist.

Incongruently stuck into a tool holder above the large, cluttered tool bench is a postcard of Woody Allen holding a blow-up doll, from one of his early movies. He was one of Dad’s favorites. I put aside the postcard, along with some tools, even though I have very little use for them.

The estate sale person told me that I didn’t have to go through anything. They would do this as part of their job of preparing items for sale. But what would they make of a contraption like this? I take this as well, for use as a funky industrial style lazy Susan on my kitchen table.

I stand in a sea of components and circuitry for the many projects he would tell me about, both professional and personal, which somehow were always, eternally, “in progress.” He would complain about never having enough time to complete them. But it was in the research and design phase where he’d get the maximum enjoyment, and it kept him sharp and productive until the very end.

I’m surprised at the depth of my emotion amidst the cobwebs and clutter.

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Finding Solace in the Guest Bedroom of Our Family Home

A simple, quiet corner.

A simple, quiet corner.

The house, the family home. A place of rest, of solace, surrounding by family photographs, mementos of vacation travels, little comforts. But, in later years especially, a comfortable prison.

It kept others out, but it also kept its inhabitants in, like birds trapped in a cage. And a moldy, dusty, static and spider infested cage, at that.

Where to even begin? It all feels oppressive, every object of my youth and my upbringing, laid out as if in a museum. And yet, at the same time, it’s strangely comforting. If I focus on each item separately — a lamp with a crystal figure of a child, and a large, serene, beige lampshade, its neat and orderly creases at the top, coming down to the bottom in perfect straight lines; a pop-art metal wastepaper basket with black and white film stars on the outside and crazy black, orange, yellow and red cascades of geometric diamonds on the inside, the outside with splashes of beige-colored paint that was accidentally spilled over it at some point over the long years — I can realize some sense of peace from within my current state of mental turmoil. I am alone in this house where once there were three of us.

In a few short months, there will be a multitude of strangers pouring over these oddities, these museum artifacts of the mid-20th century, considering their purchases, haggling about the price, and eventually, hopefully, carting away little pieces of our lives. The crystal lamp, which I have in past days grown particularly fond of, won’t be part of this untidy clearance of a lifetime of memories. The trash can likely will.

I look around the small guest bedroom where I find myself this morning, before dawn. Piles of old sheets, sell. A puzzle of two bluebirds in a garden that has been glued together and hung up? Sell. Until I remember that my mom and a beloved friend and aide put it together one day, and my dad decided to glue it to a backing and hang it on the wall. A painting of my aunt as a young woman (or so I thought; turns out it was of an unknown woman), painted by my uncle. Bequeath to my cousin. An early portrait of the Obama family, whom my mother dearly loved. Keep. A nightstand that’s part of my childhood furniture, beige French Provincial from the late 1960s, with tacky gold trim. Sell. Rustic vintage carved pictures from Israel. Keep. Queen sized air mattress with cotton and hypo-allergenic fill comforter. Keep. It’s a strange exercise, an odd form of grieving a mere two weeks after my dad passed away and my life changed. Every object I glance at, attach whatever memories I can summon and then, as dispassionately as possible, I place it in a category of “sell” or “keep.” Excruciating. But to let these feelings linger for any longer than absolutely necessary would be far worse.

I’ve chosen to sleep in the guest bedroom, even though I am not a guest here. It’s the only way I can keep somewhat detached and retain a piece of my sanity throughout this ordeal. Once I open the door, I will be flooded with my past and its accompanying tsunami of emotions. Directly in front of me, across the narrow hallway, will be my parents’ room, where my mother died and where my father slept for nearly a year after her death. His ashes stand waiting now, in a small, neat box in the walk-in closet, where hers had been 10 months earlier, as we waited for spring to scatter them. Another spring, another loved one to say goodbye to, in a nearby park where we visited when mom enjoyed greater mobility.

To the left is my childhood bedroom, in recent years transformed into storage space, the bed removed, and in its place, practical metal shelving. The desk and two bureaus are still there, holding some of dad’s clothing in addition to miscellaneous electronic parts, computer equipment, books and a storeroom full of supplies for mom, when she was cared for so lovingly by dad and a revolving cast of nurses and aides. It’s no longer a bedroom, not a place of rest and recovery, but a wide-awake, utilitarian reminder of the mechanics of their daily life.

So, you see, the small nondescript guestroom with a few creature comforts and decorations is my temporary sanctuary.

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