My great-uncle passed away a few months ago and it’s finally time to clean out his house. It’s Sunday. A blue-skied, hot July afternoon. My mom, her sisters and great-uncle’s other nieces just spent several hours discussing the legalities of inheritances and are now sorting through everything in the house. There is just so much stuff… My brother and I drop in to see the house one last time and end up staying a couple hours, helping sort through things and carry boxes out to everyone’s vehicles.
I recently read a short article by Elizabeth Edwards (author of Resilience) in which she talked about memories and the stories we carry about those we love. After the death of her son, she realized that stories about those we love should be shared. She wondered what sort of stories did her son’s friends carry? What sides of her son did they see that she never did?
I think of that article looking in at the overgrown gardens, the garage that’s falling apart and then walk in the cellar door to the house. It feels strange, really walking all over the house and seeing it for the first time in years. It feels smaller and strange without Uncle Frank or Aunt Rita, even more strange with pictures off the walls and household goods scattered all over the place. I look at the hearth in the living and could have sworn that it used to be taller, and the deer head in the den? It totally was a lot more formidable when I was six.
My brother discovers one last bottle of home-made root beer in my uncle’s cellar fridge. I grab one of the little glasses from the cupboard and he pops it open. We have to see if it’s any good, have to try for one last taste of Uncle Frank’s root beer. It turns out to be flat and my brother grimaces as he pours it down the sink. Still, I take several of the wee glasses he always kept for us kids; I wrap them up in newspaper for one day, someday, when I have my own home. Silly little things, I know, but they hold such memories.
I miss both of them today, Uncle Frank and Aunt Rita. We bring home Aunt Rita’s old aprons – she was never in the kitchen without one – and her painting smocks. Mom managed to call dibs on a couple of her canvas and slate paintings. My brother takes one of Uncle Frank’s old caps and a fishing rod. Memories entangled with such tangible things. Sights. Smells. Touches.
We’re sorting through old, old photographs in my great-aunt and uncle’s albums and I’m suddenly seeing sides of them that I’ve never seen before. They both look so young. So young and carefree. That John Wayne look-alike – that’s my great-uncle? And that bathing beauty, sitting on a beach – that’s my great-aunt? The photographs turn from black and white to faded color prints. Photos of the two of them dancing the polka. I don’t remember ever seeing Uncle Frank and Aunt Rita dance the polka. They say they were wonderful dancers and could really jazz it up on the dance floor. If I close my eyes, I can almost picture them dancing, however. Once when she dropped in for a visit right in the middle of a piano practice session, Aunt Rita dropped her purse and began dancing to my jazz piece. Yes, I think I can see them dancing…
And I wonder what other stories there are that I don’t know about my great-aunt and uncle.