Sunday, July 12, 2015

Traces

My father's ashes, along with flowers thrown by his grandchildren, sink into the Pacific.


For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)
It's the time for casting away.

When my father died December 29, he set in motion a chain of events that will be playing out for the rest of my life. The house my parents have owned and occupied since 1990, and which my grandmother owned and occupied from 1946 until her death in 1988, is too much for my mother to manage. It's also in a place she doesn't want to live in anymore: McMinnville, an hour away from every one of her five sons. She wants to finish out her life closer in, where she can see her grandchildren more often, in a home that doesn't require constant upkeep. So An-Di-Fan, the House of Tranquility that has been the one single geographical constant in my life, not to mention the lives of all my brothers and all of our children, will go on the market in August.

It's a hard choice we're all making here, but it's the only one we can make. None of us wants to live in McMinnville, and none of us wants the burden of caring for a house that, as beautiful as it is, is not a good prospect for a rental property. It needs to be in the hands of someone who loves it, lives in it, and has the time to tend the grounds (it's on a double lot), upgrade the aging infrastructure of the building, and keep it clean.

Putting it on the market means all of us are now facing a deadline. As soon as Mom and Dad moved in, the house became the family storage unit. The attic is filled with boxes of books, papers, clothing, toys, memorabilia--the baggage of our many itinerant lives, too voluminous to move with us again and again, too impractical to keep in use, too potentially precious to just haul off to Goodwill and/or the dump. A few years ago, I gritted my teeth and went through my books, ultimately hauling five fruit boxes of them to Powell's, where four and a half of those boxes wound up on the donation pile. All the hours I'd spent in book stores, all the thousands of hours I'd spent reading them, had no value to the book-buyers at the City of Books. I got a store credit of about $100 for the few they were willing to buy, and the rest went to Goodwill.

This time, I'm not even bothering with the sales stage: as I go through the stacks of boxes in the attic, I'm creating three piles: keep, ditch, donate. So far I've made three trips to Goodwill, my car crammed with my children's toys, clothes, and books. Most of these decisions are easy: the Barbie car, the dinosaurs, the shirts that stopped fitting my kids fifteen years ago; the college and seminary textbooks I haven't opened since the 1980s; the computer peripherals I haven't needed since the twentieth century--all these things I know I'll never need again, and that my kids will never want to touch again, are off to the donation door at the Goodwill store. Or to the landfill: some of what I find just isn't worth the time of the Goodwill workers to sort through.

And then I come to a box of photos and papers, and it hits me: this is history. Suddenly I'm immersed in waves of nostalgia: a picture of Sarah at camp; a drawing Sean made during a service at the Church of the Good Shepherd (the Titanic being attacked by pirates and TIE fighters, all three of his obsessions in one great picture); the tiny red shirt with the singing electronic disk in it that was worn by Sarah's first Winnie-the-Pooh; craft projects they made at camp; bits and pieces of their childhood that are far too special to throw away or, in some cases, far too personal for me to make a decision on their behalf. These go in the "keep" pile, for them to decide on themselves.

Digging deeper, I find myself in the stratum of my own youth: souvenirs from trips I took as a grad student, a college student, in high school, junior high; page after page I filled with my longhand scrawl as I wrote out sermons, papers, stories, novels; clippings of events that mattered so much to me I wanted to keep them for a future scrapbook; gifts from Secret Santas; a reading trophy from fifth grade; Scout shirts and sashes--what shall I do with this archive? I box it up, and it takes up residence in my garage for that day when I wade into it and consign most of it to the recycling bin.

My work done for the day, I head outside to pick some plums. To reach the plum tree, I have to wade into the Secret Garden, an area tucked away between the house and the medical building next door. Here my parents planted a different blueberry bush for each grandchild. The blueberries have not been tended this year, and they're overgrown with bindweed. Still, I'm able to collect a handful of berries, and they're exquisite. I get my plums, make my way out of this nook, back under the grape arbor with its mature white and red table grape vines, cast my gaze upon the rose bushes some of which are older than I am, and try to imagine a time when no Anderson lives in this house, when the bamboo is rooted out, the rosebeds dug up, the back yard paved over to make way for a parking lot for some business that purchases the house. And now it gets me: all these things my parents did to make this place a home not just for them, but for all of us, are passing away, vanishing into memory.

Later in the week, I travel out to Newport with Amy and Sarah to share in a ceremony at sea. All five of the Anderson boys board a fishing boat with our mother, out wives, and as many of our children as we could get out to the coast, as close to Dad's birthday as we could manage. Last night we had a spice cake in his honor--Dad loves sweets more than any other food--and today, we take his ashes on this charter boat. The captain takes us a few miles out into the Pacific. I put on my brightest, most colorful stole, read a few passages from the United Methodist Book of Worship, and then one by one we empty small containers of Dad's ashes into the ocean. The grandchildren and spouses throw flowers. I play "Amazing Grace," then "Taps" on my trumpet. The captain starts the engine, does a slow circle around the site. I can see the ashes in the water. The engine revs up, and we head back to the harbor.

It washes over me without warning, and I let it happen. I hold onto the doorway of the boat's cabin, let the tears flow.

My father is gone. He was a good, loving, dedicated man who sacrificed himself for his family and his vocation. He was happiest making things, and the magnum opus of this work is the house that must now pass into the hands of another owner. Every room is stamped with his work, as is every square foot of the huge garden behind the house. But no matter how significant the work of any one person may be, no matter how enduring it may appear to be, there is nothing in this world that will not, in time, pass away.

It may very well be that the next owner of this property decides to demolish the house and build something new. Even if this doesn't happen, even if the house remains standing for another generation, it will eventually vanish from the space it occupies. When it does, all that remains of it will be the memories of those who passed through it.

The time to keep is drawing to a close. The time to throw away is at hand.

And life goes on.

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