From the fourth section: Last Things
Essay Thirty-Three: The Old Mailbox
Essay Thirty-Three: The Old Mailbox
I had not made a swing by the family house in years; at least not in the last five years. But I did, on a windy day, with a whim of curiosity. “Swinging by” can shove you over a distant dark valley on a rope-swing of emotions. Swinging by where we once felt settled in a place called home can be a disappointing, even depressing experience. The place always looks smaller; always dumpier than in the mind’s eye. Too many more houses and people around, and too many memories inhabiting the old place—my home town home was no exception.
The town where I spent my school years, Edmonds, sits on the seaweed shores of Puget Sound, just North of Seattle, Washington. I have always been grateful how Nature raised me there–with the mountains of clouds, the land painted green by the rain, eagles and orca swimming their currents by. Walking to elementary and junior high schools I could see West through the pointing branches of cedar, alder, elm and pine to the soaked and soggy Olympic Mountains. Driving to high school just up the hill I was treated to another natural stage production, the jagged Cascades.
Edmonds does not have quite the quaintness now, as back when I was a young boy—whatever “quaint” means to each of us. Though the downtown harbors many stores more suited to grandmothers and kids, and seems to fish only for tourists these days, the seaside, or should I say soundside village still holds a draw for me. I still find refreshment walking through to the waterfront where I can smell the salt air, listen to the quiet waves lapping the seaweed-draped, barnacle-backed rocks, watch the ferries come and go and participate in a train. I say participate because when you are that close to the passenger or freight trains that rumble through at regular intervals each day along the shoreline you feel it in your body. Your whole body echoes the loud horns that blow and can be heard all the way across to the peninsula and Whidbey Island. There are moments in Edmonds when you can almost ride a train of thought right back to the days when tall ships sailed by and steamers carried people, logs and grain against the backdrop of the snowcapped Olympics. I grew up with those sights, smells and sounds. The family house was only a few miles up the hill from the center and the shore, the docks and the trainstation. Salt air blew across our streets with the gulls. We lived there from the ‘60s through the ‘80s and it always felt like a good place to live—a northwestern hearth where someone would, as my parents liked to say, “keep the home fires burning.”
Mom asked if I wanted the low rambler with no stairs and a partial view of the Sound after dad died but I could not imagine moving back to the house let alone the town. I had been gone just long enough to know the world was bigger than our block and I found other ports to call home. The little place nestled up against the woods of Elm street (all the streets were woodsy names: Cedar, Pine, Alder, Fir, Spruce, Hemlock, Walnut and on) once had a pleasant setting where we could chase rabbits and pheasants on surrounding acres of pure dirt and blackberry bushes. But that phantom house no longer existed. Most of the woods were still there but every available plot of blessed dirt was now covered by larger homes with higher views from second story windows.
We moved to that one-story house when mom’s arthritis got so bad she could not climb the four levels of stairs of the other house without intense pain. I have childhood memories of dad pulling on mom’s legs while she cried out in a mixture of relief and misery (on a lighter note, he was a leg puller of a punner too, making us all cry out). I could never remember my mother walking without difficulty—a cane; a wheelchair; a limp. Even after having both hips replaced simultaneously in the first operation of its kind on the West Coast in the ‘60s, mom lived, not so much with a disability as an ability to live with pain. I will always admire her for that. We left my early childhood home in the town with three descriptive names, Lake Forest Park, to live nearer the water and the ground (no steps). So it was my mother’s arthritis that moved us there, along with closer proximity to dad’s work at Boeing in Everett. I was entering fifth grade and my sister seventh. A bit more excitement came with the move. Our cousin Scott and his folks, aunt Agnes and uncle Warren, lived just a few blocks away. “Family” was a tangible, tastable word in those years, especially when we gathered the “clan” for dinner.
My parents bought the place back when a home could be had for under $20,000 and it even came with a shed big enough to convert into living space. Dad built a fence along the North side of the drive and I painted it. He put up a big backboard on the end of the carport so we could shoot baskets. The shed became what all sheds become—a catch-all stuffed with “stuff” of all kinds. But dad kept a good-sized floor area in the middle open for a favorite family activity: ping-pong. For years that shed/shop/storage/play space was our true family room, away from televisions and phones, books and bedrooms. We could shed all our worries there by pinging and ponging, laughing and sweating together. Of course mom could never join us. Her joints were too torn by the bone and muscle disease to play with us though she traveled the world in later years with canes or a wheelchair upholding her wanderlust (bouncing back and forth across the earth).
One of my early memories of the once-gravel driveway is playing catch with dad. I was a Little League pitcher and dad bought himself a professional style catcher’s mitt to catch for me as I practiced. That short road, with tuffs of grassy weeds dappling the drive, became our mound and home plate for hours of throwing and giving pointers—“Good throw!” “Try again!” With sore arms and legs (running after lousy tosses) and bellies weary from laughter, we trotted in to put down the leather and pick up a lemonade. Though dad could rarely attend my ballgames, he was my coach, trainer, equipment provider and greatest fan. I know there were Saturdays when he must have hurt driving off to work seeing me dressing in uniform for a game at Meyring park down the street. When he could make it, his calls of encouragement made me throw harder, faster and more confidently. I can not remember for sure, but I think dad may have been present at a game or two when I was practicing new curveballs learned from a book for pitchers he bought me. I had a lot of strike outs and pats on the back from the team, the coach, and more importantly, dad after those games.
Up at the house, high school friends zipped down the dead-end road almost daily to visit, shoot baskets, smack the ping-pong ball until it broke or strum guitars. For a few months some of my sister’s friends set up a recording studio in the shed with huge speakers, a full sound system and reel-to-reel. Until our cranky neighbor complained (every neighborhood has one doesn’t it?) and we had to shut it down, I enjoyed going in there at night pretending to sing with the microphone backed by the mammoth amps. A girlfriend and I had a few heavy afterschool “makeout” sessions snuggling in my ‘64 Dodge Dart parked in the driveway. Truth be told, that old convertible had its windows steamed up by more than one girlfriend during the twenty years I drove her. Lots of mileage in the aqua classic.
Some might find it a thing to envy that I lived in the old brown, white and brick house for four more years commuting to college in Seattle. I admit it was my nest, with a window looking straight out through a magnolia over the Sound toward the snowy mountains. After my classes and part time work, Mom appreciated the company in the evenings while dad worked his shift at Boeing. After dinner I sometimes read her my latest philosophy paper as she nodded nicely, eager to get back to her novel.
When he was not working weekends dad and I would do projects around the house and yard. Well, I should say, he did the projects. Now and then I would join him. Dad was the sort that liked to wait for assistance to be offered instead of asking for help. I think sometimes he was miffed that I was in my room reading or off hanging out with friends while he was mowing or planting or sawing something. Once, when I offered to help him in the yard, dad acted surprised and went straight to the closet, pulled out a new bb gun and said, “I was waiting to give this to you when you asked to help me.” Of course I felt bad, but not for long. I had a new rifle and could not wait to try it out—after doing yardwork! Fact is, I tried out the gun on a redwing blackbird perched on an alder limb and when it hung upside down, dead as the branch, I gave up shooting then and there! Dad was the occasional hunter, but his skill was much more constructive. He was the mechanic and woodworker while I was more the reader and writer. All in all he supported my studying and told me more than once how proud he was of me. I believe he took pride in my writing and speaking abilities, skills he had never formally developed. Dad could build 747s in the largest building floor space on the planet but he never went to college. I always felt proud and admired him for that.
At the close of the ‘70s I moved away to California pursuing a Masters degree. Roberta, my sister, had already moved out to give college a try and then work as an x-ray technician. A few years went by and I would visit once a year, if I could get away. Letters, placed with care in the metal mailbox by the lilac bush, would arrive at my small apartment shaded now by oaks and redwoods. Many letters were from mom. Others, often including a generous check and loving note, from dad.
My daughter Sharel was born in San Francisco in 1981 and I made the decision to be as much of a “housespouse” as I could be, spending a large part of my time being a dad myself. I went through divorce and homelessness with my little girl. We moved around until I could find stability in work and housing. Mom simply packed up and left dad one day while he was at work. “We were just roommates,” she told me. They had shared a house but not a love. “Why did she do that?” was dad’s tearful call to me. He did not have much of a clue. I think he was comfortable with his life and preparing for his approaching retirement with anticipation. Mom was dreading the thought. Over the years I suppose I became closest with mom. All those evenings eating dinner, watching M*A*S*H* and talking about anything at all without arguing explained a lot about their empty marriage. It made me sad but I understood the inevitable course emptiness takes. I too left empty marriage with its sad and heavy baggage behind.
Dad flew down to California for my graduation from seminary. It was his first time flying on one of the planes he was building (his fear of flying went way back to wild rides aboard troop transports in North Africa and Italy). He retired after thirty years at Boeing with plans for enjoying some leisure, a closet full of fishing rods and reels, a small boat and station wagon, a cabin in the mountains by a river. Then he was told, we were told, he had cancer. Unbeatable: I thought that described him. But this disease flew at him faster than his planes and my old fastball. He retired to die.
I spent some days with dad in the old house while he was fading. His soft face was now shrouded in a scraggly beard (“I’ll shave it when I get better”). He was so weak. His big hands so limp. Sitting by him while he slumped his head in weariness I asked “Dad, did you ever wish I had done something else? Did you hope that I would work at Boeing like you or become someone else?” I needed to hear some assurance from him, some words from the heart. And that is what he gave me. “I’ve always been so proud of you, Chris. No, there is nothing else I hoped for you. You’ve been a wonderful son. I’m still proud of what you’ve done and what you’ve become.” I couldn’t speak. Tears rolled down. He squeezed my hand. I could almost see a leather baseball in his grip. He softly breathed. I thought of all those times as a teenager when he would step over to hug and kiss me and I would turn away. Now I felt nothing but affection for this frail man with the large, loving heart.
The time came for me to leave. I was torn by my decision but I had to get back to care for my own child, my sweet little daughter. My grandfather and uncle Warren arrived to drive me to the airport. Dad seemed asleep as I carried my suitcase to the door, held open by my uncle. I turned one last time to see the man, my coach, the proud father. And at that wrenching moment, across the living room, dad lifted his head. I cannot clearly remember if he even opened his eyes. Our lifetimes stood in that doorway. “Good-bye!” he said with some semblance of strength. I hope he heard me say “Bye, Dad!” through the choking and tears. One of the hardest moments of my life. It was the last time I saw him.
So, years passed. I went by to see the place—still swinging with feeling. I could still hear the trains rumbling by a few miles away, and feel them. And the ferry to Kingston could still be heard horning into port carrying its cargo of cars and walk-ons, coming and going. Some new owner was remodeling the house and I wandered in. Hearing that this was my family home for years the paint-spackled lady welcomed me and took me around. We talked about what used to be in each room and what improvements they had done. I do not think I saw improvement. I only saw what could never be seen again: all of us gathered for dinner and dad bowing his head to say grace (“ever mindful of the needs of others”); mom walking akilter, hobbling to cook a potroast in the orange-carpeted kitchen; sister sitting at her desk writing a school assignment; me, kicked back in my little gray-cushioned chair with headphones tight over my long, wavy hair listening to “classic” rock; each of us sharing a roof, a life and a history in the renovated rooms of my mind.
The new owner walked with me out to the street. I asked for a cutting from the root of the lilac tree dad had planted and nurtured next to his garden for so many years. Now it stood almost a yard over my head. The woman handed me some shears and I clipped a bit of time, a shoot of dad, a growing sprout from the land where I last felt grounded in family; where goodbyes still echoed. As we stood and walked toward my truck I asked about the old mailbox. “This is so funny,” I remarked. “Dad put this here a long time ago when I was in high school. Why is it still here?” The woman smiled and looked puzzled. “I’m not sure.” Leaning closer to the tarnished postbox I touched dad’s name and address he had carefully written with a black felt pen. “Do you still use this?” I asked. “Oh yes. We get our mail every day.” Then she suddenly said, “You can have it if you want. I guess we could get a new one.” For a moment I considered her words. Would I really want this old rusty thing? What on earth would I do with it? “No, that’s o.k.,” I answered her. “It’s kind of nice thinking about this being here. It’s a bit of history I guess. It’s just funny that it’s still being used after all these years. I’m even surprised the postal carrier puts mail in this. Isn’t there some confusion with my dad’s name all over it?” “I guess not. We get our mail just fine.”
I thanked the woman who lived in our family house, for the lilac root and for the tour of the house. The house I knew really was not there and yet it was. Driving away, with a small plastic baggy full of a root in rich earth beside me on the seat, I could not get over that mailbox. In the rearview mirror I took another glance. Dad had left his mark on that street, and surely on each of us. And maybe, in some way, I had too.
I still go back now and again. I see small changes on the street, with the house, the land. The trees are taller and block more of the view we had. A new wooden bridge and smooth groomed path lead through the woods at the bottom of the hill where we once wished we could pass on the way to school.
Most of dad’s plants are gone. I wrap my fingers around the thick bark of the lilac tree–the tree that once was a low, twisted bush by the rock retaining wall. I imagine the sap as having some of dad’s blood and sweat mixed in. I think of the roots and how they mark my growing more organically than those pencil marks in the hallway where dad used to measure our height. There is comfort in knowing I continue to grow, and so does the lilac-cutting in a large cobalt pot on the many decks of my many moves. I am not feeling sadness as much now even though the train and the ferry try to accent the past with their low calls (“We’re still here”. . .whistle and rumble, “Remember?”. . .toot and horn). I call it for what it is: a pilgrimage of sorts, back to the drizzle of time past in cascades of memories that do not invite to return. I know it well–there can never be a return. What the swing by the old place gives me is I suppose uniquely personal; it is something sweet from the days when the lilacs bloomed in the salty breeze near to young love, pingpong paddles beat a rhythm and dad mowed the lawn sending that indescribably earthy scent of cut grass in through the sliding window of my bedroom where I was reading some Narnia or Nietzsche. What happens in this return that is no return touches an inner river deep and strong still. It has something to do with what has been in that marked and marred mailbox all these years. In a crazy moment I sling a fastball that slaps into dad’s old mitt, wondering what might get pitched back to me if, this once, I reach over and lift the red mail flag on the rusty box before I drive back, that is, drive forward, stamped for delivery to some other time.
PS to the Postscript: The lilac first bloomed on Mother’s Day (I’m sure Dad was smiling somewhere) on my small cabin deck in the woods of Whidbey not far from the “parent plant” back in Edmonds. When I moved back to the Bay Area I planted most of it next to the cabin (“it is closer to home here”) and took a stalk of it crammed in my truck with everything else I owned. Now, on the cement deck the lilac is once again full and greening, not fully blossoming yet, but standing hardy in the Bay breezes. Still a constant companion on my travels from home to home, and a daily inspiration “delivered” to me by dad. Maybe my life will always be cultivated in the presence of this simple swaying, sweet and bittersweet gift from the dirt of my birth in that northern state.