Cleaning out the house that my parents called their own for 57 years is, initially, an exercise in futility and heartbreak. You walk a guilt-strewn tightrope. Should we keep this or that certain artifact left behind following Dad's death in March? Or is it, at best, another inanimate object that loses its symbolic representation? Might it best be remanded to the junk pile of history?
Here's the best answer I can offer: I know that I don't know. I know all that furniture they got during the Carter Administration served its purpose. The not-so-comfortable sofa; the outdated chairs; the silly lamps with shades shaped like retro hair dryers in beauty parlors; the kitchen appliances that could have been props in TV sitcoms like "All in the Family."
Then there are the things we've unearthed in the basement. Books so old, the publishers' addresses lacked ZIP Codes; the final edition of the Washington Star in 1981; a beer sign that flashed "Michelob." (Is that still even brewed?) And who can forget the vintage electric pinball machine we salvaged from a vending company in 1967? Yes, it worked well for many years after. Eventually, though, the novelty of the relic wore off, the ding-ding-ding of its bell fell silent. What to do with it? The vote was unanimous: Send it to penny-arcade heaven. Too broken down to fetch anything on eBay.
As we dug into piles of paperwork lovingly stored in giant, bulging manila folders, we seized upon a stack of forgotten diaries. After literally blowing the dust off, we searched them and discovered that our dad, the stoic and upright World War II hero, somehow found time in his busy schedule running a bunch of restaurants to make daily entries. The best we could figure, his first recording came in 1961. That's when he noted that three of his four kids were now in elementary school and that JFK had brought something called "Camelot" to the White House. His last one came around 2009, about the time his health started to fail.
My brother, Dean, an ophthalmologist at Johns Hopkins, put it best: "We never thought he was paying attention to us. Burying his head in the evening paper was just a ruse. We were too young and too wrapped up in our own lives to realize. Fact is, Dad was paying close attention. He didn't miss a trick."
"Tony called today," he scribbled, adding this note about my wife: "Mary feels under the weather."
"Kristin graduated from University of Baltimore law school today," came an entry about my niece. "She's looking at a house in Federal Hill with an option to buy."
Then this one, short and to the point, about his grandson (my son): "Andrew born at Georgetown Hospital at 5:57 p.m."
But my favorite entry came back in the mid-1960s. The subject was his wife: "Vicki on her high horse. Walked to the bank. Stopped off at Fred and Harry's [a long-gone bar] for a beer. Then back home."
The things in life that are fashioned of wood and plastic and steel, for me, lose their luster. When it comes to my parents, the most important parts of them they can leave behind are their words. Words (yeah, I'm partial) are reflections bubbling up from the soul, musings that matter, even if they come across as applicable only to a select few eyes. Words are a keepsake that trump vases from an exuberant flea market in Italy. Or cute angel figurines. Or commemorative plates that graced their living room walls since we were all walking around humming "Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree."
Along with the wedding ring, watches and ancient container of talcum powder I plucked from Dad's dresser, two items — both involving writing — resonate. The first was the hospital bracelet I got when I had my tonsils removed in 1959; the other came six years earlier. It was in the form of a canceled check made out to a hospital for $100. That's what it cost for me to be born, a lot of dough in 1953. I hope the investment yielded strong and consistent dividends.
Tony Glaros writes from his home in Laurel. His email is email@example.com.