Broken things can be loved still, maybe even more.
My mother and father both had long illnesses, surgeries, parts of them that were broken were removed, replaced, refurbished, and I loved them still. I loved them more because in the breaking, the physical diminution, they became more precious for being so clearly finite
I am cleaning out my parents’ house.
It is the house where I grew up, and in which I was married. This is breaking my heart. If I could, I would leave it as it is, minus my father’s personal effects and the contents of the refrigerator, and rent it only to deserving young families. The families would have children who would also learn to ride a two-wheeler on Timberlane Street, and might also ride into a mailbox and lose a front tooth.
The families would love the floors of reclaimed barn wood, the skylight in the downstairs bathroom and the rose garden created by my green-thumbed mother. The children would build tree forts and hide dirty magazines in the nearby woods, and the parents would host splendid parties that started in the kitchen and spilled onto the back deck.
Most important, because they were renting, they would have to let me come in. The door to my family life would not be permanently closed to me. I could, maybe, drop by to make sure the leaky pipe was fixed and take just a moment to remember everything.
What is happening instead is that I am cleaning out the house, then an appraiser will come and take stock of my parents’ taste and good fortune in buying and inheriting, and then, within a year (at the very latest) the house will be sold.
Every day I make myself get up and go to the house first thing in the morning, before I can change my mind. I am An Executrix, a position which does not, disappointingly enough, involve whips and chains. It involves talking to banks and lawyers and insurance companies and Social Security and a realtor and an appraiser of books and an appraiser of other stuff.
It involves, at its essence, reducing my parents’ possessions to columns of numbers.
It breaks my heart, which was already broken, but which is somehow now being ground into a fine powder.
Sometimes, though, I find something that makes me happy; a collection of Chinese chops and bright red ink stashed in the cubbyhole of the Governor Winthrop desk, or a letter from my father to my mother when they were first dating. They are just things, but they are treasures to me, as if my parents were still taking care of me in my grief by leaving a trail of tiny, beautiful reminders that I was as loved as a child could be.
Those things will not be appraised. They will not be sold to strangers. They are meant for my brother and me, and for our children and their children.
Yesterday’s treasure was a small statue from my father’s study. I had always loved it, the figure of a Chinese fisherman on his small boat with ducks aboard, eyeing the tiny red fish that hung from the pole in his hand. As a child, I was sure that one of the ducks was Ping, that he was fishing on the Yangtze, and (for some unknown reason) that the fisherman himself was the poet Li Po.
He was in perfect condition, the little fisherman, because my father was careful with things. He taught me to be careful, too – to handle slides and records by the edges, to clean up after myself as I worked, and how to fix almost anything that was broken. He taught me that it was more important to take care of the things you had than to buy new things.
I left the house with Li Po balanced on a pile of books, my large purse over my shoulder and my large dog on a leash. Well, and an empty Mason jar in my jacket pocket from breakfast-to-go. The dog saw a squirrel, she pulled hard, and Li Po fell onto the driveway. I was afraid that if I looked away I would lose track of small pieces, but I had to get the dog in the car, and put down the books.
By the time that was all done I returned to find my fisherman missing a foot, his ducks headless, and his fish broken in half. “It’s just a thing” I said to myself over and over, “just an object.” I couldn’t find his foot, which blended with the concrete. I found both halves of the fish, but the duck’s heads were gone with the poor lost foot.
I was on my hands and knees, the dog whining in the car, tears blurring my vision as I cradled the broken fish and hunted for duck heads the size of BBs.
I was careless, ruinous, a naughty child, unworthy of the huge responsibility of being an executrix, a grownup, a person who had to show up every day and do a really good job of something that made her really, really sad and that she didn’t actually want to do anyway because actually, inside, she was a very small and tender person who didn’t want anything to change.
(And certainly not all at once).
And then my father cut in to remind me that I knew how to fix things, because he had taught me so well. I could glue the red fish with the tiniest dot of glue, and craft a new foot for Li Po and new heads for the black ducks from clay.
Because everything changes, and I am only human, and doing the best I can, despite my sadness, and my sense that the world is too big, too fast, and too rough for my delicate self right now.
Despite the fact that I, too, am broken.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Author’s Own