Wise Words on a Cardboard Box

131_9802_01_o+131_9802_february_1998_letters+envelopesA few months shy of the third anniversary of my Dad’s death, my sister, brother and I gathered in the house my Mom plans to sell. We met to clean out my Dad’s art room. Toward the end of World War II, my Dad illustrated cartoons for Stars & Stripes Magazine — he also served in an Artillery Brigade on Okinawa — and for decades he worked as a technical illustrator for a printing-press manufacturer.

In the years before the term “man cave” was invented, my Dad had one. This particular “cave” was filled with Marty Robbins cassettes, comic books, books about comic books, and bulky Dean Martin VHS tapes. He had files and files of art projects in various stages of completion and, cut out from magazines and newspapers, photographs he intended to draw. When you start following the paper trail of a loved one, you are bound to meander down a path of surprises, and my Dad’s was no exception. I learned that after retiring, he intended to learn how to cook. The only time I remember my Dad near a stove, he was clutching a fire extinguisher and dousing a grease fire he’d started while cooking hamburgers.  But here I stood leafing through a collection of recipes from a short stack of late 1980’s Somerset Press newspaper cooking inserts.

My Dad’s presence was everywhere in the art room. I wasn’t all that surprised when the woman hired to paint the interior of the house rolled through the rooms quickly until she started working in this one. There she felt slightly unnerved, and shared her concerns with my sister. Later, the painter re-entered the room and said softly, “I’m not here to do any harm. I just want to pretty the room up a bit.” Then she finished the job.

I was cleaning out the art closet when I found a cardboard box on a shelf. I read the brief note written in my father’s strong, neat script — written before Parkinson’s Disease would strip him of his ability to draw and paint — and held it up for my sister to read. “Hmmm, oh boy,” she said.

We carried the box out to the living room coffee table, and I opened it. Inside were three thick bundles secured in thick rubber bands. I handed a packet to my brother and sister, and kept the third for myself. I carefully removed the rubber band without poking my own eye out. I balanced the pile on my lap and started to slowly leaf through the contents: Dozens of birthday, anniversary and Christmas cards my Dad had saved from Mom, us kids and the grandchildren. Notes written in loopy child-like scribbles — we must have been about Penelope’s age when we gave him some of these cards.

I glanced over at my brother sitting next to me on the couch. He was sorting through a batch of amusing notes and cards from friends and relatives that must have tickled Dad’s funny bone. Uncle Archie sent him a photo of a pumpkin-headed scarecrow sitting on a lawn chair in his front yard with a long note that began, “I’ve been sitting out here waiting for you to come visit…”

My sister had a pile of thank-you notes my father received for favors that, for the most part, I never even knew about. Teachers’ bulletin boards he decorated, a sick nun/teacher he visited in the hospital, cartoons he drew for picnics or parties: People whose lives he touched in some small way who remembered his kindness. I even found notes from the five exchange students I befriended in college who stayed at my home one spring break. Also in the package were two identical notes written in pencil on small white pieces of paper: “Be in front of Grants at 8 p.m. I’ll be there at 8:01 p.m.” The night my parents first dated, we suspect.

When Penelope gives me a drawing, or a note, or a scribble, I can’t seem to throw it out. At times, I curse my sentimentality. I’ll feel flickering moments of melancholy brush past that fill me with happiness and sadness at the same time. I may struggle with understanding why I feel that way, but I know from where it comes.

I looked again at the note Dad wrote across the top of the cardboard box: “More important than money.”

Reconnecting with Our Past

horse

The 1971 World Horsehoe Pitching Championships.

I grew up in a neighborhood where rectangular patches of black clay blotted the green grass of everyone’s backyards. With the center of my six-year-old universe being a suburban neighborhood that sprouted from a meadow in 1952, I thought all yards rang with the sounds of men tossing horseshoes, tossing insults at their partners and tossing back cans of Rheingold and Schaefer beer.

I suspect my Dad had the best horseshoe pits in the neighborhood because most summer evenings the men flocked there. He’d come home after eight hours of designing brochures for a printing-press manufacturer and after a quick dinner — something like pork chops, baked potatoes and Delmonte canned green beans — would change out of his work clothes. A set of horseshoes hung from a rack off a slate gray Sears Craftsman band saw in the garage. He’d grab a pair and would bang them together. The neighborhood men would come outside, sit on their front steps to tie their shoes. Soon they’d be climbing over the waist-high white picket fence that surrounded the yard.

About the time I hit the first grade, my hometown was hosting the World Horseshoe Pitching Championships. With horseshoe fever gripping the community, the town fathers scrambled to construct a large fenced-in horseshoe court in the park across from the high school, while the fathers in my neighborhood scrambled to hone their horseshoe pitching skills. I don’t believe any of them actually competed in the tournament, but the commotion undoubtedly stirred their competitive juices.

I remember watching the backyard hum with activity those summer nights in 1971. Sometimes I’d watch from my Dad’s second-floor art room, which offered a bird’s eye view of both pits. I’d watch the metal shoes float effortlessly in a lazy arc across the soft lawn falling with a dull thump into the clay.

An art room was another feature I thought could be found in all homes. On certain winter nights my Mom might be lounging in an arm chair after work, Baretta flashing colored shadows across the living room floor, while my Dad worked upstairs.  I would hear from his stereo turntable the smaltzy pop of Englebert Humperdinck, or the bleating country songs of Marty Robbins. I’d climb the stairs to watch him, hunched over his drawing board, glasses dangling from the tip of his nose as he worked with pen and ink or pastels. On the table behind the swivel chair would be an array of rubber erasers, razor-sharp exacto knives, colored pencils and his Leroy lettering set.

Over time the men stopped playing horseshoes. Some died, some moved away. Upstairs in the art room, the colored pencils and Leroy lettering set got packed away in cardboard boxes and shipped south when my parents sold their home.

And I learned that most homes do not have art rooms, most back yards do not have horseshoe pits. I would think about that once in a while. And then I got older and didn’t think about it at all.

I was walking the dogs in the park recently when I saw two guys throwing horseshoes in sand pits just beyond the trail, and for a moment the winter’s sun warmed to a June evening. The clang of horseshoes rang in the air, mixed with the popping hiss of freshly cracked Rheingold cans.

The next day, a Tuesday, I was walking across the creaky wide plank floors of the art museum where I work on site two days a week. Walking through the contemporary collage exhibition, my mind began to float back to Leroy lettering sets and exacto knives. I could almost hear the once-familiar strains of gunfighter ballads and trail songs.

When I got home that evening I looked around our house, at the history books and the William Jennings Bryan walking stick in the library. I thought about my wife and I writing in our office, putting together words and editing each other’s copy as we work to grow a home business. I wondered what Penelope makes of all this. Of the things that are unique in our household. I hope she appreciates it, and appreciates those things that are unique in the people she meets.