Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Stuff We Leave Behind

The family spent yesterday at Big Daddy's house, going through his stuff and dividing it up. It is not your normal family outing, that is for sure.

The first time I ever had to do such a thing, it was my Dad's stuff after he died in 1993. He was the first of my immediate family to go, and it was shocking because of his age - 57. It hit me so hard. Here was all of his stuff - ALL of it - and yet he was gone and not coming back. Very strange experience, and difficult to navigate.

This time there were a few tears, but a lot more laughter. There were old photos seeing the light of day for the first time in decades. There was a newspaper from July 21, 1969 - all about the first man on the moon. He also had two newspapers from the day his one and only great grandson was born. We read Big Daddy's draft notice from 1945. Letters from his brother Johnny before he was killed in WWII, along with a Nazi flag he took from the Germans. A box of memories of his mother. Lots of correspondence from his days as "Fortner the Merry Magician". All kinds of magic paraphernalia, books and media. His old license tag "K4PKQ" reflecting his ham radio days. There was an old chest from his days in the Civilian Conservation Corps, working in Oregon. There was an anatomically correct (sort of) frog, and some other off-color doodads. The box labeled "wide ties" was a source of amusement. The "narrow ties" weren't much better. The bolo ties were cool.

Today I read his "life story" that he began writing in longhand, bit by bit. His story covered his earliest memories and unfortunately, ends just as he met his wife-to-be, Ruby, and discovered his love of magic and ventriloquism. It is a damn shame he didn't get to finish it - it is a compelling read. He describes a hardscrabble existence in Atlanta during the depression -- no indoor plumbing or electricity; transportation involved walking, a bicycle or a horse and buggy; he had a father who drank too much; the family moved around a lot; and he had to leave school during the ninth grade to work and help support the family because times were so hard. He took correspondence school at night to get enough education to take the police exam. He met my grandmother at a wake. He had so many stories from his long career as an Atlanta policeman, and a second career as in investigator for the Public Defender's Office. During this entire time, he also did magic, ventriloquism, and mentalist performances. I wish he had had the chance to write all of those stories down, too. He knew so much about old Atlanta, much of which is gone forever.

I didn't take that much from his house. A few sentimental items, and some things that we can truly use - mostly kitchen things and some linens - ordinary wares I know that he and Grandmother used daily. It will take a while for it to seem normal for this stuff to be in my home and not his.

As has been the case throughout much of this, the weather seems to echo my state of mind. Saturday the air was heavy and sticky. There was the threat of distant thunder, but nothing in a hurry to get here. Finally, late overnight thunderstorms ushered in a shift in the weather. Today was changeable and windy. Unsettling. The wind chimes are frantically active and loud; the yard already full of sticks and leaves. But this will pass. I am counting on better days ahead.


LL said...

Hmmmm... your dad and mine seem to have been born the same year...

As for the rest, it's always hard going through the stuff isn't it. I always feel like a vulture picking over the bones, and then when I see many of my cousins fighting over who gets what... well... I've lost a lot of respect for them over the years.

The funny thing is, like you I ended up taking the things that nobody wanted (silverware, pots/pans, old coffee percolator) and when they see them now they always say, "Hey! Where'd you get that?"

Jeni said...

Going through the belongings of a loved one, trying to decide what to do with that stuff -a difficult task even under the most ideal circumstances. When my aunt passed two weeks ago, the only thing I had requested of my cousin who had power of attorney/executor of her estate, etc., was the opportunity to have her old pictures to scan and then return to him. That I now have them -the photos -and her beautiful organ as well -my prayers indeed were answered. I never would have thought to even inquire about the organ so when my cousin offered it to me, it -and those pictures -are truly the best remembrances possible for me to have of my aunt, her life, her devotion to her nieces/nephews along with her daughter and what a wonderful way to be able to remember how she loved music, was such a talented pianist/organist herself -quite unlike her not very nimble fingered niece here! Not only was I blessed to have had her presence in my life but I can pass along her love of music to Maya now too.

fermicat said...

ll - My dad was born in '36. As for Big Daddy's stuff, if there was any fighting, I didn't see it. Just a tiny bit of negotiating in the rare case of two people wanting the same thing. Big Daddy had a variety of interests, and we are not a large family. There was truly something for everybody.

jeni - your cousin was wise. She knew exactly what to give you that would be meaningful and appreciated.

Beth said...

My father went through the depression. The stories are compelling. I think every person has those stories, but some people just lived richly and deeply. That seems to be the case for Big Daddy. This is a sad one to read, but feels so cathartic for you.

(and of course I love that you catblogged below ... I love those)

magnetbabe said...

I think you probably find the most comfort taking the "everyday things" of Big Daddy's. Not necessarily because you don't already have your own, but because you can use in your every day life the things he used in his. It keeps him close.

Thanks for sharing those stories about his life, he sounds so special. Perhaps someone close to him can finish putting the bits and pieces together to add to the autobiography he already started.

Dave said...

My Mom died in '99. Though I dreaded it, my sisters-in-law insisted we go over to her house and pick and choose.

It turned out to be somewhat cathartic. My nieces found out that one of my brothers was a decorated hero (he had never said a word and looked daggers at me as I explained his commendation). I found out from a cousin that the little blonde kid in the little chair on the little porch of a house that I didn't recognize, was me at a little over a year old. Makes me smile as I type.

wa11z said...

Going through someones things that they have collected over a lifetime tells you a lot about that person. Things that they would never think to tell you about or that to them aren't important. Only when they are gone are these inanimate objects given an almost profound existence.

dr sardonicus said...

Going through the belongings of deceased family members has been a bad experience in both my family and my wife's.

When my paternal grandmother died, my dad's sister and her daughter went through the house and literally cleaned it out before Dad could get to Oklahoma from Illinois. This caused such hard feelings between Dad and my aunt that they never spoke again after Grandma's funeral. Dad wasn't even informed of his sister's passing for several weeks after it happened.

When my wife's grandmother passed away, much the same thing happened. By the time her family could get to Kentucky, the family members who lived nearby were already carting off armfuls of her grandmother's belongings. This really hurt Mrs. S., as she was her favorite granddaughter, and there were several things of sentimental value her grandma wanted her to have that were long gone.

Kathleen said...

I dread the day I have to go through Grandma's stuff. I keep telling her that she's going to live another 20 years.

I think it's very cool that Big Daddy wrote out his life in longhand, but it is sad that he didn't finish. Guess he got busy living life once he met your grandma.

Kathleen said...

It's always amazing to me how families act after a death - some with such class and others with such greed. When my paternal grandmother's sister died, her family (people I had never seen before in my life - and dear God, what white trash to which I'm technically related) actually went through the house before the funeral and a member of her family wore ONE OF HER DRESSES to the funeral. I thought it was a tad tacky.

After my Great-Grandma died, my great uncle took her silverware (real silver) and turned it into wind chimes for every child/grandchild, but sadly, not great-grandchildren. Everybody values their set.

MW said...

Under more normal circumstances, I would have loved going through such a collection of memorabilia. It sounds as if it was truly fascinating. In fact, I've made many such explorations while the owners were still alive. When my dad died in 2002, I already knew everything he owned (many times over). Most of the kitchen utensils and furniture were junk. There were also lots of true-story books on the local region in frontier times (I had purchased many of them for him as gifts, after which he continually pestered me to read some of them, too, but I seldom did). I had long since "saved" the family photographs from him because the concept of being careful with treasured possessions was totally alien to him. I swear that even if he had lived in the Sahara Desert his valuable paper heirlooms (books, photos, etc.) would have suffered water damage somehow.

Now, for the most important part of this comment: I SINCERELY HOPE you will consider publishing some portions of "The Fortner Memoirs" here on Cosmic Cat," even if you have to alter names, etc. I would love to read them.

fermicat said...

beth - the depression definitely had a huge influence in his life. Everyone has stories, but some people are truly gifted at telling them.

magnetbabe - I brought home some very practical things and we will use them often. As for someone else finishing his story, they'd have to write about 70 years' worth of experiences. I don't think it is possible. I would have loved to have heard more about Grandmother, and the tales he told about his days as a policeman.

dave - someone should always pass on the family lore.

wa11z - he had a ton of cool stuff relating to his hobbies. It struck me how he took every opportunity to learn about them, and to pass along what he knew. Even after he was a very accomplished magician and ventriloquist, he never stopped trying to learn more about it. He was also a people person, and had kept boxes and boxes of personal correspondence, photos and mementos.

dr s - that sucks that those people ruined things for your family by being greedy. It is disrespectful or the dead and the living.

kat - I hope you have to wait a long time! The windchime idea is creative - what a special gift.

mw - Maybe. I thought about posting his story, but am undecided. It would also depend on how the rest of the family felt about it.

Dianne said...

I'm a bit behind but wanted to tell you that I wish you all better days ahead.

After my sister died I took her tea kettle and her mixing bowl and a few scarves. the kettle now makes me smile every day.

Minnesotablue said...

You took the articles that will forever remind you of him. When my mother moved to the nursing home and we had to dispose of her belongings there was never any arguments or hard feelings. Guess I was lucky.Take comfort in the fact that you have so many wonderful memories.

tiff said...

One day soon I bet you smile when you pull out thos things you took, instead of being sad. Happened to me, so I know it'll probably happen to you too. At least I HOPE so.

TheWriteGirl said...

Wow, it's weird. I just had a similar experience at my mom's apartment. She suffered a couple of mini-strokes a couple of months ago and it became obvious she couldn't live on her own any more. She moved into an assisted living facility, kind of without having time to prepare. So my brother and I had to take care of the disposition of all her stuff. It isn't so much the actual things, but the fact that they are the tangible evidence of someone's life. She's still alive so it's not exactly the same, but she had to essentially say goodbye to her life because her new place is much smaller. To me the most precious things are all the photos and the letters that she and my father wrote to each other when he was in the army. I haven't been able to read them yet but I'm really looking forward to it.