This house of ours, a small hip-roof ranch style built in 1953, is one of the newer houses on this street. The front, reflecting the style of that time, is covered in Roman brick. Narrower and wider than the red rectangles which define most brick, Roman brick is the color of sandstone and characterized by a finished top and bottom edge, with a rough center.
Some years ago, I thought about building a short decorative wall to define the garden and border the sidewalk, considered building it with the same Roman brick covering the house. A search of the big box stores yielded nothing. Likewise the local masonry products manufacturer. No Roman brick.
Popularized in that period of American residential architecture and design now referred to as mid-century, it seems Roman brick has fallen out of favor.
Time passes. Tastes change. Consumer preferences and products have the lifecycle of a gnat.
The construction date of 1953 was not so long ago, well within living memory. Nevertheless, the house is anchored to its time, while human sensibilities have moved along, giving rise to multiple editions of fashion and preference. The defining characteristics of the house have become, as they say on the HGTV shows, dated. The term itself is used with disdain, almost as one might refer with pity to an insubstantial relative, one lacking in sensibility or the finer graces, or even the awareness to know his own shortcomings.
Mom and Dad moved here in the 70s. The small ranch house with the Roman brick front is where they retired. Dad had plenty of objections; the garage was too small, there was no place for his workshop, it was on an alley, it was too close to the four-lane avenue only a block away. But he was incapable of denying Mom when she set her heels. The big house where I grew up was put up for sale; the move was made to the Roman brick house. Even after the move, Dad maintained he would only stay here for a year or two, until something more to his liking could be found. Whether the result of changed attitude or inertia, that second move never happened. After some years, they both agreed it was the perfect place to retire.
The blueprints have remained here with the house over the years, as though a fixture, inseparable from the house itself. Drawn by the firm of “Warren & Mattson” and dated 3/20/52 for their client “Smith’, they were here when my mother and father moved in.
Years later, after Dad died, Mom decided to sell it. My somewhat impulsive reaction was to buy it. When I moved in, it was my turn to find the blueprints, carefully stored on a shelf in a bedroom closet, along with boxes containing a lifetime of Mom and Dad’s other documents and records connected with the house.
Mom died two years ago. Named as executor of her estate, I discharged the provisions of her will. At the end of that process, when all her wishes were fulfilled, I eventually opened the long-stored boxes, which had remained here in my care after she moved. I found myself confronted with an array of documents and items. I puzzled over many of them, trying to understand what they were, who they had belonged to.
Mom was a keeper of stuff. Releasing things was difficult for her, and there were conditions. Many times I observed pains taken to insure that possessions be entrusted to someone who “could use them.” More than mere utility, it was equally important to transfer meaning, to insure the new custodian would regard them as she had, would objectify them and hold them in the same esteem.
To them, things had a life and an inherent purpose which transcended ownership. No one ever said as much, but it seemed as though the importance of their things was her legacy. Even seemingly mundane items were too important to be lost, too important to go to waste. This regard was not just limited to jewelry and documents. Mementos, souvenirs, hand-written notes, sales slips, greeting cards, clipped newspaper articles, even owners manuals for household appliances which no longer existed; all of these survived their owners.
Opening the boxes, I peered in. With each item, the feeling imbued by Mom or Dad, or both, struggled to transmit itself, along with the implied responsibility to regard it as they did. I look in and each item looks back at me, insisting upon its status: “IMPORTANT”, they say.
With the implied message of each object, my learned sense of duty, responsibility and obligation asserts itself, conveying the instructions from my dead parents to continue the custodianship, conservation and preservation they had provided to their possessions.
But what now?
The lives of the two people who attached so very much meaning to these things are over. As I go through my parents boxes and files, the contents stubbornly insist on continuing the importance ascribed to them by their former owners, even in their absence. And I find myself in the same conundrum in which I so often found my mother. She would remove the lid from some box, look inside and simply stare. She would lift her gaze to me, her troubled eyes filled with an uncomfortable confusion, asking: What am I going to do with this? What should become of them now? Who should they go to?
Indeed, who possesses the capacity to regard them as she did? Do I? Does anyone?
* * *
I am my parents son. I learned their lessons well. But I have already spent far too much of my lifetime in the attempt to grasp, to hold on, to stop time, to secure the present, preserve the past, protect the future, grasping at things, ideas and feelings, as though my continued happiness, safety and security depended upon it.
The hard wiring put there by my parents is in diametrical conflict with what I have come to understand about myself. In some ways I am a different animal than they were, but self-understanding has not removed their influence. Both exist in me now, each making its presence known. Both are part of me.
The stuff in the boxes is imbued by my parents with significance. The message they carry reaches me from the past. Their past.
But reality differs. There is no further purpose to be served by these remnants of two lives now over. The only people to whom it might possibly have been of interest are me and my two sisters. We’re now in our 60s and 70s. Any sentimentality which we might have attached, had these things been part of our lives, has passed, if it ever existed. Maybe if we had know more about each item, whose it was, why it was so highly regarded, some context of any kind, we might understand. But there’s no oral history, and no notes. And my two sisters and I are now at that time in our lives when we find ourselves trying to deal with our own boxes filled with photographs, keepsakes, documents, greeting cards, ticket stubs, memorabilia, collections.
The rules learned about importance of custodianship, of respect for the significance assigned by our parents, assert themselves in the presence of the musty boxes. But my mind and spirit smile and remind me of the illusion of control, of the reality of impermanence, my parents desire to grasp, to hold time still, to stop change, avoid loss, to seek and preserve safety and security.
These objects, possessions of persons past, are in one sense an attempt to keep something intangible alive through contact with them. I am reminded, again, that things have no inherent or intrinsic meaning, not in or of themselves. The only meaning is that which we ascribe to them.
Everything changes. Everything is already on the way to becoming something else.
These things have served their purpose to their human owners. That time and those meanings have passed. It’s time to let go.
* * *
“Impermanent are compounded things, prone to rise and fall. Having risen, they’re destroyed, their passing truest bliss.”
(Said to have been uttered at the Buddha’s passing)