When Great Uncle George died, my Great Aunt Eva, a ponderous woman with a sweet, cinnamon roll personality, took the loss like a flying trapeze artist working without a catcher. The thud of her heart hitting the ground could be heard all the way from the ranch in Montana to my grandmother’s house in San Francisco. Something would have to be done, my grandmother said, explaining that her oldest sister – 25 years older – could not stay on the ranch alone, a three day ride to town. Aunt Eva had no surviving children.
Of course this story is more complicated than the death of an in-law and his bereaved widow needing care. But, in short, Aunt Eva’s household was packed and shipped to a wheat and pear ranch the family arranged for her to buy near Clearlake in California. The ranch adjoined the one owned by her sister Emma and her husband, Art.
Then a wildfire swept across Eva’s new ranch. We lived there at the time, in the 1950s, while my father was serving in the U.S. Air Force in Korea. With no men to fight the fire, my mother saved the house, but everything else was lost—barns, sheds, fences, water system, some orchards. We survived the fire, my brother Richard and me, by climbing into the cement water cistern with Aunt Eva. Through a crack in the lid, we watched my mother, later joined by local ranchers, beat back the fire advancing through the grasses toward the house with wet pear-packing gunny sacks.
Aunt Eva sold what was left of the Clearlake Ranch and moved into my grandmother’s house in Noe Valley, every last steamer trunk and hat box went into the back bedroom where she lived as an invalid until she died in the 1960s. Eventually Aunt Eva’s things were handed down to me. She was accomplished at needlecraft, making lace, embroidery and astonishingly beautiful quilts. When Great Uncle George died there were many completed quilt tops awaiting backing. The quilts were never finished.
I tell you this as a way to say goodbye, my friends, at least for a month or so. You see, I inherited those quilt tops and have been storing them under my bed for more than 40 dusty years. Yesterday my son helped me move the quilt boxes to my garage, where we will be sleeping tonight and for many nights to come.
Years, I’ve been packing and counting the years, across decades and millennia. I have lived in my Sacramento house 17 years. Finally, I have the time and money to tear it apart and paint the whole house – entrance to exit – and get new flooring. Every single thing must be out by the end of today. Yes, I have considered dynamite and matches.
Clearing out means those dusty quilt tops, broken lamps and bed frames, underwear drawers, my adult children’s kindergarten art and the curated collection of their baby teeth, the dusty blue hat with the big bow in the back – price tag still attached (what was I thinking?) – the lapel pin that missed being stowed in my jewelry box, Aunt Eva’s pear coring tool, the suet grinder and food mill for putting up applesauce in the summer kitchen, the photo slides and obsolete diskettes, flimsy particle board book cases, boxes of tear sheets from my days as a journalist, a half-full bottle of blackstrap molasses, stacks of business cards that stretch back to the beginning of my 40-year professional career, the ashes of my former husband, who died seven years ago, his remains still awaiting dignified disposition. The unexpectedly, this ————
Trappist monk and poet Thomas Merton said “as we grow in wisdom, we realize that everything belongs and everything can be received. We see that life and death are not opposites . . . We don’t have to deny, dismiss, defy, or ignore reality anymore.” At the bottom of all reality is deep goodness, Merton said, calling it the “hidden wholeness.”
So, I’m shutting down, going dark for more than a month – no electronic chit chat, no messaging, no phone, no Internet, no TV, no connection to the outside world. I will be sleeping with the past in a garage colder than a Montana winter and hoping to find a hidden wholeness, a spiritual reintegration, in the hot mess I’ve made out of my garage.
Back inside the house, there will be renovation going on: new paint, flooring, tile, appliances, light fixtures, window coverings, fences. A total upgrade to usher in a new life, a new creativity, a fresh approach to honoring the past and who I am becoming. This work isn’t easy. It’s physically and emotionally taxing. I’m not sure who I’ll be when I reach the other side. I hope you’ll be there waiting for me.