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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Unsettled Chapter 44: "Mom's Attic"

This was originally Parts 3 of Chapter 43

Christmas 1975:

“Are you awake?” The question came first as part of a dream, and the dream was in the house in Roseville. I was in my room, and Jimmy was talking to me from the bunk below as he had done the two years before I left for college. “Are you awake?” The little voice said again. My eyes opened to a semi-darkened space and slowly focused on the staples holding the insulation to a joist just above me. Where was I?

“Are you awake?” Jimmy said, standing on the mattress below and holding to the upper bed rail beside my shoulder.

“Hi, Jimmy. Yep, I’m awake. What time is it?” Where is everyone?”

“It’s breakfast time. Dad and Paul are gone to work, and Mom’s made Cream of Wheat. But she said not to wake you if you were sleeping.”

“No. I’m not sleeping. I want to get up.”

I hopped down to the cold cement floor and hugged Jimmy back and forth in my arms. “It’s good to see you, Jimmy. You’re getting so big.”

“It’s good to see you, too.” He said with a smile that was missing a tooth.

“Hey, when did you lose your tooth?”

“I don’t know. A while ago. The new one’s comin’ in. See?”

“I see it. But it wasn’t gone last time I saw you.”

“It must have been right after you left cuz it was gone by school pictures. My picture looks stupid.”

“You don’t look stupid. I think it looks cool. Did you know that I had both of my front two teeth out for over a year. You know that song “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth”? Well, that was me when I was your age. Both at the same time, but they came in eventually.” I pulled on my pants and shirt. “ Let’s go eat.”

“Dave’s already out here.”

“Man! This floor’s cold.”

“That’s why I wear slippers,” Jimmy said, holding up one foot to show them.

“Well, I don’t have any slippers. Let me go get my socks. I’ll be right there.”

I stepped back to my suitcase, grabbed two pair of socks, and paused outside the four-foot opening in our Celotex cell, and looked at space in the morning light. The temporary main room was roughly 14-by-30’ and a strange configuration of very familiar things. Walking past the piano, I knuckle-rolled the three black notes (#F,#G,#A, which was the beginning of the only song Dad knew on the piano) and stepped around the corner to the kitchen table.

Mom was beside herself at breakfast, flitting from sink to stove to table with a big smile, clutching her robe shut with her free hand. It was the same ugly robe she had worn through the years, the one I’ve said served as an apron in the morning so she didn’t ruin her good one, which we never saw her wear. Every now and then, she’d stop what she was doing, turn to the table and say, “Gee, it’s good to have you two home.”

After breakfast, we went up to the attic for the tree and boxes of Christmas decorations. At the top of the main staircase, an unfinished door with a window in it closed off the heated basement from the unheated upstairs.

“Like the new door?” Jimmy asked. “We just put it in with the attic windows.”

A key to the door hung on a nail in the Celotex wall. Jimmy unlocked the door, and hung the key back on the nail.

“Why do you lock the door?” I asked.

“Because Dad says anybody could bust through these walls up here if they wanted to get in.”

“It’s just Celotex and tar paper,” Dave added. “ You could put your fist right through it.”

I didn’t know what to expect on the other side of the door. I was hoping to see walls ready for paint, floors ready for carpet, but when we stepped into what would someday be the kitchen eating area, boards of various lengths leaned on the outside walls. They couldn’t lean on the inside walls because they were still open studs. The only obstruction from seeing the entire floor in one glance through the maze of vertical 2-by-4s was the brick wall in the middle of the house. In the room that would be the living room, Dad’s Delta radial-arm-saw was sitting in front of a huge picture window surrounded by drifts of unswept sawdust.

Mom came bounding up the stairs. She had lagged behind to put on her winter coat over her robe, and when she saw us standing at the base of the attic stairs, the look on my face must have been very easy to read.

“He’s doing the best he can,” Mom said.

“What? I didn’t say anything,” I said.

“I see he’s got the sub-floor down,” Dave said, “that wasn’t there before. And there's insulation on all the outside walls.”

"Dad says that helps keep the downstairs heat inside, but it's so cold up here I've got goose-bumps," Mom said, closing her coat tight.

“I guess I thought we were further along since we moved in and all,” I said, conscious of the fact that I was using the pronoun “we” even though Dave and I hadn’t been there to help.

“It’s been hard, Tom. Everything takes so long. This picture window here took two Saturdays. I wanted him to buy one ready-made, but your Dad made this all himself. He’s making all the molding and millwork himself with the router. Be sure to tell him you noticed.” Mom rounded the stairway up to the attic. He got the banister for these stairs. Wait ‘til you see it. It’s beautiful.”

“It’s over there against the wall,” Jimmy said, pointing.

“Why would you put the banister up before the walls are done?” I asked.

“Well, this wall is done,” Mom pointed out. [I hadn’t noticed but the stairway wall was finished first to keep the heat downstairs.] “Your Dad got me the banister early for Christmas because he knows how much I wanted it.”

It may sound strange to hear of a man giving his wife a banister for Christmas, but it was the beginning of many years where light fixtures and other features of the next phase of the house were given “as presents.” It was Dad’s way of stoking anticipation when Mom was feeling low about living in the basement. Almost all of the nicest features of the house were purchased months and in some cases years before they were needed.

“I’m surprised Dad hasn’t swept this saw dust,” I said, not meaning to kibitz, “We always used to sweep up before we left on Saturday.”

“I think it’s because we never leave now,” Jimmy said, not realizing what a profound statement it was. When we worked all those Saturdays for seven years, there was a sense of closure when we wrapped up and drove home. Tidying up and putting all the tools away was a natural end of a perfect day in Dad’s book. But now, as Jim guessed without even thinking, the days didn’t seem to end; he was always stepping in and out of whatever work was waiting for him upstairs.

We had gone to the attic to get the Christmas things, but we got sidetracked by all that met our eyes there.

When you live in a house for a long time, there are storage spaces that take on a life of their own, and in those spaces a sort of “dating system” naturally evolves with older things being on the bottom or in the corners hardest to reach. Those corners of attics or craw-spaces or cubby holes, can go years without being disturbed, and that was true in Roseville. But in a very short time, Mom’s attic became a depository of all such things. It was the first time in her life that she had over 500 square feet of open unaccounted-for space with its own stairway.

The things taken to the attic during the move were in no particular order other than lighter things being stacked on top of heavier things. The attic was a distillation of my parent’s lifetime to that point. Not so much vintage wine as molasses, dark and thick and delicious in small doses or if mixed with other things.

Mom’s cedar chest, which had always been at the foot of her bed was at the far wall at the top of the stairs, but it could not be opened without moving stacks of hat boxes and shoe boxes filled with anything but shoes. Beside it, leaning on the hip-walls were layers of framed things waiting to be hung again. Funny that I paid almost no attention to these things as a child, but seeing them up there, I could remember where each of them had hung in the other house.

We stepped beyond the center of the room, where the chimney that was not yet built would someday be, and saw the treasure-chest toy box of our youth. It was now filled with old linens and woolen blankets, and the toys that had been inside were divvied-up by name in boxes stacked around the room . Things too big for boxes were stashed here and there. Toys I hadn’t seen in years must have been found in the final archeological dig in the Roseville basement. Kathy’s dolls were stacked like cord wood in a small metal crib beside Mom’s old cabinet sewing machine. In open boxes were countless Halloween costumes we had all worn as kids which now only Jimmy could fit into. Molded masks of Popeye and Casper the Friendly Ghost and all the wigs that Mom had ruined through the years lay on top of who knows what below.

“And here are the boxes I told you about,” Mom announced, “These are all marked with your names. Things from your room and closet at home…I mean at the other house…you know what I mean.”

I opened one box, and amongst the rubble were souvenir pennants, basketball and bowling trophies, nick-nacks, rocks, yo-yos, my sketchbook, my first Bible, and my old patched-up wrestling shoes.

“Thanks, Mom.” I said, “If I’da known we were moving, I would have done this myself. It must have been a lot of work getting all this up here.”

“Especially this,” Dave said with a laugh. He had wandered ahead to the far corner and found the big wooden box Dad made for our camping tent.

“It must have been murder luggin’ that beast up two flights of stairs.”

“You should’ve seen Paul and your Dad,” Mom said, “But Dad didn’t want to keep it in the barn for fear of mice. So there it is.”

Behind it were stacked boxes of Dad’s deer-hunting things, and to the right of that pile was the big box that held the bristly Christmas tree from Sears that we voted on as a family years before. We had always enjoyed the ritual of picking out a real tree on a lot, but when fake trees became popular in our neighborhood, we kids thought they were cool, which in and of itself had little sway with Dad. But he did the math and figured a fake tree would pay for itself in four or five years. We were now well into the pay-off period. Stacked on and around the tree box in half a dozen wooden fruit crates were all the decorations Mom had collected through the years. This was the purpose of our trip to the attic, and we began carrying things down to the basement.

Like the attic, these boxes were a subset of our family history. The nativity set we played with when Mom wasn’t looking. The sooty brass chimes that spun from the heat of candles. Ornaments made in elementary school. Popsicle-stick frames with our school photos glued inside. Old ornaments from the Fifties, still in their feeble cardboard-grid boxes. A small box of a thousand tarnished hooks hopelessly tangled in used tinsel and lumped together in one wad from which we shook loose hooks as needed. The wad had grown so over the years that it was still a sizable mass when every bulb was hung.

Mom stayed up in the attic as we carried things down. When I went back up to get her, she was in another corner opening and closing unmarked boxes.

“What are you looking for? We’re ready to start down there.”

“I’m just lookin’, Tom. Just lookin’. I still don’t know where half my things are. It’s awful.”

She saw her Westinghouse roaster on its stand. It had been a wedding gift. The stand was a small cabinet with a clock on the front, but the clock had stopped back in the Fifties with the hands resting at 4:05.

“Help me remember where this roaster is. We’ll need it for the Turkey Thursday.”

“Well, why don’t I take it down now,” I offered.

“’Cause I haven’t anyplace to put it, Tom.”

“I can take the stand down, too.”

“No. Just leave it here and we’ll get it that morning. Somewhere up here is the nice table cloth I want to use Christmas, but I can’t find it.”

“Is it in the toy box?”

“No, I looked there.”

“Is it in your cedar chest?”

“I don’t think so but maybe. Seems like I put it in a box. I hate this, Tom. I think I’m losin’ my mind!”

“Well, it’s gotta be up here—the tablecloth not your mind.” I laughed.

“You think it’s funny, but I’m not kiddin’, Tom. It’s been awful. I’m tellin’ ya, I just about had a nervous breakdown when we came out here.”

“Don’t kid like that, Mom.”

“I shouldna said anything.”

“We’ve been waiting to move out here. I only wish it would’ve been sooner.”

“I shouldna said anything. Don’t get me wrong, Tom. I love it when we’re all here. Like this week once Kate gets home. But honestly, Tom. I was alone every day at first, and one day I just roamed around the woods hoping nobody’d come along and see me crying like some crazy lady from the nut house.”

I smiled at what I thought was hyperbole. Mom had a way of making us kids laugh at her most tragic confessions, and in a strange way it made her feel better when we did. Only in the company of her children did she joke about these things, and because she joked it took us years to know she wasn’t joking. Years later I better understood the nature of her struggles, and even then Mom had a bizarre gift of finding humor in the retelling of them once they were behind her.

On the floor beside the roaster stand was Mom’s old brown and white portable record player.

“Hey, we need to bring this downstairs for some Christmas music. Where are your albums. I could use some Mitch Miller and the Gang.”

“There up here somewhere. I haven’t had time to get any of this stuff out. See that’s what I mean, Tom. It’s awful.”

“It’s not awful. We’ll find ‘em.” I said opening boxes randomly. “There’s no hurry.”

“See, Tom. Just hearing you say it like that, I feel better.”

“It’s true, Mom. This will all work out.”

I opened a box and right on top was a tablecloth.

“Is this the one you’re lookin’ for?”

“Yes, Where did you find it?”

I thought it was obvious that I had just pulled it out of a box, but she had not been watching. She was on her knees, trying to look behind some small crates. She stood and opened the tablecloth a few folds.

“This is the one that fits when all the table leafs are in. We’ve only used it a few times and there’s just a couple spots on it, but I put the serving dishes on 'em and we’re fine.”

“See. Things are better already,” I smiled. “But are you sure we’ll need all the leafs? I thought Kathy wasn’t coming home until after Christmas.”

“Yep. She's sad about that, but they need to be at Jack's folks since he was here last year. She was cryin' on the phone, but don't tell Jack that. It's just the way it is now." She took a deep breath and her eyes drifted off. Then she forced a smile and said, "But when they get here, We’ll need the leaf in for every meal. We'll pretend it's Christmas again when they open their presents under the tree.”

“You mean the tree Dave and Jim are waiting for us to put up?”

“Jupiter! How long have we been up here?”

“We’re fine, but we do need to get going.”

“Okay, but I’m looking for my Christmas albums. Help me move this trunk, Tom. I think I see them behind it.”

And sure enough, there they were. Mitch Miller in a Santa cap was right on top. Dave’s old Alvin and the Chipmunks album was under that. I picked up the whole stack, grabbed the record player, and Mom followed me, clutching the table cloth to her chest as if it were some treasured thing.

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