As I prepare to leave for work, I breeze through the house, this lovely shell, barely aware of my surroundings. So at times, I reflect, Mom was right. While I see the painting that once hung in my grandmother’s house, it doesn’t register as more than a backdrop. Yes, I know that the drawing Casey drew in art last week is posted on the fridge, but it’s barely a blur, as I rush to the kitchen to pour a glass of orange juice and toast a Poptart.
The doorstop from Mom’s childhood room in St. Louis is displayed on the dining room mantel and Dad’s red chest, his toybox of sixty-five years ago, holds sweaters at the foot of my bed. Uncle Jack’s mess kit, Ama’s lap desk, and even Tucker’s cast-off sneakers, are remnants of lives and places precious to me that have come to rest in this house. When I slow down to notice, each one tells a story…
* * * *
As charred and crusty as it is, Uncle Jack’s World War II field mess kit is ingenious. Two oval metal trays with deep sides form the top and bottom, one partitioned to better organize the meal, the other converting easily into a saucepan. The band holding the two halves in repose swings up and out to form a handle. As Aunty Cam sorted through decades of keepsakes in preparation for moving, she discovered the mess kit and gave it to us.
Dave’s Uncle Jack died four years ago of colon cancer, too young, and unnecessarily, at age seventy-six. Despite his persistent and accurate reporting of symptoms to his doctors, their tests failed to detect the lethal tumor. “It was hidden beyond reach of the scope. We’re sorry....”
Like his brothers, Tony and Phil, Jack served in the army in Italy during the forties. He was an ambulance driver, charged with retrieving bodies as much as transporting the wounded. As he hunched by a campfire after a day’s work, warming Spam and beans neatly partitioned in his aluminum tray, was he haunted by visions of the limp-limbed corpses he’d hoisted into his ambulance, the sons and brothers who would not return home?
While on leave, he visited his relatives in Caserta and fell in love with his first cousin, Josephina. But even as a soldier, an ocean away from home, Jack answered to his mother, Lucia. Mama would not tolerate romance with a first cousin and demanded an end to the courtship.
I remember sitting at the table in Cam’s kitchen when I first heard this tale. Garlic toasted in fruity olive oil on the stove while Cam squeezed fresh lemon juice onto the salad. Cam explained, “It would have been one thing if the cousins had been born of two sisters, but they were of brothers. Too close! The blood was too thick.”
I shook my head sadly for Uncle Jack’s lost love.
“What?" said Cam, brows lifted in surprise at my response. “What’s not to understand?”
When Uncle Jack came home, he stashed the mess kit in a dark corner of the basement of the yellow house on Stratfield Street, along with Tony’s bomber jacket and some wartime magazines. Jack resumed his work as a mason and, on the weekends, tended the family garden and pear tree. He was silent about his experiences overseas.
Cam's face drooped in recalling those years. As she added a jar of tomatoes to the garlic, she said, “He was like a stranger when he came home from the war.”
* * * *
The small mahogany lap desk is carved with maple leaves encircled by tiny diamonds and interwoven vines. My mother gave it to Casey, but once, it belonged to my great-grandmother, Ama.
In sepia photographs, Ama’s eyes are deep-set, and almost melancholy. They remind me of her daughter, my grandmother Byeo, and even, of my mother. As I grow older, when I look in the mirror, I see all three women in my own deep-set eyes.
Mom loved her grandmother dearly and describes her as high-spirited. Once while waiting for a train, Ama snuck uninvited into a church during a wedding. One of the ushers was so taken by her charm that he insisted on escorting her to a seat directly behind the bride’s family. Given the circumstances, Ama’s manners prevented escape and she missed her train while witnessing strangers’ vows.
My parents were married in Ama’s house in the fifties. As I trace the carvings on the lid of the lap desk with my finger, I wonder if Ama addressed the invitations to the ceremony upon its leather writing surface.
* * * *
Each morning, I do my exercises on the floor in Tucker’s room. Although he is still in evidence in the Tae Kwon Do trophy, the bi-plane he crafted from toothpicks in fourth grade, and countless texts from bygone courses, he now attends college, and the shift from boy’s room to store room is occurring.
As I lie on my left side, doing leg lifts, I’ve noticed a pair of clunky black sneakers under the bed. They’re big, maybe size eleven, and I wonder when Tuck wore them last.
His final years at home were unhappy; he was miserable at the local high school. The bus would pull up in the afternoon and the front door would slam. Tuck would clump, clump, clump up the stairs, grunting to the forced cheer of my greeting. The door to his room would crash shut, and there he’d brood, emerging only for meals or phone calls.
Where had my little boy gone?
I recently hung a photograph of Tucker and Casey on the wall in Tucker’s room. Casey, at about three months old, appears uncomfortable in the arms of her big brother, but his face is contented as he smiles at someone off-camera. I remember the day that Dave took the shot and while doing my daily exercises on the floor, I’ve realized that smile, so full of love, was for me.
The angel-faced Tucker in the picture has grown up, and thankfully, so has the angry boy who kicked those sneakers under the bed. Once enrolled in a boarding school where he felt he belonged, my boy seemed to become…well, the happier boy we used to know.
Perhaps we were wrong to hold him here as long as we did. We are given our children for such a short span; I didn’t want to lose him any sooner than necessary. I guess sometimes the losing lies in the holding.
I could be a proper housekeeper and clear out the space under that bed. Send off those sneakers to Goodwill or the church... and eventually, I will. Right now though, I’m keeping them as a shrine of sorts – a frozen moment. I picture Tucker just home from school or Tae Kwon Do untying his sneakers. He kicks them carelessly out of the way, and they tumble, laces dragging, unseen, untouched, for six years.
* * * *
As I spin through my days, dusting Dave’s pipe rack or adjusting the print Casey gave me, it is interesting to think consciously of that action as a moment caught in time. On one specific evening, Uncle Jack fit together the halves of his mess kit, swinging the handle in place until it caught. Ama, at some point, signed a letter with her spidery script, closed the lid of her lap desk, and never opened it again. Tucker, one afternoon, toed off his black sneakers and kicked them under the bed for good.
On each of these simple items left behind, that final touch remains. A connection.