The Things Left Behind

Aug 13, 2012

It’s strange the things that mean something to you when your parents die.

Years ago, when my father passed away after a lingering decline, I thought I would want something to remind me of his many years as a swimmer and diver. One of his medals, maybe, or an old sweater with championship patches. The Diver, The Swimmer, The Coach — these were my father’s archetypes, the defining edges of his public portrait, the words most used to describe him in the many articles written about him during his life and in the eulogies and obituaries after he was gone.
But what ended up touching me the most as I went through his things was not an obvious symbol. Instead, I was moved by the articles he had written in his high school newspaper. Sure, he was Olympic-bound and fueled by his dreams of broken records and winning teams, but he was also a thoughtful, funny kid trying to make sense of a changing world which, in the late 1930s, was as murky as a pool that had not been cleaned all winter.
I guess I had never realized that my father was also a bit of a philosopher, a homespun good-guy poet with words to spare. By the time I came along three decades had passed. And by the time I was aware of him, he was just Dad. Much older, much more quiet and too busy working (he was The Coach, after all) to write more than mortgage checks and possibly the words to the Sunday crossword puzzle.
So, I kept those articles as a reminder of the father I didn’t know: the person he left behind to become the one he needed to be to raise his family. Those articles connected me to that spark we share as human beings. The one that warms and inspires us when we are young. The one we often pass along like a relay torch to our children.
Something similar happened when my mother died a few months ago. I thought it would be her paintings that would mean the most to me. After all, she was an artist for most of my life. I remember her easel set up in the kitchen. It was something she could do while she cooked dinner, she told me. It didn’t take away from her time being a wife and mom.
There was canvas after canvas of beautiful, impressionist images. Beaches, wildflowers and iconic Paris street scenes painted in a Texas kitchen by a woman who never traveled further east than Louisiana.
I love the artwork, but what really touched me as I sorted through her things was her old Yashica TLR camera. I remember when she started learning photography. I was in junior high and barely paid attention to what she cooked for dinner anymore. Her easel had been put away and, instead, she said she was going to learn to take pictures like a pro.
A pro, she said, was someone who had to spend more time than what could be done while she was in the kitchen.
She spent long hours in photography classes and even longer hours wandering around town looking for subjects — and possibly herself. Her photos were similar to her paintings: full of romance, with soft edges. She captured a world in that camera that she wished she could live for herself — an idealized, lovely world that didn’t hurt, didn’t age, and didn’t let her down.
My mother tried on a few more creative hats after that — writer, jazz singer — but always with the same part time hobby spirit she gave to her paintings. Never again did I hear her talk about becoming a pro at anything. Never again did she really take time away from cooking dinner.
My sister shipped me that old camera the other day. As I held it, I not only remembered my own early photography training — ironically, it was the exact same model I learned to shoot with in high school — but I remembered my mother from long ago when she dared to expand her horizons through a viewfinder. She wasn’t much older than I am now, and I think she hoped she could freeze time in that wonderful, black box. Or maybe make a new time for herself.
I can relate.
I think we don’t really see our parents — the whole of them — until they are gone. Little by little, we piece together the parts that never made sense when we were children. The things we never noticed, or perhaps didn’t care about, are often the ones that make the most sense when we are left behind, sorting through the remains.
I’m looking forward to shooting a roll of 120 film on Mom’s old camera. Maybe I’ll see the world like she did all those years ago. Maybe I’ll find what she was looking for or, more likely, a piece of myself that I didn’t even realize was missing. One thing is for sure: I’ll probably be late for dinner.

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