“The world begins at a kitchen table.  No matter what, we must eat
to live.
The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table.  So it has
been since creation, and it will go on.”
— Joy Harjo, from “Perhaps the World Ends Here”

The kitchen table is smaller now

The kitchen table is smaller now

My Dad’s kitchen table is smaller now than the big rectangular one we gathered around in my childhood.  Then that table was the center of our lives.  We ate countless breakfasts, dinners, and suppers there.  We did our homework at that table.  We played cards and games and colored and drew on that oilcloth-covered surface.

“Tables are trustworthy:
titanic quadrupeds,
they sustain
our hopes and our daily life.”
— Pablo Neruda, “Ode to the Table”

Isn’t it remarkable that poets have written about our kitchen tables!  These wise poets know what is important in life.

Dad eating supper at the kitchen table

Dad eating supper at the kitchen table

Saying grace  after the meal: "We give thee thanks . . ."

Saying grace after the meal: “We give thee thanks . . .”

Line-drying the laundry

Line-drying the laundry

Judith Kitchen, in Half in Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate, described line-dried laundry as “folded sunshine.”  Isn’t that an apt metaphor!  My Dad still does his weekly Monday laundry the old-fashioned way.  He uses the old wringer Maytag in the dank basement.  Then hangs his wash out on a line to dry in the summer sun and breeze.  Folded sunshine indeed!

Maytag in the basement

Maytag in the basement

My dad hanging out the clothes

My dad hanging out the clothes

Wooden clothespins in an old plastic ice-cream bucket

Wooden clothespins in an old plastic ice-cream bucket

This is the way we wash our clothes . . .

This is the way we wash our clothes . . .

Looking through the kitchen window at the wash

Looking through the kitchen window at the wash

We didn’t call it “laundry” back in the day; we called it “the wash.”  The following poem could have been written by a ghostly twin, so true are the images to my memories of wash days:

The Wash
by Sarah Getty

A round white troll with a black, greasy
heart shuddered and hummed “Diogenes,
Diogenes,” while it sloshed the wash.
It stayed in the basement, a cave-dank
place I could only like on Mondays,
helping mother.  My job was stirring
the rinse.  The troll hummed.  Its wringer stuck
out each piece of laundry like a tongue–

socks, aprons, Daddy’s shirts, my brother’s
funny (I see London) underpants.
The whole family came past, mashed flat
as Bugs Bunny pancaked by a train.
They flopped into the rinse tub and learned
to swim, relaxing, almost arms and legs
again. I helped the transformation
with a stick we picked up one summer

at the lake.  Wave-peeled, worn to gray, inch
thick, it was a first rate stirring stick.
Apprenticed on my stool, I sang a rhyme
of Simple Simon gone afishing
and poked the clothes around the cauldron
and around.  The wringer was risky.
Touch it with just your fingertip,
it would pull you in and spit you out

flat as a dishrag.  It grabbed Mother
once–rolled her arm right to the elbow.
But she kept her head, flipped the lever
to reverse, and got her arm back, pretty
and round as new.  This was a story
from Before.  Still, I seemed to see it–
my mother brave as a movie star,
the flattened arm pumping up again,

like Popeye’s.  I fished out the rinsing
swimmers, one by one.  Mother fed them
back to the wringer and they flopped, flat,
into baskets.  Then the machine peed
right on the floor; the foamy water
curled around the drain and gurgled down.
Mother, under the slanting basement
doors, where it was darkest, reached up that

miraculous arm and raised the lid.
Sunlight fell down the stairs, shouting
“This way out!”  There was the day, an Easter
egg cut-out of grass and trees and sky.
Mother lugged the baskets up.  Too short
to reach the clothesline, I would slide down
the bulkhead or sit and drum my heels
to aggravate the troll (Who’s that trit-

trotting…) and watch.  Thus I learned the rules
of hanging clothes: Shirts went upside down,
pinned at the placket and seams.  Sheets hung
like hammocks; socks were a toe-bitten
row.  Underpants, indecently mixed,
flapped chainwise, cheek to cheek.  Mother
took hold of the clothespole like a knight
couching his lance and propped the sagging

line up high, to catch the wind.  We all
were airborne then, sleeves puffed out round
as sausages, bottoms billowing,
legs in arabesque.  Our heaviness
was scattered into air, our secrets
bleached back to white.  Mother stood easing
her back and smiled, queen of the backyard
and all that flapping crowd.  For a week

now, each day, we’d put on this jubilee,
walk inside it, wash with it, and sleep
in its sweetness.  At night, best of all,
I’d see with closed eyes the sheets aloft,
pajamas dancing, pillow cases
shaking out white signals in the sun,
and my mother with the basket, bent
and then rising, stretching up her arms.

 

What Remains

July 8, 2013

“It’s all life until death.”
— Grace Paley

My 94-year-old Dad and the old farm house where he lives

My 94-year-old Dad and the old farm house where he lives

Our family has been blessed with Dad’s long life.  If one of the central questions of our humanity is how to live our lives, trying to figure this out can become a bewildering predicament if we live to a very old age.  While staying with my 94-year-old Dad, I was reminded that one’s value and worth should not depend on what you do, but rather should be inherent in simply being.  Because at 94, life has slowed considerably, and a good day is not filled with lots of activities or accomplishments, but with moments of doing nothing.

A full life is inevitably filled with losses, grief and suffering.  But this post will focus on what remains, what my father is still able to do and enjoy.

Every morning of my stay, Dad cooked breakfast for both of us — usually bacon, eggs, and toast, with tomato juice or half a grapefruit, and once, pancakes.

Dad making breakfast

Dad making breakfast

A cup of instant coffee with every meal

A cup of instant coffee with every meal

And after every meal, Dad helped wipe the dishes.

Dad at the kitchen sink

Dad at the kitchen sink

Putting the clean dishes into the cupboard

Putting the clean dishes into the cupboard

On Mondays, laundry day, and Dad still used the old Maytag wringer machine to wash his clothes and then he hung them on a line to dry outside.

Hanging his laundry

Hanging his laundry

Mowing the vast lawn, a summer job, took several hours (with rest breaks).

Dad mowing the lawn

Dad mowing the lawn

Through the window

Through the window

Dad is now the oldest person in his parish.  He always said grace before and after meals.

"Bless us O Lord . . ."

“Bless us O Lord . . .”

Dad still read the local weekly paper and bought the Minneapolis paper on Sundays.

Reading the paper

Reading the paper

Reading the paper in Dad's favorite chair

Reading the paper in Dad’s favorite chair

Dad continues to play cards — cribbage and solo.  He gets together with two of his sisters, his brother-in-law, and son for a weekly card game.  They take turns hosting the games and then go out to eat after hours of playing cards.

Playing cribbage

Playing cribbage

The days were full of dozing and naps.

Dad at rest

Dad at rest

And all of these things made for good days.  For that we are grateful.

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” . . . everything is always already being lost.”
— Bradley L. Garrett, discussing Walter Benjamin on the nature of ruins, from Explore Everything: Place Hacking in the City

Looking through the living room window at my 94-year-old Dad mowing the lawn

Looking through the living room window at my 94-year-old Dad mowing the lawn

I’ve just returned from two weeks of keeping company with my 94-year-old Dad on the family farm.  I’ve written about my father before, most notably a tribute in honor of his 90th year.  On this recent visit, I was reminded daily of the small, accumulating losses that accompany anyone into extreme old age.  Since my last visit in February 2012, I noticed that my Dad no longer checks his email every day, works on crossword puzzles, goes to mid-week mass, or plans and cooks even simple dinners, much less barbecued chicken.  His short-term memory is going, and it is doubtful that he will be able to continue to live alone in the old farmhouse, even with the considerable day-to-day support that a few of my siblings provide.

And this is going to be a challenge for our family, because Dad will not go willingly to another home no matter how much better a change would be for him — keeping him in physical safety, with good home-cooked meals provided, and lots of other support.  He wants to die at home on the farm.  The loss of his home, a reassuring space, would be heart-breakingly sudden, not like the other losses he has born, some so gradual that he might not even be aware of them.

We cannot stall the passing hours.  There is no promise of preservation.  I see in the slow, inexorable deterioration of the farm house, sheds, and barn — those that will be torn down when my brother builds his family’s retirement home on the land — the reflection of my Dad’s inevitable decline.  In spite of the pain, there is beauty in this collapse of our everyday existence.

Farm house window

Farm house window

East side door

East side door

Linoleum floor with sun and shadow

Linoleum floor with sun and shadow

East side window

East side window

Roof of Uncle Pete's garage

Roof of Uncle Pete’s garage

Interior, garage

Interior, garage

Barn doors and windows

Barn doors and windows

My view upon waking

My view upon waking

Old farmhouse in the morning light

Old farmhouse in the morning light

One Art
by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.