On Sunday I began cutting sod in the backyard, as a first step to putting in a garden. My friend The Midnight Gardener had warned me not to try cutting turf that was too wet. How right he was. We'd had four inches of snow on Friday. By noon on Saturday the warmer temperatures had melted it all, but it turns out that less than thirty hours was not enough time to dry the ground out, not even this sandy soil. My impatience got the best of me by Sunday afternoon however, so I began the epic wrestling match with the sturdy, hardy grass and the heavy, sopping soil.
The only other time I'd pulled up sod was back in June, 2009, during the month I spent in Indiana grieving for my brother. Mary and Tony were expanding the garden bed in their front lawn and I offered to help.We pulled up squares of grass, shook and scraped as much soil off the roots as possible, killed any Japanese beetle larvae we found, then threw the grass into a wheel barrow for eventual transportation to the compost box.
Everything about this chore proved surprisingly therapeutic. It was hard work and a hot June afternoon. Getting sweaty and physically exhausted provided a brief respite from grief somehow. I wonder too if digging, ripping, tearing and shaking gave vent to a certain amount of rage in my case. Killing the larvae almost certainly did; it was a weird combination of nauseating (they felt like little balls of fat and mucous) and satisfying.
So Sunday, as I cut turf and wrestled great chunks of wet roots and soil out of the ground, I thought of James, and that led me to thinking about Vince, the previous owner of the grass I was tearing out. Bill and I have slowly been changing the space in small ways to suit our likes and needs better. Moving into a fully furnished home comes with a special set of issues surrounding possessions. The influence of the previous owner probably always pops up, but it's unavoidable when you're surrounded by his things. There's little in the way of basic needs that this places lacks, but there's no escaping how little of it is stuff that Bill and I would have chosen for ourselves.
I've mentioned the austerity of the place before: almost no art on the walls (and none of it appealing to us), everything white or pale beige, nothing but a love seat and one chair in the living room. Though Vince didn't design the small and poorly laid-out windows, he probably is responsible for the double (and in some case triple) coverings on each of them. Maybe the small windows were even part of the house's appeal for him.
As I cut turf, I began thinking of the garden my sister had planted to remember James. I briefly considered planting a garden for Vince, before realizing doing so would be silly. If Vince liked gardens, he would have planted one. Looking at his front and back yards, it's clear Vince's interest in gardening extended no further than a couple of bushes and lawn grass, some of which I was busily destroying. It hit me then how often my changes to the house consisted not just of adding things I liked, but of trying to erase what I considered Vince's melancholy influence. The prism with solar-powered rotating engine (a gift from my brother) was an attempt to bring sunlight and color into the somber recesses of the house. The small stained glass piece (a gift from my sister) served a similar purpose. Even the bird feeders, while not a direct criticism of Vince's life, were unquestionably intended to provide reasons to pull the curtains and blinds, to give us a reason to look OUT the windows.
Now, I'm not feeling guilty about wanting to change this place to better suit Bill, me or potential buyers. As my sister and I cleared out my brother's apartment, she said "it's amazing how many things just become junk when the person who loved them has died." In James' case though, there are a million different ways his memory will live on for me and others: funny stories, friendships, connections with people, animals, music, art, films, books, TV shows and places. Things are not irrelevant to my memory of James (see above re: prisms) but they're just triggers reminding me of the man I knew and loved.
I never met Vince while he was alive so of course I have no memories to be conjured. His siblings loved him, but don't really have stories about him. Or maybe they have plenty of stories, but don't share my need to tell them. Just because I love and crave stories doesn't mean Vince or anyone else owes them to me. But I keep searching for information about him. Because his possessions are all I have to go on, it makes sense I keep coming back to them--as the last few posts here show--trying to read them like tea leaves.
Unfortunately Vince's possessions are almost uniformly utilitarian. We even wonder how much use some of them got. A recovering alcoholic who never entertained probably didn't touch any of the dozen wine glasses (we have no evidence he ever fell off the wagon). The cookware is all shiny and unscratched. Of the stockpile of screwdrivers, probably only one or two were ever used. When we pulled out the snow-blower last month, the next-door neighbor said he'd never seen it before. He's lived there for at least twenty years, offering repeatedly to use his own blower when he saw Vince shoveling his driveway. Vince always politely refused.
Some sort of decision-making may have gone into choosing the dishes, glasses and mugs (why this pattern rather than another), but I can't read what it was. The enormous television may be the only thing that suggests strong feeling on Vince's part, but even that may be a bit of a stretch; when it came to electronics, Vince only bought the best. That tells me something, I suppose, but not much.
All in all Vince's legacy remains one of mystery and perplexity, at least for me. But the fact remains I am benefiting from the life and world he built, as well as the generosity of his siblings. I would like to find some way to honor that, and express my gratitude. Bill and I will continue changing the place, ultimately making it more sellable. I doubt Vince would begrudge us that. We'll continue adding light, color, air and music whenever possible. (Did I mention the wind chimes I put up Sunday?) We'll keep using the cookware. I'll keep tearing up the lawn, and eventually start planting stuff, probably mostly ornamental annuals at first. If the morning glories, moon flowers and sweet peas take to the soil, I'll let the windows get covered again, marrying my need for color and plants with Vince's need for privacy. I'll keep loving Bill, his sisters and his extended, big-hearted family. Perhaps in all that, Vince's legacy will sneak in quietly and unobtrusively, like the man himself.
It turns out establishing memorials is like gift-giving; one has to be careful not to project one's own wishes on the recipient, and this risk gets higher the less one knows a person. No doubt the Vince I will honor will end up being a man of my own construction. Or maybe the lack of stories, the mystery of him, will itself become the memorial. If I keep sight of my gratitude, maybe that's enough.