The last glow of sun splashes puddles of orange and purple sky that shimmer through tree trunks at my in-laws’ place on Hood Canal. The canal’s milky sheen shifts to shades of pink, and beyond the water, jagged blue of the Olympic Mountains edge the scene. As the colors begin to fade, clouds part, exposing the highest peaks just in time for their snowfields to be brushed with the palest pink. I drink in the color, feeling fuller and fuller. And then it is gone.
There is a sadness in the fading lights of a sunset. This solstice day has been as lovely as the first day of summer by rights ought to be, but now, as our part of the world turns its back on the sun, it leaves us with only its memory.
My husband David and I are here on the canal to empty my in-laws’ house-where neither of David’s parents have lived for years-to help get the house ready to sell. We look and sort, admire and assign: the bed with the turned spindles goes to Celina, the French Provincial dresser to Erika, the old hand bell that used to sit by the fireplace, to Jeff. We are emptying the house we helped build one summer when Erika was a toddler and Jeff still in a playpen, one summer some fifty-plus years ago. I think of that summer, and summers after: our children running down the driveway hill to surprise their grandparents before our old Datsun or VW Beetle announced our arrival; all of us picking our way down the steep precarious bank to the beach to gather oysters for breakfast; later, the thrill of descending in the neighbor’s outdoor elevator, to deposit us farther up the same beach. As I look out the window, I remember Grammy’s little poodle Tinker Bell, sitting on a daybed bought just for her, looking out this same window toward the water like those wives who pace their widow’s walks, waiting for their fisher-husbands to come home. In this house and view lie a half-century of memories.
But it is not only memories that fill the house, and of the more solid things, we must decide what to bring home and what to do with the rest. I have my eye on a chest, hand hewn by David’s great grandfather, William, to carry supplies on the long wagon trip from Kentucky to Oregon. In September of 1867, their wagon rumbling over mountain rocks and racing the early snows, William’s wife Priscilla gave birth to a baby boy who they named Samuel Barlow in honor of his birth on Barlow Pass, a gap on the south slope of Mt Hood. This Samuel Barlow eventually fathered Ray, the father of my husband.
I admire a grand piano, bought for the brother of my mother-in-law’s father. The brother was a storybook boy, not only talented but good, and beloved by all. And like many such storybook boys, he died young, devastating his family and friends. The piano needs some repair, but its tone is magnificent. I look at it longingly: I’d love to have a piano. But I’d have to build an addition on the house to have this one.
Our grandson-in-law, Geoffrey, spots a 30-inch-diameter round saw blade hanging on the garage wall. David explains that it was the blade of a towable community wood saw, its body made out of old car parts. The men turned a crank to start its four-cylinder Star engine. David remembers that the radiator leaked, and you had to keep a hose in the top of it, running at a trickle. We go on looking, sorting, remembering.
Joining us here is our old granddog, Homer. When Homer first came to our son’s house, seventeen or more years ago, he was a dark-eyed bundle of wrinkles, the abandoned pup bred of Shar-pei and Anatolian Shepherd parents. He has been with us on and off through his long life, but now, that life is nearing its end. The sweet old boy spends most of the time on his bed, his staccato bark informing us when he needs help getting up for fluid exchange—to drink or to pee—or when either of us strays too far from the flock for this shepherd’s comfort. His gait is stiff and wobbly, his rear end sometimes collapsing, and when he falls down, he often can’t get back up. But his spirit remains strong. If he can manage it, he’ll be right behind us as we go about our work. Sometimes, disdaining help, he even succeeds getting his failing frame up and down the low stairs, and I can almost hear a two-year-old’s “do it myself!” One night, body and spirit colluded to take him on an adventure that scared the bejabbers out of us when we couldn’t find him, with David eventually picking him up at the local Humane Society. But mostly he sleeps, eating little besides a bit of soup, unless someone scares up some chicken fat. It’s clear his life is fading, but it’s been a good life and one that has given us great pleasure.
Kathryn, my mother-in-law, would have still been fifty that summer when David and I and our little ones came to help on the house, her August birthday a month or more away. David’s dad would have recently become fifty-three. He built the house with the care and precision expected of his engineer’s nature, and boasted a full and active shop and a garden with broccoli as big as your head. But little more than a decade later, he would be gone, felled by a heart attack as he was getting the mail, with only Tinker Bell to deliver the message back home.
Now it is early July of 2013, and in a little over a month David’s mother will be 103. She left the house for an apartment at a senior center less than twenty years ago, but stayed active physically and mentally. After a couple of recent frightening falls, she consented to using a walker, though initially she fought the idea, proud of her independence. Her appetite is small now. Dinner consists mostly of a cup of soup, though she does still enjoy her desserts. Both her sight and her hearing are poor, but her memory remains sharp. Over a century of living makes for volumes of wonderful stories, and she tells them with gusto and with love.
As I sort through things in the house, I look for those stories. Here is Kathryn’s hope chest; here are pictures of the tent house where they spent the first year of their marriage, when Ray was working on Crater Lake’s Rim Road. Here is a picture of Kathryn’s great Aunt Clara, a story by herself. In 1900 Clara Barck (later Clara Barck Welles) founded Chicago’s Kalo Silversmith Shop, a business lasting seventy years. The Kalo Shop was a leader in the Arts and Crafts Movement and probably the most important silver company producing handcrafted work in the Midwest. As impressive to me as the quality of the work and the success of her business, was her advocacy for women’s participation in the arts. She began the business with six other women, all design graduates of the Chicago Art Institute, and continued to support women artists throughout Kalo Shop’s long life, this in a time when few women were active independently, but rather were defined only by the men in their lives.
Then, taking my mind away from the impressive New Women of the early 1900s, I come upon David’s grandfather’s mustache cup, a pretty white china cup decorated with purple iris and white pansies, and embellished inside with horizontal china batwings, a guard to protect his mustache from the sloshing liquids.
I want to hang on a little longer to the colors of the sunset, to Granddad Hess and Boppa’s Aunt Clara and Tinker Bell, to learn these stories and make the house’s memories my own. Among these things are people I have known and loved, and people I have never known. And in our little troupe of workers are some of those I love today, both human and canine. Together we work, enjoying the moment, looking back on yesterday. Looking back on years lived, lives touched and setting suns.
It has been a lovely day.