Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Peeled By Chuck

There, in the bottom of the little bedroom closet, a forgotten bag of memories.

Who left them, and when, and why, in the white trash bag under a mountain of shoes, belts, curtain rods, and an old beach chair, I will never know. The two people who could have told me are gone. My goal that hot Sunday afternoon was to tackle my mother's bedroom closet and separate trash from treasure, and the crumpled, nondescript bag almost went directly into the trash can without a second glance.

A rattling sound stopped me as I prepared to lob the bag out into the hallway with the rest of the things I knew no one wanted. What I saw inside made me gasp.

An old matchbox from the Mad Men era holding two tiny carved figurines, one of a turtle, the other of an anvil; faded postcards from southeast Asia; an envelope full of menus; 2 poems; report cards; receipts; a paystub. All were from the years between 1959 and 1963, and all were my father's.

Where the figurines came from, whether they were bought by my father or, in an uncharacteristic burst of artistic ability, carved by him, I don't know. But the other items, when taken together, give me a clearer picture of who my father was than the 31 years I actually spent with him.

The envelope, addressed to my grandmother and postmarked, contains nothing but mimeographed breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus from the army base here in the states where my father was first stationed. At first, I didn't understand; there's no letter. As I flipped through, I got it--Dad told me once that he had never eaten anything other than soup beans and cornbread until he got in the army, and while everyone else complained about the mess hall chow, he felt like he had died and gone to heaven because of the multitude of exotic choices and plentifulness of the bounty. Sending the menus was his way of celebrating the way he was being fed and letting my grandmother know that he was happy. Certain items on the menus he sent to my granny were underlined or had exclamation points--"STEAMED ASPARAGUS!" "FRESH PINEAPPLE!" "SALMON LOAF!" He had also written notes under many of the items--"sliced by Chuck" under the glazed carrots, "peeled by Chuck" under the mashed potatoes. He wanted to make sure Granny knew he had been helping out in the kitchen.

The report cards show that while Dad's grades began to slip in his junior year at the high school in Knox County, he did much better after moving out to Del City to live with his uncle and finish high school there. The failing grade in junior English became a B+, and he aced U.S. history with a 99% average for the year. Not to mention stellar marks in what I am sure was that football and basketball player's favorite class, physical education.

Receipts from fuel deliveries to oil companies, a crumpled paystub, and postcards from various ports of call give me some idea what his military life was like as a green Merchant Marine on a tug boat crew at the dawn of the Vietnam War. But none as much as two poems I found in the bag, written in his own hand.

One called "The Ship" details a busy day spent doing absolutely nothing important; another is a parody of "'Twas The Night Before Christmas" with Santa visiting the ship and finding the crew too drunk, sloppy, and incompetent to leave gifts. For a guy who failed a semester of high-school English, they are marvelously well-written, clever, and witty. My mother used to think that my meager writing ability came from her side of the family; I cried while reading Dad's poems because the voice sounded so like my own. In that same time and place, I could have written those same words.

I knew that cleaning out my parents' house would be one of the most difficult jobs I will ever have. I knew that, because my mother had not fully cleared out all of my father's belongings, I would be sorting through the material remnants of his life as well as my mom's. I did not know that a handful of old papers long-forgotten in a trash bag could make me feel such a mix of joy and sorrow, mystery and resolution. I know more about his personality, his young life, and his talents than I've ever known. But I want to know so much more. What I wouldn't give for just one more day with my parents to ask them everything I've ever wanted to know. Who were you guys? What did you aspire to be? Why did you follow the paths you followed? And what on earth happened to kill some of the humor and joy I see so vividly in each of you when you were young?

If only the universe could grant this wish. I would be sure to ask that we eat well, with potatoes peeled by Chuck.

No comments: