There have been times when the sting of having almost nothing tangible from my parents has hurt. Thousands of photos, my father’s desk, my great-grandmother’s rocker, my grandmother’s baptismal certificate—who knows on what breeze they’ve blown off and where they landed. They are decorations somewhere, divorced from their history.
Nevertheless, some boxes with my name on them were dumped at the attorney’s office after my mother’s death. I didn’t have the heart to go through them then, and I’m slowly getting around to them now.
This trunk of my father’s rattled around in the nether regions of his study. When I opened it I realized that someone had taken the few art supplies still there and shoved them inside, figuring I could use them. The contents are pretty much useless, but the chest itself is kind of cool.
I found a box of oil pastels with my name scrawled across the cover in my adolescent script. I kept that and a few brushes, although their bristles will fall out as soon as they are dipped in solvent. I kept a set of carving chisels I haven’t seen since about 1970. I threw out the chalk pastels and the paint because old, unlabeled pigments scare me.
In 1965, my parents bought a decrepit Victorian pile on fifty acres of land. They rebuilt the fabric of the place. Their first task was jacking the house up and repairing the rubble foundation, using us older kids as ferrets. Furniture was refinished, interior wood mouldings carefully rebuilt and re-grained, plaster ceilings mended and the center medallions returned to their original foppishness. The farm itself was cleared and fenced, the barn rebuilt, and a massive vegetable garden planted. It was all done by hand and it was the work of their lifetimes.
Figuring things out was the birthright of mid-century American adults. They’d been raised in the Great Depression. They knew there was never any guarantee that the two bits in your pocket might not be your last. On the other hand, they never had to fuss with building permits or the town code guy if they changed an outlet; citizens were presumed to have a modicum of intelligence back then.
My parents were both born and raised in working-class Buffalo. Before buying the farm, the sum total of their agricultural experience was that, as a child, my mother did stoop labor on an onion farm in Elba, NY. When things got totally perplexing, someone ran over to the County Extension Agent with a sample in a bag.
Back to the chest: it’s impractical in the modern studio, where lightness and efficiency is prized, but like most objects, it tells a story. Who knows from whence it was repurposed; it is heavy and well-made and purpose-built to something that is now lost. My father fitted it with a set of drawers to hold his paints and tools. Like so much done by their generation, his work is simple but fine: dividers inset, joints carefully glued and nailed, the whole stained and finished to match the chest. All this to hold tubes of paint. It’s their lives in microcosm.