Sleeping in Snow

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Xa3QWB1ltlh7mEDzqVL7Jf9gwvIeC7rn/view

We hiked, last week, to a valley beside Cove Creek, surrounded by tall pines, some of huge girth. The ground was blanketed in pine needles and the sun was so warm we worked in sweaters to set up camp.

A tornado had swept through the forest and rangers had cut trees off the trails so there were dry pine logs scattered all around, even some split wood someone had left. We put together enough kindling and firewood for night and morning fires, filtered some cold creek water and set off to explore.

There was a trail that ran alongside Basin Creek that had probably been a wagon road 100 years ago. We started our gentle ascent on that trail.

It felt remote— like we had left the 21st century and dropped into some other world. I lagged behind the others, photographing roots and limbs and picking up stones.

Our trail led us to the stone chimney that remained from a house long gone. You could approximate how long it had been since the house had melted away by looking at the size of the trees growing out of the foundation. The chimney’s construction was elegant, its edges still crisp and square, its lintel an enormous nearly perfect rectangle, unphased by all that had happened around it. I went to work creating a story about who had lived there, trying to imagine the people who grew up with that dancing, rushing creek as their nearest neighbor. How would your mind work if all your life you heard the low soothing sounds of that creek, so much like a mother soothing a baby…shhhhhhh.

We speculated on where their fields had been— where they had grown their corn and other sustenance crops. I wondered if the father of the family had built the chimney, or if that remote community had one man who was the favored stone mason. The artistry of the chimney made me think the latter, but perhaps, as in barn raisings, the community of men worked together, and as one body had developed their skills.

A little farther down the trail Dick pointed out a millstone half buried in creek sand. We looked for any remnants of the mill that would have powered it, but they were long ago erased.

Every place we explore has its own quirky treasures to share with anyone who will look closely. Backpacking with our own scientist always takes us deeply into a place. It seems like Dick knows the name of every plant, stone, fish or tree.

Back at camp, he picked up a stone and showed it to me— it was micaceous schist with garnets embedded in it. Like walking on gemstones. They were everywhere….iridescent from the tiny particles of mica, striated and studded with chunks of garnet.

The pine fire was hot that night and kept us all warm until late. I sleep really well when I’m beside a creek. Maybe it’s the Earth Mother whispering “shhhh” to me all night. Maybe it’s from the exercise, or maybe the bourbon. I slept in late, hoping someone else would get up in the cold and build a fire. Finally I heard Dick climb out of his tent and exclaim that he’d spooked a buck who was right beside our campsite, and that the whole world was white with snow.

Our firewood had spent the night under a tarp, so it lit quickly and the fire leapt from the fire ring while snow floated down all around it. We made oatmeal with fruit and nuts. Jim and Dick sat under the tarp enjoying the show. So it was– better than any movie–the low slush sounds of the creek, the falling of fat flakes of snow, the leaping of flame, and the occasional visitor.

Our Angel

 

In my mind, bringing my second baby home from the hospital and meeting Ophelia for the first time have merged into the same event.  Thirty one years ago Mrs. Ophelia Alexander entered my life when I called her about helping me with my children.   But really,  I have the odd sense that she was sent to us by some act of divine intervention.   My son, the baby thirty one years ago, said it was as though “we won some cosmic lottery”.

Ophelia Lytle Alexander died this past week, on the same day that my baby granddaughter took her first step.  I was on vacation with my family on a sun struck beach when I got the message.  I cried from self-pity, knowing we’d shared our last laugh, our last story.  And I’d lost the best source I’d ever known of unconditional, unwavering love.  If Ophelia loved you, there was nothing you could do to make her un-love you. Every time my mind returned to her that day  my heart sank.  The sky was deeply blue and there were enormous white clouds like mountains.  I painted the clouds, telling myself Ophelia was there.

My tears were only for me, because Ophelia was a person of such deep and constant faith that she most likely had no fear or despair over leaving us.  Over the course of thirty one years I had watched her lose her husband, and then her son, and then her young grandson.  She had borne things that would have crushed my spirit to dust.  Through inexpressible grief she had kept her heart busy loving those of us who remained.

Ophelia had grown up in my then rural community.  She had distinguished ancestors who had accomplished much.  She had attended a Rosenwald school less than a mile from my house.  She was keenly intelligent, and graduated from Torrence Lytle High School in 1953.  She had shopped, as a young girl, in my grandpa’s general store, and she knew all the folk of our community, living and dead.  She had an easy way of talking about race, and told me many stories about the way life had been in the 40’s and 50’s.  I got to hear the histories of the African American families from Ophelia, to balance the stories I knew about the white families.  Somehow she was able to cut through the eternal awkwardness of our racial divide.

Because she was so completely disarming and also shrewd, she knew how to corral us into her church upon occasion.  In her mind I think we were always inadequately churched, so to save our souls she would have us join her at her favorite place.   I don’t remember the messages, but the music was always breathtaking.  Because of that, when I attended her funeral, her church was not an  unfamiliar place.

I am a grudging church goer.  Impatient, uneasy, going in and out of consciousness during the service.  But I went to Ophelia’s funeral as though I were climbing onto a life raft.  I didn’t want the service to end.  After a lifetime of avoiding open caskets I truly wanted to look at her face one more time.  I wanted to know how this saint’s passage would be acknowledged by her community, her family, her church.  I wanted to be in the company of others who loved her.  I felt orphaned and that sanctuary felt like a sanctuary.

The music was inspired.  There was piano and a subtle trumpet.  A  powerful singer sang a solo.  People moved in time with the music and I was so glad I could too.  The message was not about humanity, but about Ophelia’s communion with divinity.  The final song was “I’ll fly away” delivered with the power of a rock anthem.  I entered the church crying.  I left the church smiling, my heart having flown away with her.

A man sitting on the end of a pew reached out to me and handed me this picture he had made of Ophelia.  It was so perfect.  Ophelia and her strong mind, her huge heart, and her sassy ways, with the pair of wings that had always been invisible, suddenly visible.  And behind her those clouds– just like I figured.

 

Reentry

I  just woke up in my own bed for the first time in a month . Yesterday morning, up at 3 a.m., I drove through the French countryside, village after village, on the slowest route I could find to the airport. The spectacular full moon hovered all the way.  I noticed a while back that if I drove in the country with my windows down I could hear cricket sounds the whole time.

This morning in North Carolina, I drove to the grocery near dawn so I could have milk for my coffee.  Over and over I have forgotten I’m not driving a manual transmission, romping the brake like it might be the clutch.  My Honda seems so doleful  after the fun of rolling over hills in a  peppy little rented five speed.  Leaving the grocery store, I  saw a clerk arriving for work. Without thinking, I lapsed into appropriate behavior for France, where one never encounters anyone in public without acknowledging them with a greeting.  “Good morning” I said.    She smiled, I think with a little touch of surprise, and said the same to me.

In the night I woke up  and the moonlight filtering through the trees cast patches of glow on the floor and walls, and half asleep, it registered on me as beautiful– as the moonlight I’d left.

The yard is green from the rains I missed.  The roses  are in full bloom from the fertilizer I said goodybye with.  Today there’s the gentle cloudy light that comes before a rain.

I walked over to Grier and Kim’s farm to say hello, and they gave me a dozen eggs from their hens, and sent me to pick all the fresh asparagus I wanted from their beds, just  like an early  morning trip to a French farmer’s market.

All morning there have been a brood of wild turkeys grazing in the pasture, right under my nose. And I set the fountains to bubbling next to the outdoor table.  It’s every bit as magical as the view I left behind.

 

Among the piles of bills and letters I came home to, there was a postcard from a dear friend.  It said “She dreams in perfect French”.  I do, sometimes, when I’m around it all day, but it is far from perfect.  Sometimes it’s just a voice speaking nonsense sounds that echo the intonations and rhythms of French speech.  Sometimes it is the odd word or phrase, for no particular reason, like an echo in my dreams, ringing over and over in a kind of random rhythm.

It was a rough ride home, hauling six new paintings, and all my tools and the treasures I found, down concourses, across parking lots, through long lines.  But the actual soul transition  from countryside paradise to countryside paradise is not so radical.  In both places there are thorns attached to every single rose.  In both places there’s  beauty enough to break your heart.

 

Spring Planting

A week from today I’ll be trapped in the airless confines of multiple airports and planes working my long slow way back home. I’m feeling the things one feels at the conclusion of a residency, the end of a journey. I noticed, at other less exotic residencies, how the artists bond, share their stories, thrash through opinions about art, and ideas about the making of it. As the door begins to close on that magic space, it seems one first withdraws emotionally, then physically. There’s a hole in the shape of that person when they are gone. It’s as painful for the people who stay behind as it is for the person leaving.

 

I’ve started the process of withdrawal early to protect my soul a little. I’m organizing my piles of receipts, cramming in a few last destinations, and spending 14 hour days in the studio. Finally the painting is flying. After a halting awkward beginning wrapped in jet lag and mental fog I’m deep in. I knew I didn’t want to paint Quaint France. France is so mellowed out and smoothed over with thousands of years of habitation, so developed in its way of being. I was looking for something wild— “sauvage”— underneath all the culture I so love to photograph and study. It’s finally coming clear to me. The last paintings are the best paintings. They revolve around botany— quirky juxtapositions nature allows for here, and maybe only here.

In college I signed up for Botany just because I was obsessed with botanical illustration. I nearly flunked Botany, but I got to stare at the illustrations for a whole semester. Part of what I loved was their dispassionate precision. Sometimes it’s enough to just tell the truth about a thing, truth being stranger than fiction.

 

These days there’s a certain amount of guilt in my thoughts— anxiety about the things I didn’t go see, the museums I skipped. Instead I find myself returning over and over to the supermarket, like a kind of tiny personal ritual. For me, it’s become a microcosm of middle class French daily life.

I like to see what the “specials” are, what is considered ordinary in the life of these people—la vie quotidienne.

I like to observe behaviors . Yesterday a woman insisted I go ahead of her in line at the checkout. It sparked a tiny conversation and a moment of goodwill that I treasured.

Often, after a long day of moving a paintbrush, I will travel many kilometers on the country roads above the village. It’s fun to drive my tiny car. There’s no traffic and I get to see the swell and sinking of the land, the perfection of the spring plowing, the tidiness of the farmhouses and the occasional astonishing ancient church or ruin.

And there is the botany. I have watched those fields first being plowed, then harrowed, and now they have begun to sprout.

A new friend stopped by for a studio visit yesterday. We were talking about how an artist’s work changes over time. How it’s hard to pin it down because it’s always in flux. He told me he’d gone to hear a famous jazz group from the 60’s perform in the 80’s. They’d played the same way and the same things they’d played 20 years before. It was just as he expected it to be. Then, he went to hear Miles Davis play. He said Miles stood with his back to the audience and launched into a barrage of audacious improvisation that was very difficult to take in. He told me how that was, to him, the perfect way to understand the mental wanderings and growth of an artist. I agreed, explaining that sometimes I am doing things I’m not sophisticated enough to understand, and it takes me a stretch of time to wrap my mind around my own ideas. The most uncomfortable, detested paintings are often the fields where the seeds of newness are just beginning to sprout.

Visiting the Deep Past

Finally, I have managed to shrug off the strangeness. I have found a level of ease with everything from starting a new painting to driving a different car. Yesterday I explored outside my circle of familiarity, traveling to a village about 10 km away to see a storied chapel, and really, to visit another time altogether. We drove on looping rhythmical roads over gentle hills, surrounded by nothing but agriculture.

Lachapelle was the destination, with only about 100 inhabitants. Its centerpiece is a thousand year old chateau Templar. Beside it sits a tiny Baroque chapel built in the 18th century, inspired by an Italian opera house. Its sponsor hired an ébaniste who spent many years creating the tiny church adorned with panels and pilasters, gilded and faux marbled.

There were large panels depicting scenes from the Bible and an enormous lecturn with carved eagles to hold the huge communal hymnal.

 

There was a guide who spoke only French, so I struggled to understand the complicated history of this jewel-like chapel. Women and children were seated on the ground floor in those days, and there were diminutive provincial rush-seat chairs that converted to kneelers for each of them. Some had initials from the original supplicants written with brass nail heads.

Men stood in the balcony. There was a stark difference between the high style of the chapel itself, and the beamed and rustic balconies in the rear.

Our visit was initiated by friends of Moulin à Nef, who live nearby. They are also friends of the current maître of the chateau.  He appeared in the church during our visit, and invited us to see the oldest part of his chateau.

The word “chateau” is French for “castle” and in most cases, in ancient times, that meant a fortified position on top of a hill where one could be protected from invasion. Vincent’s chateau surveys all the countryside for miles around. Because the land below is so valuable for agriculture, there are no intrusions from commerce or infrastructure. Just curving roads among hundreds of fields in cultivation, a few old trees, some tile roofed farm structures, and the sky. The one utility line is strung between weathered and knotted grey tree trunk poles with no particular attempt at uniformity.

It was a fine spring day and the village was spangled with blooming roses, irises and wisteria. The magic of it all was feeling as though we were having the same experience one might have had in that same place a thousand years ago.

The chateau’s owner, a retired pilot, explained to us that he’d persuaded his wife to allow him to chip away at an area of the wall in the entrance hall because he thought there might be something interesting in back of it. He, in fact, uncovered a thousand year old massive fireplace. He opened up another wall and discovered a kind of ancient sink where vegetables might have been washed— a stone basin that drained through a hole in the wall to the outside.

He showed us a favorite antique find— an elaborate turntable he’d found in Brittany, asking us what we thought it might have been intended for. Elaborate and polychromed, there was a group of cherubs carved into its ceiling. He explained that it had been installed in the outer wall of a convent, with a bell alongside it. If a woman gave birth to a child out of wedlock the penalty would have been death. It was designed so a woman might have rung the bell, placed the infant inside under the watchful eyes of the carved and painted cherubs, and then turned it, delivering her baby to the nuns within, the woman being neither seen nor recognized.

We ended our day on the terrace of our friends’ remodeled farmhouse. A large and rambling structure, their home was built long ago to fit its environment and serve practical purposes. It is now the warm place where they gather friends and family together. Besides the excellent company, amazing food, the view of miles and miles of farmland, and a stunning sunset, I was most captivated by the exposed ages-old beams and their irregular and quirky arrangement.

They were like large abstract sculptures coming out of the ceiling. When gaps developed, someone hundreds of years ago had created a patch to reconnect the beam to its load.

It reminded me, exactly, of the ways Charles had patched the beams in my own barn. It seems as though a carpenter’s practical wisdom is timeless and universal, passed in some mute fashion across continents, from century to century.

Wood Smoke and Roses

 

Twice today I had to climb the steep hill up into the village to the little grocery.  It was my night to cook supper.   At lunchtime I went up to finish my shopping, and then, when I poured my first glass of rosé at 5:00 and started cooking, I realized I had no butter, so I had to walk back.  The distance from our kitchen to the grocery store is the same as the distance from my kitchen back home to the backside of my farm.  Round trip, one mile.  The big difference is that hill.

 

On both trips I admired the flowers blooming everywhere.  There were parrot tulips in one garden, wisteria cascading over a doorway.  Another garden had flesh and fire colored roses. There was a shrub with thousands of bright blue blossoms, and a lilac bush in full glory.  On the five o’clock trip there was smoke rising from chimneys as the chill of evening descended.  All week the tiny airborne seeds of some plant have filled the afternoon air, lit by the slanting light.  They are everywhere.  At first I thought they were dandelion seeds, but on examination realized they were something fuzzier and more cotton-like.  When you look up at the sky, they are always there, like ethereal sprites flying around, looking for some new place to light.

 

At the grocery, the brothers who are cashiers speak impeccable idiomatic English, but I speak French to them, and ask them to correct me.  When I am corrected, I am more likely to learn the right expression.  My French teachers are so good– they know how to make it really clear.  They pantomime the meanings of words for me so they become unforgettable.  The woman at the art supply store demonstrated that the word  “terminé” as we used it, meant to be dead, not ” finished”, by showing her head being severed  by an imaginary knife.  Gesturing graphically at her body, she explained uses of the verb “to be”.  My grocery store teachers showed me,  pantomiming sleep, that I shouldn’t cook dinner in the “nuit”(night).  I needed to cook it in the “soir” (evening) instead.

The ingredients for dinner were amazing.  I roasted a gigantic yellow skinned hen, along with its innards, covering them all with fresh herbs.  From the jus I made a gravy like my grandmother used to make, with bits of hardboiled egg, celery, and the gizzard, heart and liver chopped fine.  The gravy went over whipped potatoes flavored with scallions and morels.  There was sauteed celeriac and a green salad.  For dessert I made an Alsatian bread pudding using apples and pears and my stale hazelnut bread.  And it all started with a duck paté and a rosé, and finished with several really fine bottles of Bordeaux.

Last Sunday I went to Easter mass at the Gothic cathedral in the nearest town.  All the text was printed in a program and because I knew the liturgy in English it was easy to understand the French.  Driving to mass, we passed a horde of Boy Scouts, returning from a campout, with backpacks and sleeping rolls on their backs.  By the time we got seated in church, they began to reappear as altar boys and congregants.  I loved the kind of gangly, familiar way they handled the candles and censers. A large group of them took seats all together beside us.  I’m not Catholic, so the chilly holy water being freely slung by the priest came as a tiny shock. Incense filled the air. I stood under the ancient vaults and absorbed it all as something intensely French, part of a long tradition of the spirit.

Moulin à Nef is on the Pilgrim Trail to Santiago de Compostela.  Every day pilgrims walk by our windows, or rest in the park between the studio and the river.  They walk, as those Boy Scouts walked, toward some spiritual destination.   They walk, as I walk up that long hard hill to the grocery, to learn some hitherto unknown thing, to fill in some missing piece, drinking in, along the way,  France, her roses and wood smoke.

 

The Big Barn

It is time to turn my attention to my 1949 barn or watch it crumble to dust. I’m starting with a new roof. The last one was installed 67 years ago. It doesn’t leak yet, but, it soon will, and I have an itch to set things right.

The barn has called me down into the pasture many times in the last few weeks. There was junk to be discarded and damage to be assessed. I drove five truckloads to the recycling center, and uncovered some buried treasure… well, my idea of buried treasure: a door to replace an ill-fitting one in my house, rescued by my dad in the 60’s from a home being torn down in Myers Park. I tried to move it. It must weigh 100 pounds. Above it, in the loft, are the parts of a grand staircase he also retrieved, its ornate bits and pieces curled up in a corner. Someday I’m certain I will find the perfect place to use it.

There’s my great-grandfather’s farm wagon to dodge. Lumber rescued from around the farm lies racked up on the sides of the barn, some of the boards very old, from trees cut manually with a two man cross cut saw and then milled here on the farm. The loose knit loft floor is pine boards, most of them over a foot in width. Old handmade ladder back chairs hang from ledges, and bits of straw and dust get stirred up with every step. There’s an octagonal oak hardware bin in the loft that used to be a working member of the general store. It held thousands of bolts and screws so nearby farmers could find that odd bit they needed. All that mingles and communes with saddles, a watering trough and other reminders that animals once lived here.

Charles is a builder of barns and everything else besides. We are old friends and while he is still in the barn business I want his to be the hands that set my barn right. Charles knows barns. He spent all his younger years being a champion bronc rider, and now, in his middle years he looks unchanged and moves around the roof like a young man, tirelessly, day after day, with relentless energy. Charles could convince me that some things don’t change.

I paint in the studio at the top of the hill while the men remove the rusted tin from the barn roof and store it for another project. A brilliant shiny new shell takes its place. The barn sits deep in the bowl of the pasture. When I step down to speak to the men, I feel the change in altitude in the air and the sounds shift from highway noise to thousands of frogs croaking in the little wetland below. The March light is bright without leaves on the trees to soften it, and it’s immersive— the light, the frog calls, the damper, cooler air. The late afternoon light comes through the stripped rafters and casts a mesh of shadow pattern.

Any day that sets something right in a sacred place is a good day. Any day that ends in the pasture with the sun raking through the trees ends right. I add this day to my large and growing collection of very fine days.

The Bradford Store

For ten years I have lived my idea of a fairy tale existence. It ignored the obvious— the world spinning by at 60 miles an hour, and focused instead on life turned inward on our family farm. The Farm is a term that can refer to my old homestead, or to the working farm and home that belongs to my brother and sister-in-law, Grier and Kim, or to the historic totality.

Our little compound is bisected by a busy highway that was a dirt road before the Depression. As most of the farmland around us has been ceded to other uses, The Farm has become, every year, a greater anomaly. I loved, always, that we ignored the obvious.

Ten years ago, Kim and Grier had the Bradford Store moved off its original foundation, back onto higher ground in the middle of a field and turned their hobby of growing massive vegetable gardens into a business.

The old counters were freshly painted, the ancient floor cleaned and polished, the wood stove put back into commission and the Bradford Store started the business of dispensing love and good food, in that order.

Some businesses really do run on love. It could be a hot dog stand or a repair shop or, in this case, a local foods store, with the common thread that all decisions flow through a filter of love. The driving force is not profit—instead everything every day is done in the name of love of one’s fellow man. And that’s how it was with the Bradford Store.

My witty former husband coined a southern phrase we all use with regularity about all enterprises— “can’t nuthin be easy”. It’s not a question. It’s a statement. Even if it looks as easy as falling off a log, it will not be. And the Bradford Store, standing tall in a vast garden of flowers, pouring love into every transaction, selling the very best food the earth has to offer was, behind the scenes, a tough job. Kim worked six days a week for ten years, and often checked in on the seventh day. Every year nature provided a new pestilence to make harvesting crops difficult to impossible. It could be hail, a late frost, or a deadening drought that lasted the whole summer. They endured them all.

Meanwhile I was one of the many beneficiaries. Kim and Grier’s love and hard work showed up on my table day after day. I could step across the road and find food that had been growing 15 minutes earlier, take it home and shock myself with the intensity of my own dinner. Kim, the brilliant cook and food curator, taught me more about food in ten years than I had learned in the previous fifty. The milk she drove four hours a week to bring to the store literally had the flavor of sweet pasture grass. The eggs came in a dozen colors and have spoiled me for anything less.

Kelly, Kim’s right hand, brought in fresh made breads daily from her farm. The corn meal came from a historic grist mill. And when combined—these ingredients from other businesses that were also run on love— the result was food nirvana.

Kim surrounded the store with acres of flowers, the soil so rich some grew as tall as me. My mama, in the early years, living at The Pines retirement community, would come out, sit on the store’s front porch and create unique fresh flower arrangements, sold in Mason jars. She loved working with flowers, and the store and Kim and Grier, were her lifeline to the larger community, to family, to companionship. My son Stewart had the privilege of working at the store as a teenager and came away with many important life lessons in horticulture, customer service, salesmanship and hard work as did many other local teenagers.

When I was a little girl, my grandfather operated the Bradford Store. It ran on love when he was alive too. It served as a kind of community center for neighboring farmers.

The store was home to one of the few telephones in the community. A family friend told us how she would come to the store to talk to her fiancé who was off serving in WWII. Papa had a roll top desk full of receipts and ledgers listing items sold on credit. He also had a “pet” blacksnake that lived under the store to keep it pest-free. When holes in the old floors appeared he would patch them with a piece of advertising tin.

On the front of the building my dad, as a boy, painted the words “Free Air” beside the pump for filling tires. When I was young that always cracked me up, because, back then, air was always free. The ground outside the store was literally paved with multicolored bottle caps from sodas, and a life-size cardboard Santa drinking a Coke was the primary Christmas decoration. There was a bench out front where Papa would sit at day’s end, the sun setting behind the store.  And on one afternoon, back in the 30’s, my great-grandfather Will, the store’s founder, died peacefully inside its walls while reading Zane Grey.

Kim and Grier, from love, knowledge, courage, imagination and boundless enthusiasm, have built something that will always live in memory for hundreds if not thousands of people. I think of all the little children I have seen come in the store, or sit on the porch with an ice cream, and wonder if their memories will be as sweet as mine are— if 50 years from now they’ll talk about what it was like.

Seeing this era come to a close makes me so glad for my tired family who have given so much to so many. And glad for the thousand images in my head of bounty and beauty, kindness and community that came from running on love.

 

 

The Mattress

 

mattress-1

Four months ago I set out to clear my house of clutter. For forty years I have lived in the same place, with barns and chicken coops and rooms aplenty for collecting stuff, so this is no mean task. My sage son Gordon suggested I start with duplicates.

As I gathered up my duplicates/triplicates/quadruplicates I began to see myself and my fears and sadness, cloaked in crazy, from some distance. I had three garlic presses, two blenders, three rasps, four sewing machines, two coffee grinders, four curling irons, five wire whisks, seven t-squares, and three rabbit puppets for starters. Against some projected future shortage I was holding onto dozens of sheets and blankets. I had an addiction to containers for storing things. Lots of them were empty and taking up space in the dusty and cluttered attic. Every time I opened the broom closet two or three of my six yardsticks would tumble out onto the floor.

 

 

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A lover of history, I’d become the repository for lots of artifacts from our family’s past. There was a totally unorthodox baroque clock in the attic that my father, the GI, had “liberated” from a bombed-out German apartment building at the end of WWII. In my father’s eyes, the clock was magnificent, but it was actually a crazy pastiche of little portraits painted on porcelain sandwiched between furbelows of brass. It was an object that was hard to love. But it spoke of a moment in time— the end of a horrible war and my dad as a very young man. It conjured up the image of a devastated country. It no longer works as a clock. But it serves as a link to 1945 and my father, and his quirky idea of what was desirable.

 

 

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There was an afghan in the attic made by my maternal great-grandmother, Granny Gordon. She knitted and crocheted miles and miles of yarn and thread into useful household objects, but this afghan is probably the ugliest thing she ever made. Chocolate brown, grass green and pale yellow, no one has ever used it or displayed it, but I have stored it since I first became its guardian. It has lived in a cedar chest in the attic where it has not seen the light of day for 40 years.

 

 

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I rediscovered a box of textbooks and notebooks owned by my great uncles and my grandfather, from the early 20th century. They grew up in this house sharing the upstairs bedrooms. Two of them went off to medical school and the attic holds their chemistry notes and their drawings of microorganisms. Two of them studied agriculture and I have their drawings of plants. One studied business, and the only daughter studied to be a teacher.  I’ve come to know them by examining their notes, their handwriting, the things they studied. My grandpa, Hurd Bradford, Sr. served in the Navy in WWI and there were homesick letters to his mother in a tin box. There was a naval uniform that belonged to my father-in-law, an intrepid submariner in WWII, and a painting by a great aunt who studied art in New York around the turn of the century, technically proficient but lacking any sense of the life she lived, and riddled with holes.

 

 

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My mother, always a respecter of history and the bearer of many family tales, years ago handed off a goose feather mattress made by my paternal great-grandmother, Mattie Dora Worsley Staton. Grandmother Staton, as we called her, had raised the geese, killed the geese, plucked the geese and sewn this mattress. And it lay in my attic for 40 years. Mama and I both respected the hard work it had taken to make this mattress. Among my papers there is the last will and testament of another ancestor who bequeathed her feather mattress to one of her children as if it might have been a house or a car. It was, in its time, an object of great value. I asked my son, my clearing mentor, what to do with this mattress. His response was “let me think about that one”.

I told the story of the mattress to my dear friend Suzy, who also loves history and collecting, and she set me free, assuring me that the mattress was by now alive with mites and other invisible creepy things. That was all I needed to bag it up and haul it away. She suggested that I take a scrap of the ticking that contained it, and save it as a memento. I decided instead to remember Grandmother Staton by saving the mattress in prose—in digital format.

The attic holds so many stories I will never have time enough to tell them all to my sons. On some day in the future I imagine them up there, sneezing, cursing and tossing. They are, to a man, minimalists. I am, as they say, a maximalist. Never have I felt my role so powerfully as connector between the world as it has been for generations and the world as it now suddenly is. I write to lock some of it down.

Slowly, open spaces are appearing. I have driven truckloads to the dump, and station wagon loads to the Habitat store. Every week on pick-up day, my trash can is full. Freeing myself from attending hundreds of objects is a thrill. I revisit each thing. I decide what will happen to it in the Digital Age and if it’s worthy I find it a new and awkward home, or I write to lock it down.