October 2, 2012: Second day of my writer’s retreat.
Somedays, even on a writer’s retreat, we cannot write. We have to de-clutter. And for me, returning to this cabin, as noted in my earlier post, carries with it considerable emotional freight.
“De-clutter” and “freight”—it would seem the cabin is crammed full of painful memories. But nothing is further from the truth. Being here—touching the wooden logs my father carried, standing before the faded mirror that once held my mother’s reflection—brings me great comfort. I want to savor their presence.
The cabin hasn’t been lived in for years. My parents used to come here with some regularity, spending long weekends in the tiny one-room cabin my father built. Daddy would spend the day on maintenance, patching the roof, fixing clogged pipes, cutting up the trees that had fallen into the road. Mother would clean, sweeping away mice nests and scrubbing down the linoleum floor. After lunch, she’d clear away the dishes and then walk along the ridge to her own special spot beneath a stand of hemlocks. It was lush with ferns, soft with fallen leaves, and she would sit there for a spell treasuring the quiet until dinner preparations called her to the cabin. She’d meet Daddy on the path back. He would shower while she fixed their supper. And after the dishes were done, they would play Yahtzee or Backgammon under the anemic glow of the lone electric bulb.
The Yahtzee box is still here on the shelf Daddy built to hold all the issues of National Geographic they had collected over the years. “One day we’ll have time to read them cover to cover,” my mother told me. But that day never came. They never found the stillness. They came from a stock of people that only ever knew work. Moments of quietude were rare, stolen beneath a stand of hemlocks.
My father began to suffer from atrial fibrillation, making it difficult to clamber over the hillsides with his chainsaw. And before any of us were even aware of it, he began to slip into the embrace of Alzheimer’s Disease. He stopped telling jokes and refrained from entering debates with my older sister over esoteric points of philosophy. We thought he was just losing his hearing. He gave up on Scrabble. He still worked the crosswords, but they took longer and longer. Before we were aware, he was gone. Still there, in his chair, but somewhere else. Somewhere even further away than his Tennessee cabin. He had gone home to the hills of West Virginia. And then, after five years of being shunted from one nursing home to another, he left for good.
I pull the curtain back in the alcove where he and Mother kept their “cabin clothes.” Two pairs of his shirts are hanging there alongside his coveralls and a pair of double-knit trousers, nubby from wear. His clothes are old but laundered and pressed. Daddy was meticulous about his appearance. And Mother obliged him, even ironing the clothes he would wear in the mountains. I touch the sleeve of his flannel shirt remembering the times I saw him in the familiar plaid. I bring the sleeve to my nose and breathe in lightly hoping to find some trace of his scent. Don’t our clothes carry a glimmer of our souls just as the kimonos do in all those old novels? My father liked to splash his face with Old English aftershave. But all I smell on his flannel sleeve is an unpleasant mustiness.
I think about giving the clothes in the cupboard away. My parents taught us never to waste. But looking closer I see they are stained with mice droppings.
I grab a black garbage bag from under the sink and stuff the clothes in, hanger and all. Mother’s as well as Daddy’s. His old cloth cap, discolored at the brim. Her straw bonnet, half chewed through by mice. Everything. And then in the utility room I collect the oil cans—long empty—scraps of tarpaper, random nuts and bolts. Anything and everything that has no place, that no longer belongs, I toss into black garbage bags.
I move into the kitchen and pull the half-used bottles of ketchup and sauce off the shelf. No telling how long they’d been there. Jars of seasoning salt now rock solid with moisture, broken tea cups. (“Well, you can still drink out of them,” I could hear my mother complain), a mismatched collection of plastic forks. And on and on. One bag, two bags. I left the macramé wall hanging I had knotted for Mother in middle school and the misshaped vase my sister had made. I left the book of birds, the terracotta candlestick holder that said “Texas!” and the oil-paper umbrella from Japan. When I had collected almost more than I could carry, I tied up the bags and carried, dragged them down the mountainside to my car. I would need to find the garbage center.
When I return to the cabin, now de-cluttered, will I be able to set my laptop up on the kitchen table? Will I find the space to write? Whereas the clutter will be gone, I know the shards and remnants of my past will find their way into the story I will tell.