Saturday, September 19, 2009

What he left behind

If you are returning to my blog after my summer hiatus, thank you for coming back! I couldn't seem to handle writing these posts while also clearing out our little farm to ready it for the real estate market. Some periods of my life require so much energy that I must defer the recording of them for later. Leaving this farm was one of them.

It's hard to believe: when Marty turned 20 this summer I completed my goal of raising my sons to adulthood here at this farm Ron had chosen. I am free to move on, to choose a home for the first time in my life, and Dave and I are free to finally make a home together. This place hasn't suited our lifestyle for some time. It's for riding horses and animal romping and playing outside. But our barn has stood empty and cobwebbed for more than 10 years. Of all the chickens and goats and ponies and horses and cats and dogs, the last of our many animals--my cockapoo Max--died almost three years ago, and most of my day is now spent in front of a computer or a manuscript. I am ready to leave.

That didn't mean the farm was ready for us to leave it, though. This summer Dave and I and several stalwart family helpers cleared its most neglected recesses of 12 tons of junk. Most of this came from six outbuildings, one of which is a cavernous Pennsylvania bank barn that can hold a sinful amount of crap. We hoisted and we carried and we swept and we blistered and at the end of each day we tore respirators black with dirt from our sweaty faces and we didn't stop until we'd filled a 12-yard dumpster. Then another. Then another. Then another.

Leaving this farm turned into an extreme sport and my actions tell the tale: I'm ready to start the next chapter of my life in a new setting. But it would seem I had one more character study to complete first. Because this summer, going through the detritus that had accumulated in the house and outbuildings, I think I got to know Ron a little better through what he left behind.

What Ron left behind
1. Scraps of wood. I finally got it, this summer. Ron loved to work with his hands as much as I love to write, and he felt about wood scraps the way I feel about books: you'd better keep a lot on hand just in case you'll ever need them again. We cleared out room after room piled high with scrap lumber, saving only a few piles of respectable looking oak planks to give away to friends. (I was almost as hard on my own collection: I gave away eight boxes of books to the library for its fundraising sale.)

2. Well organized bric-a-brac. Part of what fed Ron's sense of material wealth was amassing metal and wood shelving filled with hand-labeled boxes and jars holding everything from clips and U-bolts to old door hinges and plumbing supplies. I think he would have been happy owning a hardware store, because that's what several of our outbuildings look like. The man had inventory.

3. Receipts. Ron was not much of a writer so I was surprised to come upon a box chock full of notes he had stashed in one of the barn's storage rooms. The money fixation that eventually devoured him was foreshadowed in a painstaking accounting he'd kept of which bartenders made what tips on what dates, and how this was all divided. I'm sure the IRS would have loved to see those documents 20 years ago. Oops--they'll have to landfill dive to find them now.

4. Booze. I was long aware of Ron's practice of washing out glass orange juice containers and bringing home booze leftover from the weddings he worked. This was all part of the trademark frugality he'd use to justify the extravagances he couldn't afford. I had given away so much booze after his death I guess I just didn't realize how much was still out there. About three dozen half-gallon bottles. All labeled, of course: scotch, gin, vodka, Benedictine, even grossly separated and rank smelling Bailey's Irish Cream. No whiskey, since that's what he drank. Some of the tops were corroded right through. I didn't know if it would be good for our septic system to put it all down the sink, so for lack of a better idea, I poured them all onto the driveway stones on a hot day and let the liquid evaporate. I'm pretty sure that any bird that caught a whiff of it--perhaps even God--caught a buzz that day.

5. A legacy of love. While our house hasn't yet found its next perfect occupant, we have gotten wonderful feedback from the people who've come to see it. My favorite: "It was a joy to show this property. The owners must have loved their home." I take my share of the credit, as my hands transformed each of the house's surfaces. But Ron was the crew leader, the one with the know-how back in the days before online tutorials. We were a good team when it came to the renovation, and I hope he knows what a great job he did. This farm will offer someone new just as wonderful a place to house their horses and raise a family as it did me. If you'd like to take a look at the fruit of our labors, click here.

6. A dream. I truly feel the weight of this, now. When Ron died he left behind his dream of raising his family on the farm we'd renovated--he killed himself just ten months after the final room was complete, when the boys were just 8 and 10. Of course his dream didn't die with him. I was still here to live it.

7. A hell of a mess. From the early biohazard cleanup to the financial and emotional and psychic cleanup to the final wood scrap dumping, we have been cleaning up after Ron for 12 years.

8. Which leaves for last the most obvious answer as to what Ron left behind: Jackson, Marty, and me.

With a nod to my friend and energetic blogger Jon Gibbs, I'll end with a question: after you are gone, what will people learn about you from what you left behind? Feel free to leave a comment. I'd love to hear your answers.


Jerry Waxler said...

It's a great writing prompt, but instead of following it along a straight line, I took a bounce and thought of a different one. Your article made me think of the stuff in my parents' apartment after the second one died. A lifetime of stuff. They kept unloading later in life so it was down to a small storage closet and the things they hung on walls and sitting on surfaces. Some photos of them when they were just slightly older than kids (darn, it was before my memoir obsession so I didn't get enough time to peer into their past) and other tchotchky (sp?) stuff from vacations. And the writing prompt goes on to other people I had to clean up after. Oh, and what about all the stuff we all find when we're getting ready to move. Thanks for the spur. (Speaking of spurs, I wonder if that saddle that's been in my basement for years will still be there when I die?)

Memory Writers Network

Kathryn Craft said...

You're right, Jerry, it does work as a writing prompt. We are always thinking of how to "describe" people when evidence of who they are is all around them, capable of bringing them to life in a much more vivid way. Is it more important that the protagonist had medium length brown hair that was kissed by the sun, or that he kept a collection of baby dolls locked in a trunk? Thanks for your comment!

jongibbs said...

A moving and thought provoking post!

Thanks for sharing.

As for your end question, I'll just be glad if someone notices I'm gone :)

barbaracuster said...

When I leave, I will be leaving behind a huge balloon farm, for a huge balloon tree grows in my living room. That and filled bookcases, and works in progress by myself and various authors, and a few religious items as well.

If you would like to get to know some well without interviewing or asking questions, simply go through the items they leave behind - they tell a lot.

Anonymous said...

Very insightful, Kathryn. You may want to check out the blogs of my friend Sandi at She is posting as a way of healing and helping other widows heal.

You found Dave, which is terrific...Sandi is only in her 40s and still struggling with her young kids' needs-- and her own (for a life partner).

As for piles of material objects and what they tell us, I empathize there as well. I'm married to a packrat myself, and our kids are grown and it is time to face the stuff.

Thanks for linking me to this piece!

Al Sirois said...

Thanks for the moving and insightful post, Kathryn. I do sometimes think of legacy... but lord knows what anyone will think of the collection of stuff I'll be leaving behind. Cartoons and drawings dating back to my teens... a bunch of oil paintings... a pile of publications, many of them comic books or obscure science fiction magazines... a bunch of tapes/CDs/DVDs of bands I've been in since my teens... lots of LPs and CDs and books... an assortment of art supplies and musical instruments... I guess people will think I was creative and had so many interests I couldn't keep up with them all. This would be pretty accurate.

Kathryn Craft said...

Thanks Jon. And of course we'll miss you when you're gone! I've only met you twice at The Write Stuff conference and it already wouldn't be the same without you!

Kathryn Craft said...

Glad you are a writer too, cuz those stories sound more durable than balloons! I'm hoping to leave a few books with my name on the spine as well.

Kathryn Craft said...

Al: Love the last two lines of your post. It's a poignant conclusion.

Anonymous said...

I've been giving your question thought, Kathryn. What will I leave behind? A closetful of medieval styled clothes, various jewelry that jingle and ring, knicknacks and pictures of fairies...lots of fairies, a laptop of stories. And then someone will dig deep in the closet and find several boxes filled to capacity with folders, cards, poems, all little pieces to my past.

A birthday card from my 2nd birthday from my uncle who was murdered. A book from my grandmother with an inscription in the front. A card from my first crush. Report cards from both myself and my kids. Pictures I drew when I was little of houses with shuttered windows and tiny doors. Pages and pages of poems some hinting towards hope and many more dark and desperate. One permission card I received from a very dear friend stating that I had everything on the inside I needed to do all that I could imagine. Notes folded in the perculiar "in" way highschoolers adhere to and written in a written language I made up. Love letters. Worn and faded short stories of Buggs the Wizard and Galadriel. Angsty diaires from my teenage years. The first card I gave my daughter with ballarina slippers on the front. Letters I wrote my firstborn when I was pregnant.

There are times that I dig out the boxes and slowly go through them. Physical cues for memory lane. I don't know if these will be unceremonously tipped into the trashheap when the time comes and I depart this world or if someone will go through them like mini passports to another life. And I suppose when the time comes, I won't care.

I hope what I do leave behind are basic corny, sappy things that most of us leave behind better than I got here. I'd like to have provided light in the dark, a shoulder in distress, pom-poms in fear, and a huge smile in success.

Tammy Burke

Amy Kirk said...

Kathryn, I'm so glad to see you writing again. I really enjoyed this entry as usual.

What I hope to leave behind is a long line of healthy and healed people who I have taught yoga to. :)