Writing about my friend moving to an assisted living place from a lovely condo, and how she had sorted through years of belongings and how I need to get started on letting go of stuff, in the very least getting rid of the junk, and notebooks full of emails, reminded me that I hadn’t posted this essay from last year, when I was trying to figure out how to send a family heirloom back into the family. It was an original picture of a ship my great great grandfather captained. Years ago my grandmother said there was a museum with Captain LeGallez’ artifacts in the Isle of Guernsey but I’ve not been able to find it via the internet. If it’s the same Charlotte in Wikipedia, it has a very storied past, starting out shipping prisoners to Botany Bay, then discovering some Pacific Islands and then sinking off the coast of Newfoundland. Oh and it was featured in the same film as Nicholas Cage’s National Treasure. By God’s grace, my cousin called and said he wanted to visit. It was an answer to prayer I hadn’t exactly prayed. Thank goodness John came by car because I had things to give him.
Here’s what I wrote for WNIJ:
The last time I saw Clayton, my brother, alive, I took the tin horn, a relic from the anti rent wars in upstate New York, a rebellion against indentured servitude, but feeling guilty, I returned it before we left for Belvidere. His widow said he blew it so that it echoed along the Normanskill valley. Our parents blew it to call us home from the next valley over.
The day of his funeral, I signed off my rights to Clayton’s will, as soon as I stepped out of the limo, to be kind to his grieving widow, but later we argued over my parents’ things. My lawyer said, “Drop the fight over antiques. They are not yours or hers. I collect Civil War stuff. As I age, I see they’ll be here after I’m gone.” Later, Clayton’s widow gave me the tin horn, a broken table, my mother’s porcelain doll.
When John visited after twenty years of silence, he admired the tin horn. “Take it,” I said. “You’ll appreciate it more than me.” My lawyer was right, we’re mere custodians. It was time to pass it along.
I’m Katie Andraski. This is my perspective. If you’d like to hear me read this, click here
Here’s a poem that fleshes this out a little more with some repetition.
THE TIN HORN
The last supper I spent with my brother
I confessed I took the tin horn.
I found it shoved in the attic
along with my father’s books stacked,
not boxed, good stuff put up in haste
as if in anger. Why should he miss it?
But it was the rolled tin, Anti-Renters
blew to warn their neighbors the Sheriff
was hiking up the mountain to claim
their land. My brother puffed up.
It snowed. He said he forgot about the horn.
He could not sweep the windshield clean
until wind blew snow off as we drove.
My conscience and a man slamming a woman
next door at the hotel kept me awake.
I gave back the antique the next day
saying it’s over, these fights over stuff.
You can have this house so full it’s cluttered,
but please box the books to keep mice out.
When my brother’s widow asked if I would sign off
the will, she said he blew that horn the day
after we’d left, the Normans Kill echoing.
I know, I’ve been called home from the flat
hearing it blown. I told her yes, I’ll sign.
The lawyer waiting with papers dropping my right
to my brother’s will, met me at the car
from my brother’s committal, before I got
to the bathroom and something to eat.
My Aunt had arranged for the church notary
to bring her stamp. My Aunt said she’d trust
the lawyer with her life. He told me all I
dropped were the bank account, two cars.
I signed off what was left of my family.
It was the closest I’ve come to lifting
off the ground higher than the barn roof.
Lest you think I’m some kind of saint, signing off my brother’s will that dreadful day, I’m not. I had no other choice and it felt like the right thing to do at the time. I hoped my brother’s widow would show grace later.
I’m one of those people who fought for my parents’ things—first with my brother and then with his widow. I hired three lawyers to try to get through to him. The last lawyer, a family friend, did the most good. He set up the mortgage so my brother could buy me out on my parents’ farm. (Thank goodness that we’d settled that before he died.)
After my brother died, I was told my families memorabilia were just things. Well, No. They. Are. Not. There is something sacramental about things our parents owned and loved and that we loved as children because they batten down our memories. They anchor us in “remember when”. When parents show their love by giving gifts these “just things” carry that love into the present, they can spark much needed tears. And they can deeply comfort us.
“Your brother thought you were stripping the house,” my cousin John said, putting those fights into a perspective I didn’t have. “But when I saw how little you’d taken, I scolded Clayton.” Oh. And I thought at the time, my family sided with him.
The first signature signing off the will, the day we buried my brother, was not enough. A paper arrived asking me to “disclaim, refuse to accept, any legacy, residue and remainder.” I thought I might have some leverage to ask for a few of my family’s things. When my brother and I settled our inheritance I only took a few things because I lived in an apartment. Our neighbor suggested we have an auction for the stuff left over, but I didn’t have the heart to fight Clayton. Even though the junk was valuable. She was right an auction would have saved later heart ache.
I asked my lawyer if I could refuse to sign, if I could challenge her, because I was under duress when I signed. He explained that New York law didn’t permit my brother to exclude her from the will. She’d have to receive a third of the estate. “You need to drop this fight over the antiques. I collect Civil War memorabilia. As I get older, I see they’ll be here after I’m gone. I’m just a custodian for the next people. Those antiques will be there after you’re gone, but you don’t own them. You don’t want to fight with a grieving widow. The Katie I know wouldn’t do that. You need to let go.”
I signed the papers and sent them back. That day I went to our safety deposit box and put on my mother’s engagement ring remembering she had lost her diamond, but after a good year with finances, my father bought her a solitaire. Tears stood in her eyes that Christmas. When I took that ring out of the box and slipped it on my finger, I felt their presence, my father’s and my mother’s love, drawing near, which has been rare. Here’s what I wrote: My father gave me her rings the night the undertaker pulled them off her finger. Awkward, afraid at first to accept them, I opened my hand.
She showed me how her wedding ring was carved with my father’s and her initials. She quoted the book of Ruth:”Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, and where thou lodgest I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, I will die, and there I will be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if anything but death part thee and me” (Ruth 1:16 – 17 KJV).
She told me to choose a man I’d want to be the father of my children. She told me never to show him how disappointed I am with his gifts. (Bruce will tell you that I have done just that with his early practical gifts. His very first Christmas presents, we were verbally engaged, were socks and a hat. His mother was more thoughtful when she gave me a beautiful sweat suit.)
My mother told me she cried in the bathroom when my father bought her luggage instead of a diamond. She told me about their fights, him slamming the car out the mile long road, but she did not tell me about the box with her courtship and wedding photos stuffed in a corner in the attic for my brother and me to find as we settled our parents’ estate.
A barb along my middle finger the diamond caught on shirt sleeves dragging my knuckle back. An ache crawled up my arm as if her pain bled onto the ring.
Barbs stuck my fingers, rose thorns when I pulled back wire, hooked it away from horses’ legs dancing to crossover into neighbor’s fields and good paths. Barbs twisted in wire, a gate into fields diving and soaring into hogbacks small enough to straddle, and valleys narrow as a tractor path, mere cow pastures that opened into an older, deeper time when my father walked my brother and me for Easter and Thanksgiving despite his injured knees. My father stood on the bottom strand, pulled up the middle, barbs pricking him so we could walk down to a stream rippling over slate.
My father showed us barbs sunk in a tree and two sink holes, ponds of mud where you could step and drown. Our feet sucked ankle deep before we pulled out.
Now I have the diamond, pure carbon the sign, that now I am the life left of their love, the child that sprang out of the intimate muck that jumped in a cramp (she’d told me) one afternoon after my mother reluctantly assented to love. Some of these sentences appeared in my novel The River Caught Sunlight.
For our twentieth anniversary, I reset it into a ring that I can wear out to the barn if I choose, with two Caribbean blue diamonds marking our anniversary and some of my mother’s other diamonds.
The picture near the beginning of this shows how John put the tin horn in a place of honor–on his wall, where he can enjoy it. I’d simply set it on a sled my parents gave me one Christmas while I was in grad school. That was the year my plane was diverted from Fayetteville to Memphis, where I roomed overnight with my dog’s veterinarian. The sled sat on the floor, and my dog stayed quietly in the room. The next day we flew to Fort Smith and had to be bused over the Ozarks into Fayetteville because the airport was not open. The bus driver wanted to stick my dog with the luggage under the bus. I don’t think so. I carried her in her crate to the back of the bus and rode home. Somehow I got the boxed sled, and my luggage and my dog back to my apartment. See how that sled calls up memories? It calls up my mother’s love in finding the sled and refinishing it. It calls up that rich adventure flying from Albany to Arkansas and those rich years studying poetry when my family was still alive.
I haven’t even told you about the anti rent wars and the ferocity of fighting for your land. But that’s another story for another day. Oh and John put that ship picture at the foot of his bed so when he wakes up he can look at his ancestor, his deep roots, or should I say that ship coursing through the blue water. And I am pleased he has these two memories to send along to his sons. My lawyer was right, we are just stewards.
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And here’s a picture of clouds scudding through an early morning sky.