Thursday, July 28, 2011
I lift the lid to the dusty black trunk sitting in the middle of my living room floor and plunge my nervous hands deep into its guts: a couple bags of old birthday cards from friends, neatly arranged tax returns from my first few jobs in California, and an assortment of magazines that once inspired my young photographer eyes.
My hands dive again, searching but not finding. Over and over they come back to me empty.
A prickly rush of anxiety starts splintering through me and my heart starts pounding in desperation. I drop to my knees and start yanking everything out, wildly whipping it away. I’m going mad and the crazy builds and froths at the corners of my mouth. Stop! Think! Take a breath man! The voice in my head shouts, oddly, in a revving, Captain Kirk sort of way.
Near total melt down, I suddenly feel it. My hand pauses on its unmistakable form and I catch a breath. My fingers follow its flat and smooth surface to its edges. I slowly pull it up from the depths of the trunk and wake it from its long, dark slumber.
Instantly, I’m blinded by a flash of memories and in a second’s time I’m sucked back to a sunny day in the small town I was born. Walsenburg, oh Walsenburg! sings drearily through my head like the taste of a bad rock anthem the morning after a long night of cheap beer with college friends.
Affectionately called “The Burg” by most everyone I know, it’s a pit of a place. It may be home to some of my family still, and no offense to them, but it really is the snake’s pit of southern Colorado. It’s a fantastical easy place to find an empty barstool and get drunk. All day. Everyday. If that’s your thing.
In my memory I’m about three, maybe four, but definitely not five. My dad is walking with me and with a smile and a laugh, he’s just surprised me with a gift. He keeps his stride and I desperately try keeping up while unwrapping it, but he doesn’t slow and I’m afraid of getting left behind. Finally, my little hands free it and I take a quick pause on the sidewalk holding it up to the sun – oh what a marvel of a thing!
Shaped in oval and pressed thin like an ordinary ant farm I hold it in front of me like an imaginary steering wheel, first veering hard left then slowly pulling it back right. With each turn I watch as the two sands encased inside, blue and white, curl over each other like giant ocean waves rushing from one side of the world to the other. I imagine myself adrift in its beauty.
Thirty five year old memories like that are hard to come by. Most of the memories of my dad are not the kind I really want to remember, much less share on show-and-tell day at school. This was, however, one of those moments. I would’ve, given the chance, stood atop a stool, held my gift high above my head and matter-of-factly shouted out about it for all my classmates to hear. They would never forget that day.
I only remember ever receiving three gifts from my dad, and maybe that is the traditional number before you hit the age of five, but I’m suspect. Maybe I did receive more but just can’t remember? Not that it really matters anyway. I do know that the squirt guns were a good second to my “ocean in oval” and that the sorry crumpled bag of miscellaneous sized bullet casings was a dead last. I can still smell that dusty metallic stink.
My time with my dad was short lived and just about a year or so after getting my gift, my parents divorced. My mom and I were scooped up and rescued away to my aunt and uncle’s farm in Michigan. My ocean friend came along and in these unknowing times I leaned on it for comfort, as did it on me. There were times, however, when thoughts of my dad interrupted my day, and I would eye it from across the room with suspicion.
When years later my mom remarried and we headed west to the deserts of California, the ocean once again was in close tow. And in each move there-after, from our apartment to our first and then second house, from one elementary school to another, my ocean held on, although we seemed at times to be drifting apart, just as the memories of my childhood in Walsenburg were fading away.
Eventually, I morphed into a common disenfranchised teenager and decided the desert life was no longer for me so I
ran away moved back to the farm to live with my aunt and uncle. But this time my ocean did not follow, instead, staying behind packed away with the rest of my abandoned California life. I often thought about its safety away from me even though in my mind’s eye I could see where I had left it resting, hidden away and secure. But too often I worried my little sisters had found it, slathered it in lipstick, or baked it alive in their little pink hued toy oven.
In due time, I did move back to California and tried once more to accept the desert as my own, but as before, there was no connection. Luckily, at the age of twenty one, an opportunity emerged with my job at the time, so I packed up my 66 mustang and in the dead of a Montana winter, hauled myself here.
I packed everything I could into that car for my move, only leaving myself a small bubble of air for survival. City clothes, a girlfriend, a girlfirend’s city clothes, a worry rock my best friend Willy gave me on my way out of town, and my ocean.
If only I had left the girlfriend I could’ve brought my guitar.
With time the girl eventually did fall by the wayside as did the city clothes. And as I cooly adjusted to wranglers and flannels, my ocean was always there, supporting me. Or laughing at me.
It’s been nearly 20 years now since arriving in Big Sky Country, and in the early days, what I like to call as my own “homesteading years,” I must’ve moved around a dozen times, never quite sure of the whole roommate-gig-thing that seemed to be the norm here. In all those moves my ocean has been close by. I have always known its precise location, whether packed in the high part of a closet or tucked away in a box under my bed.
For the past seven or so years it has been safely tucked away in a backyard storage shed away from the elements of all those Montana seasons. I’ve known it’s location, as always, but hadn’t the need or want to retrieve it. It was safe and it was secure. As it slept away the seasons, year after year, life moved on. And eventually I moved away.
In a new home now and in a new part of town, I almost seemed to forget about my ocean. Too concentrated on a new life, I don’t think I thought of it once. But after a while, as I settled into my new norm I had more time to think, and I started to remember. And recently I found myself wanting it. For some reason I just needed it. With urgency. It had to be in my hands and soon.
The turning point I think was when I realized that soon I’ll be my dad’s age at the time of his death. Terribly too young. A result of his love of “The Burg” and it loving him.
As I sit here now, decades later, older and wiser, I’ve realized the importance of the ocean in my life and the importance of that memory of him. I miss my dad horribly but am somewhat comforted in the knowledge he missed me too.
Just days after his death, while going through the things he left behind, I found proof in a letter he had written me just months earlier but never sent. I stood in shock amidst the piles of his stuff when I realized I had also penned a letter to him during the same time, but never sent. If only I had sent mine first, he most surely would’ve replied! Knowing I missed this one chance has caused me an ache in the deepest part of my heart that will never leave me, ever.
In my closet I have some of my dad’s things: his drawings, his name plate from his military dress uniform, some patches, and of course the letter. The most important though, is what he gave me that one day many years ago. While my short time with my dad was a series of ups and downs, I do remember vividly that day in Walsenburg when he handed me my gift, my ocean, my world of wonderment. It has been the only reminder of him I’ve carried with me all these years. And this is why I panicked when I couldn’t find it. I thought that maybe I had done something dumb, not kept my eye on it closer and had lost it forever.
Now that we have been reconnected, I no longer keep it buried away or in the dark, but out where I can pause in my busy day, and just for a second, look over and remember to smile as if I’m standing in that Walsenburg sun holding it above my head one more time.