That Was Then

I prefer not to spend a lot of time hanging out in the past. Or rather, I tend to be very selective about it. On your first visit to my back yard, I will quite likely mention to you that the 50-foot-tall redwood tree was planted (from a sprout in a coffee can) by my sister when she was in Camp Fire Girls. If the tree were to die, on the other hand, or had to be cut down, I would be unlikely ever to talk about it, unless the subject of trees came up. Reminiscences are worth indulging in only if they connect to something that’s going on now — and preferably something marvelous, like a redwood tree.

The past is very large. The older I get, the more of it there is. And dwelling on it is depressing. A few bits are nice, and I like remembering them, but most of it, not so much. I don’t like remembering how young and vigorous I was, and I don’t like remembering all of the things I’ve screwed up in my life. It’s much nicer to just accept the past, shrug it off, and concentrate on whatever I’m doing now.

I still have a few boxes to go through of stuff that my mother left. I’m finding programs of school plays I was in in high school, of concerts that I played in youth orchestras in the 1960s. I found an essay I wrote for a college application. What I mostly remember from that period is how lonely and confused I was. Those emotions swirl around the memorabilia and make me want to toss everything out.

That’s probably what I’ll do. Since I don’t have any kids, none of it will ever be of interest to anybody but me. And I don’t want to hang out there.

In 1981 an art gallery owner in San Francisco defrauded my father and several other painters, ran off owing them money. Tonight I found copies of the lawsuit that was filed against the gallery owner. This is sad because there are so many paintings that my father did that have disappeared somewhere along the way. I don’t know who owns them. I hope somebody has them hanging on walls, here and there — I know of at least one person who has one, in Sacramento — but the underlying feeling is one of loss.

I found some 35mm slides of paintings that I no longer have or even remember, but the local copy shop doesn’t have a machine that can scan slides. Maybe I’ll be able to get them scanned somehow. Things like the slides are worth keeping, but even so, they’re tinged with a sense of loss.

I have the hospital bills for both my sister’s and my birth. I kept those, though I’m not sure why. At least there’s no sense of sadness around them — they’re just curiosities. My birth cost $96.20. The diary pages in which Mom recorded my tonsillitis, though — into the recycling bin with them.

Near the end of my father’s life, when his eyesight was failing, he became progressively disengaged from the present. He had little to do but reminisce, but the things he reminisced about were, in some sense, oddly impersonal. I don’t remember him talking about being in the Coast Guard in World War II, or about his younger years in Sacramento, or about his father’s farm in Decatur, but he became a bit obsessed with the fact that in 1931, he had played golf a couple of times with Bob Hope.

Hope was, at the time, a touring vaudeville comedian, and my father painted posters in the local theater. My theory about the golf outings is that probably my father had a car. The touring entertainers would have arrived on the train, so a backstage conversation about golfing would have had an obvious outcome. In any event, somebody in the foursome shot a hole in one, so there was a picture of them in the local paper. My father remembered the golf game and eventually sent off to the Decatur paper for a photo of the page that had the article about the golf game. He wanted to feel connected to Bob Hope.

Tonight I found the negative photo of that page, and a print of it. I figure I’ll keep it so my sister can see it (using the word “see” loosely, as her eyesight is very poor). But I can’t quite shake the feeling that my father was holding onto the wrong things. So if I’m holding onto an item that memorializes his holding onto the wrong things, what does that say about me?

The photo of the horse and wagon that his father used to take fruits and vegetables to market from the farm, though — that’s cool. I don’t mind having that. I might even have it matted and framed.

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