On the heels of my big Father’s Day revelation, I have been going through old boxes from my father’s house. When he died, I didn’t want to look at anything. Other people did all of the work for me, packing it up, moving it here, hauling it in boxes up to the attic. I didn’t want to see or even think about it. So it sat there, through three winters and two blistering North Carolina summers. Waiting.
Then an attic fire a month or so ago snapped me to attention. The wiring in this old house isn’t grounded, and one of the ceiling lights shorted and started a fire. Thank goodness it made a funny sound, and thank goodness Brian decided to go up and check. He found a knee-high fire in the attic, raced downstairs, grabbed the fire extinguisher from the kitchen wall, and doused the flames. We called the fire department, who made sure the fire was out and cut out all the charred insulation. Luckily the boxes weren’t close to that fire, but it got my attention.
There’s also this other thing. We’re moving to Colorado. In, like, six weeks. So it’s time for me to go through these boxes, anyway. In the first box, I found every piece of paper my father had written on that we could find in his house after he died. My friends Cindy and Pat, and Brian and I, combed every corner of my dad’s house and collected all of the scraps, the napkins and backs of envelopes that contained his handwritten recipes and diagrams for building a fire pit and forty-seven drafts of his last will and testament. I also found, in the same box, a manuscript for a short story that Dad had written when I was in middle school. I remember his reading it to my mom and me from a yellow legal pad, when I was twelve and bored and too cool for him. I found not only the legal pad itself, but a typed version with a cover letter that he may or may not ever have mailed out.
Also in that box, I found a letter my mother had written to friends of hers when she was in college, bragging about all the dates she was going on. And in a small envelope, I found something I never thought I would see. It took me a while to figure out what it was. I saw that it was a cremation certificate, mailed from a crematory to a funeral home. I saw that the address was somewhere in Illinois. It wasn’t until I opened it and saw “Baby Girl Smith” in block type on the front that I realized what it was. My sister’s cremation certificate. I knew my mother had had a stillbirth two years before I was born. We referred to her as Linda, which my parents would have named her, had she lived. I’ve known all of this since the age of six or seven. But I hadn’t known that they would keep this certificate, to remember the baby girl they lost.
When I told Brian about it, he shook his head and blinked. “I’d forgotten you had a sister,” he said. I had, too, really. But my parents obviously hadn’t. When I told a friend later about these discoveries, she remembered the cardinal sighting and said, “You know, that kind of thing could break a marriage. Or it could make it very strong. What if your parents’ marriage was really more of a partnership than you’ve thought?” Then she talked about the importance of partnership, of two teammates helping each other. “I see that in your marriage to Brian,” she said. “Don’t forget that. You’ll need that to keep you going in the weeks ahead.”
We are partners. We are teammates. We’ve both been irritable lately, with the stress of moving and raising Jack, who is three and autistic and wonderful and challenging. And we’re going to a place neither of us has ever lived. It’s the unknown – or Unknown, with a capital U. But in the next box from the attic, I found something else. It’s a photograph: tiny, really, no bigger than a business card. In it is a young man holding the halter of a tan horse. The young man has dark hair and intense scowling eyes, and he has an oval shaped birthmark on his right hand. My dad. The scenery behind him is filled with the tans and browns of the Southwest.
It was Colorado Springs. Dad’s father was then the commander for NORAD, the North American Air Defense headquarters. Dad was fifteen. The date on the back of the photo confirmed it: September of 1954. My dad used to live in Colorado. His younger brother, my Uncle Jan, remembers that Dad wanted to stay out west and own a ranch someday. He was happy there. I’m working on enlarging and enhancing the faded old photo, because I think our new house in Fort Collins needs to bear a reminder. Our people have walked this land before, and we will walk it again.
But right now, it’s time to open the next box.