I collect things. Well, not so much anymore, but I used to. Many of those things, I still have. They're just put away. In storage. But they're there. All the Star Wars toys from when I was a kid. Yes, I still have all of them. GI Joes and Transformers, too. Comic books. Way too many comic books (but that's a much longer tale and not what this post is about, but, you know, if you want to buy some, let me know. heh). Magic cards and other CCGs (yes, even thousands of the Harry Potter TCG cards). Some of these things, I wish I was still involved with but, mostly, it's all just put away.
I don't spend time with any of it. However, there is some amount of comfort knowing that it's there. I don't know why. My wife wishes she knew why, because she wishes I would get rid of at least 95% of it. Sometimes, I wish I could just toss it all, too, but it would leave me with the feeling that something is missing. There was a point when I was in college that I was kind of strapped for cash. Not something I was used to dealing with. I generally did a pretty good job of keeping myself in the money that I needed to get by, but, this one time, I was running low on fundage. I knew these kids that collected Transformers, and they had been lusting after my collection for months and months. Being somewhat desperate, I broke down and decided to sell some of them. Well, it ended up just being one of them: Soundwave (along with the cassettes that went with him even though they were, technically, separate figures). I've never really gotten over selling that one piece. It haunts me still. "I used to have that." "If only I hadn't been stupid and sold him." Those kinds of things. So, even though I haven't even looked at my Transformers in years, the knowledge that I'm missing that one figure from my collection pricks at my mind any time I think of them. When the kids came back to buy more a few weeks later, I told them I wasn't selling any more of them.
I could give other examples of how the losses of little, basically, inconsequential things can sit around and nag at people. Not just me. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say, "I used to have that when I was a kid. I don't know what happened to it." Or, "yeah, I had all of those, but my mom threw them out when I went off to college." Or, "yeah, I had tons of GI Joes and Star Wars toys, but I blew them all up this one 4th of July." Yes, that's a true story. The common thread is that everyone, every single person, I've heard say anything like that all wished s/he had those things back again. Small, unimportant things. But things that had meaning to them and played some part in their lives when they were growing up. For me, things I hoard up because one day I want to share them. Sit down with my kids and explain what they meant to me, why I kept them, and pass them on.
But, in the end, they are still just things. Often things, like my wife says, that clutter up our lives and steal our space. And we don't really have a lot of that, so it's a valid concern. However, it's not always things that we want to pass on. Sometimes, it's people. My grandfather is the person that I most wish I could pass on to my kids. The person from my life that I most wish they could meet. He's the person that sat with me every night after he got home from work, smelling of sweat and motor oil, and read to me. Read to me the same books over and over, because I was the king of "read it again," and he was my throne. Little Black, A Pony. And that story about the old blue truck and the cow. And he would read them over and over to me.
He was a presence. Quiet. Strong. My mother tells me, and, you know, she knew him a lot longer than me, that he never raised his voice. I certainly never remember him yelling, but things are often different with your kids as opposed to your grandkids, but, no, she says he never raised his voice. As far as she knows, he never raised his voice to anyone. If they (my mom and her two siblings) needed shouting at, that was my grandmother's job. And he never said an unkind word about anyone. Not an individual. Not any group of people. Not even when the Cowboys lost. He was the giver of hugs. Bear hugs. The one that tickled us and caught our hands when we were too slow. He has always been the person I most want to become.
The day he died remains the worst day of my life. When the phone rang that morning, I knew what it was about before anyone answered it and was already crying even though I had no reason to think that that was what the call was about. I'd just seen him two days before, and the doctors said he was going to be fine. That they'd caught the cancer in time and that he should recover. But I knew. And, even then, I felt the loss as not just my own but as a loss for the kids I didn't yet have or have any notion of whom I would have them with.
Sometimes... sometimes the things that we keep packed away in storage are places. I haven't been "home" in 10 years. Home being the House from The House on the Corner. My parents live in it, now, and I spent my teenage years living in it with them. But, before that, it was my grandparents' house. My memories of that house go back as far as I have memories. My dog when I was two. My mom holding me and not letting me go down to him when they found him dead in the backyard, still a puppy, both of us. My cousin pushing me off a riding toy and my aunt taking care of the huge bump on my head. Hearing jingle bells one Christmas Eve and being convinced it was Santa in the house.
But home was also East Texas. Besides the house in Shreveport, my grandparents had a farm outside of Jefferson. This was the real place where I was formed. Playing in the hay barn with my cousin Sam, leaping from stack to stack of bailed hay pretending we were superheroes in Gotham or New York. Catching toads with my cousin Becky. Picking blackberries with my grandmother. Feeding the cows, especially the one called Pig with the forked tongue, the table scraps from dinner. Waking up to the smell of coffee brewing.
This was the place that I spent nearly every major holiday from the time I was born until my grandfather died when I was 20. Every Thanksgiving I can remember. My cousins and I sitting at the kids' table where my cousin Sam would pour ketchup all over everything on his plate. The nearly 20 adults sitting at the long row of tables passing food back-and-forth. With just a few exceptions, every Christmas, too. My cousins, brother, and I all slept on the floor together when we were kids. Often in the same room with the Christmas tree. But, somehow, there were always presents piled under it on Christmas morning, none of us the wiser as to how they got there. It was probably that more than anything else that convinced us of the magic of Santa.
There was also my great-grandmother's house. It was about a mile or so down the road, the dirt road. I spent as much time there as I did at my grandparents'. My Uncle Fred lived there, too. And, in the summers, my Aunt Effie would come and stay and bring my cousin Becky. I spent my summers with her. With her and my uncle's dogs. He always had at least three, and they always had the most unimaginative names. Spot. Brownie. Blackie. About as far out as it got was a dog named Ginger when I was a teenager, and that was probably because he already had a Brownie.
There were so many places there. Because, you know, when you're a kid, one place can be comprised of many universes. Under the house where the dogs would go when it was too hot, and it was often too hot, and dig holes to lay in. That was our favorite place to catch toads. The cane patch my uncle kept back behind the house for fishing poles and where there were often snakes, but we played in there anyway. The pond that my uncle dug where we would swim. And catch frogs. And where there were also often snakes, but we played there anyway. The pine woods that surrounded my great-grandmother's where we would tramp around. The loft of the barn where Uncle Troy dried his peanuts.
They had an actual well in the house. When we were thirsty, we would go and lower the bucket and bring up a pail of water and drink from it with a big dipper that hung on the post. Everyone drank from that dipper, and no one thought anything about it. The water was always cold and had a metallic tang to it that may or may not have come from the dipper. Possibly, the well tells you that it was an old house. It had a tin roof. I loved being down there when it would rain and listening to the rain pound on that roof. They kept skewers, for lack of a better term, on a nail next to the fireplace (all the time), and Becky and I would sit and roast marshmallows on cold nights.
My Aunt Effie actually had a house down there, too, even though they never actually stayed in it. It was, oh, probably three miles or so farther down the road. They had a wardrobe down there full of games. Most of them missing too many pieces to really be playable. On the very rare occasion, my cousin and I would walk the three miles down to her house so that we could play Mouse Trap, because that's where that game lived. There was no need for a key, because the house was never locked up, and it was never an issue that it wasn't locked up. Nothing ever went missing.
This was the place that I really grew up. Sitting and shelling peas or shucking corn on the porch at my great-grandmother's. We did a lot of that. Riding in the back of the pickup with the dogs, because the dogs went everywhere with my uncle. Unless he had to go into town, and, then, they would obediently stay behind. Digging potatoes. Playing in the mud in the ditches next to the road after the rain. Riding on the tractor with my grandfather and, sometimes, getting to steer. Going on long walks down the road with my great-grandmother and picking wildflowers for the table, when she was still strong enough to do that with us.
This place has been like that box of Transformers. Like all my Star Wars toys. Giving me comfort because I knew it was there. Giving me hope that one day I would be able to share these places with my kids. Take them there and show them. Tell them stories. "And this was the place where we were chased by the cottonmouth." "And this is the place where we found the copperhead, and my uncle came and chopped it up with a hoe." "And this was the place where we stumbled across the rattlesnake, but it just shook its tail at us and let us go." I told you there were a lot of snakes. Not all of the stories would be about snakes, though.
I've always known that it wasn't actually very likely that I would get to take my kids and show them all of these places and tell them the stories about the people that lived there, make them as real for my kids as they are to me, but there was the possibility. The knowledge that those places were there, stored away like a collection, a collection of memories, smoldered in my mind, keeping some part of me warm. I could dream of taking them and showing them the pond, long ago choked by weeds and telling them, "this is where I used to swim," and see the dumbfounded looks on their faces, because they have never known anything other than swimming pools. And take them down to the creek and show them the vines that we used to swing into the water from. And just... just sit on the porch in the old chairs where we would sit for hours in the evenings watching the fireflies (when we weren't out trying to catch them) and shelling peas.
But all of that's gone now. I just found out yesterday that all of it, all of it, my grandparents' house (where my Uncle Oscar (my mom's brother) was living), my great-grandmother's house (where my Uncle Fred still lived), even my Aunt Effie's house (where no one was still living, because she actually lives in Houston), was claimed by the wildfires raging through East Texas. It's all just... gone. And I don't know, really, how to feel about it. I mean, these are not places I'm currently involved with. Like the boxes of toys, they have just been stored away for the future. A future that would probably never be possible, but there. They were there, and I knew they were there, and I hoped. But it's all gone now. The outhouse out behind my great-grandmother's that no one ever used, because it was always full of wasps. The turkey coop. The 200 year old furniture. The tractors, at least one of which was probably 100 years old. The floor that I slept on on Christmas Eve, and the coffee pot that would wake me up in the morning with its smells wafting through the house.
Part of me feels guilty for feeling such loss to something as intangible as my memories when so many people, so many people, have lost everything that they are involved with. Lost where they actually lived. But I do. There is a numbness and a pain fighting within me over these places I haven't seen in a decade and haven't spent any real time in since my grandfather died 20 years ago. The loss of these things won't affect my life or change how I live. I won't have to make allowances to my routine to compensate for their loss. But just as I had the knowledge that they were there, I now have the knowledge that they are gone. It will be just like Soundwave. I won't be able to think about "the farm" without the nagging thought that it's gone. I can no longer imagine what it must be like for the people that have lost everything to these fires, because I can't imagine walking through the blackened earth where all that I once knew and loved once stood. I wish that I could. To make it real. Because I can't imagine those places not being there. What I do know is that, now, I can't go back. Can never take my kids and make these places real to them. That is a loss that can't be replaced.
[Just as a note: none of my family members were hurt during the writing of this piece. They all were away or got out safely. They should all be okay, too. Without going into details, they are all taken care of.]