Day 355: The Family Tree



The Fam­ily Tree

I retain almost no visual image of my grand­fa­ther except that his eyes were crys­talline, as shim­mer­ing blue as Lake Michigan’s deep­est waters. He cut ice with his friends and co-workers. I have fan­tasy images about this man who spent so much time on frozen sur­faces to make his liv­ing. Ice Men sold blocks of har­vested ice from horse drawn wag­ons through­out the streets of the city. The ice­box was the only form of refrig­er­a­tion then avail­able. Grand­fa­ther was a har­vester, not a sales­man of ice. But when I was a girl I heard about a famous play, The Ice­man Cometh. And made the assump­tion Grand­fa­ther must have been impor­tant if an entire play had been named for his occupation.

Frozen Stream

On land he designed and built a large wooden home for his wife and grow­ing fam­ily. It was crafted from the reclaimed lum­ber of an aban­doned ice stor­age house. I try to imag­ine it being dis­man­tled and hauled off a frigid lake or river to a street named Lil­lib­ridge in the Vil­lage of Fairview, which even­tu­ally became part of Detroit. From this for­got­ten and once frozen lum­ber he cre­ated a res­i­dence of grace­ful sub­stance and a large hearth for the wife he loved. My grand­mother was a woman con­sid­ered beyond his sta­tion in life. Grand­fa­ther was proud to be part of the indus­try that kept food fresh, safe from spoil­ing. The inven­tion of the mod­ern elec­tric refrig­er­a­tor as a com­mon domes­tic appli­ance changed everyone’s life. The fact of indus­trial progress trans­ferred his pri­mary iden­tity to the cat­e­gory of his­tor­i­cal footnote.

As my mother grew older, sto­ries about her father were more often about his life on land. He worked as a skilled car­pen­ter. Today he would be called a cus­tom cab­i­net­maker. Her favorite mem­ory was walk­ing to meet him at the end of each work­ing day. Patiently she waited on the cor­ner where he got off the street­car. He greeted her — always pre­tend­ing sur­prise. She slipped her hand into the pocket of his jacket and reacted with rec­i­p­ro­cal sur­prise when she found half a cheese sand­wich saved from his lunch. Through­out her long life the mean­ing of the cheese sand­wich lin­gered as a code. Through a scrap of left­over lunch he found a way to express love. Theirs was a large fam­ily — all the other sib­lings were boys; she was his only girl and the youngest.

For a time I lived close to the sea. My writ­ing room was a slap­dash addi­tion over the garage. I loved that soli­tary peace­ful space. It was the only part of the prop­erty with an ocean view. Each morn­ing I counted the waves from my perch. Already in her 90s, my mother climbed the stairs to sit with me. We drank tea. We talked about books and the impor­tance of women’s equal­ity. Mostly we talked about poetry or read it aloud to one another. Some­times her words drifted back to Detroit to relate the tales of her enor­mous extended fam­ily, by then all deceased.

As her lifes­pan com­pressed she talked increas­ingly of her father who had been dead for at least four decades. One visit she pro­duced a snap­shot taken of the two of us – a tiny child stand­ing next to a lean old man. She said I had bro­ken his heart. On a visit to Detroit he pre­sented me with a fancy teddy bear, and I did not per­mit him to hug me. The story shamed me, but there wasn’t a place for my emo­tions. No per­son left to ask for­give­ness. I was a young child. He was tall and thin as a pen­cil. — An ancient man with for­eign ways I did not under­stand; he fright­ened me.

At the end of that visit Mama made the announce­ment she had some­thing impor­tant to give me. She had the unfor­tu­nate habit of giv­ing me a small trin­ket of sen­ti­men­tal fam­ily value only to decide in a few weeks she wasn’t really ready to let it go. And would then demand return of the fam­ily remem­brance. It was a game I didn’t enjoy. I had become dis­in­ter­ested in these offer­ings and intol­er­ant of her behav­ior. This par­tic­u­lar day she pulled out a worn fold­ing wooden ruler. Its num­bers were faded.

This was your Grandfather’s work­ing ruler. He used it in every­thing he ever made.” He was pre­cise and care­ful in his craft. I owned a toy box he had made. This ruler was an essen­tial tool of his trade. I was trans­fixed by it. I wanted his fold­ing ruler for rea­sons I could not express. Now I know I wanted it as a sym­bol of the eter­nal mar­riage between cre­ativ­ity and craft.

Are you sure, because I do want this, and I won’t return it to you. Even if you ask me to give it back. It will sit here on my writ­ing table.”

She kept her word. The ruler stayed.

There is a sacred qual­ity to this old piece of wood with its worn numbers.

I have lit­tle expe­ri­ence of what fam­ily life means and scant his­tory liv­ing within one. The fold­ing ruler means I belong to a longer story than my soli­tary one.

Some months after Grandfather’s ruler came to stay, I looked out the win­dow that faced the sea. I didn’t bother with the ocean view. It was a windy day. I focused on a tree bend­ing deeply in the breeze. An eclipsed mem­ory of Grand­fa­ther came into my head. It was based on the rep­e­ti­tion of Mama’s sto­ries, not per­sonal expe­ri­ence. His pres­ence flooded my senses.

I picked up the ruler and thought about the con­nec­tion between these two crafts — writ­ing and wood­work­ing. I imag­ined him clos­ing and extend­ing the ruler until the wood was per­fectly mea­sured. In my mind I saw him tame that wood with his skilled hands, as it turned into some­thing use­ful, some­thing beau­ti­ful. I, his grand­child from another cen­tury, was seated at my writ­ing table. I was work­ing and rework­ing ungrace­ful wooden sen­tences, clause-by-clause, word-by-word, and then letter-by-letter. We were con­nected to each other by his old and faded fold­ing ruler.

Today a branch sags in the wind
Grand­fa­ther you are this branch

Weath­ered and brown as nut
I cut the branch down and
held it in my hands
it turned into my pencil

A half-century away from me
I wrote this note to you:
Grand­fa­ther I Love You.

the house
the tree
the pen­cil
the words
remem­ber­ing you.


Folding Tools

©2011 Alida Brill

1 Comment

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One Response to Day 355: The Family Tree

  1. I have such an affin­ity for how mem­o­ries are trig­gered and then how the sto­ries of those mem­o­ries fit through suc­ces­sive sto­ries and con­ver­sa­tions. I almost cre­ate a flow chart in my mind about these instances. It is a long-winded expe­ri­ence I don’t share too often for fear of exhaust­ing the party/ies in my com­pany, but it is fun to me. You have crafted such a beau­ti­ful “flow chart” here. Happy Hol­i­days and let’s hope for a Happy New Year!

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