TODAY IS THE 355TH DAY OF THE YEAR
ALL OF US AT FROM THIS TERRACE WISH ALL OF YOU A HAPPY HOLIDAY SEASON FILLED WITH THE JOY OF FAMILY MEMORIES AND WITH THE ANTICIPATION OF ALL THAT IS YET TO COME.
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.
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.
©2011 Alida Brill