It is the last of the attic archeology--a few mouse-fouled cartons
with commercial labels from the 50s and 60s. Pink-cheeked
blonde housewives dressed in blue hold sparkling products;
bold black & whites tout the acme of adding machine engineering.
This is what remains of the old man now, a mass about equal
to the dwindled body he abandoned in this house one year ago.
What to keep and what to throw away? The remains of his own dead
are mixed within, the way we carry in our genes a decreasing but infinite
regression of our ancestors. Most is already broadcast to his seed--
our grandfather's watch with its oily heft of nickle-plate
and the shallow gravure thumb-rubbed almost to vanishing nests
in my bedside drawer where it has awaited repair for a decade now.
I thought there would be more of his father to find in our father.
I remember waking in the night, that fall of 1964, again and again
to hear our father's nightmares calling across the thousand miles
to another sweat-soaked bed that held his father's pain. I remember
the nonstop dash through midwestern night, watching 2 a.m. stars
out the back window of the Pontiac, watching his clenched face,
green in the dashboard light as he passed a hundred cars across Ohio,
only to arrive two hours after the last prayer and the tucking-in of sheets.
Perhaps it is just that some memories need no memento, never skin over.
In all the years after, I can't recall a hundred words he said about the man.
Of my own recollection there is only a faint presence at the dim edges
of childhood, an American Gothic gauntness in a farmyard that could be
as much the memory of a photo as a memory of grandpa. What remains
to me--the stilled gears of that life--hardly fills a matchbox.
Of our father, the cartons yield richer plunder, letters to his war-bride,
the waning widow who bats around downstairs unwilling to watch
the way her children pan gravel from her heart's played-out claim.
We find the original legal proof of our existences; we find yellowed
War Department orders dispatching him to Amarillo, there
to meet a Pennsylvania farmgirl on her first and only grownup adventure,
questing west as her father had done in 1919, when he worked the harvest.
We could stop sorting for a moment after each disinterred trophy,
to touch and tell the story that hangs from each, the way a prayer dangles
from every bead of a rosary. But we have rarely been that kind
of brother and sister. As a family, we have each in our way
been aficionados of distance, the natural alliance lost
in mutual incomprehension. So we sort in business-like silence,
closer in flesh than in spirit, taking our cut to grieve in private.
In the last box near the bottom is a soldier's testament, sized
to fit a uniform breast pocket. It is a Heart-Shield Bible from
the Know Your Bible Company of Cincinnati. Yet another generation
is in my hand; a crabbed Victorian cursive inscribes it to our father
from his grandmother, dead before you or I were born.
It is a perfectly Protestant blend of practical and magical thinking--
If faith does not suffice to shield the heart, the stout bible vellum might;
and if the word of God proves too thin, the cover is gilded armor plate.
There is something in your look as you watch me handle the book,
running my fingertips over the graven script, half prayer, half charm,
that reads "May This Keep You Safe From Harm." It makes me wonder
if you know me better than I know. "You should keep it," you say,
as if you know something of the superstitious faith I place in words--
know the way I use them to keep my own dead still within life, old words
coming back, memento moris of love sundered--as if you know the way
I will take this very moment and render it into a poem, and will hold
the thin manuscript high, a shield between the listener and my heart.
© Dale R. Hobson. All rights reserved.