Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Gift

I live next door to the house I grew up in.

I inherited my home from my old neighbor.

Frank was a good friend. His wife, Els, died ten years earlier, and I was close to her too, growing up as a child. But after she died, I grew closer to Frank and came to know him as an adult. He was diagnosed with cancer during the last couple years of his life, but he still managed to get out and work in the yard, do many of the things he'd always done. He was fiercely independent, stoic, and private, so he never asked for help with anything. Towards the end, he seemed to have reached a certain peace with his life and upcoming death. He died over three years ago in early May.

Frank never told me he planned to leave me his house. I found out when his nephew read Frank's will out loud at a small memorial service held by the family. My breath grew heavy and my face began to tingle. I felt overwhelmed, blown away, guilty, amazed, ecstatic. I didn't know how the family felt about it, this stranger in their midst who'd been left the biggest prize of all. They all seemed to have learned the news before I had; perhaps they'd had some time to digest its shock and thus hide their emotions. I wanted to express to them how much I would honor this gift. And yet, in that moment, all I could do was sit back in a surreal state of gratitude as the others were encouraged to put yellow sticky notes with their names on the things they wanted.

Els and Frank didn't have any children. This last bit of information seems important to disclose to help explain how I was left such a huge gift from someone who was not a blood relative. I only saw Frank once every couple months or so back then. I was living in Olympia and would try to visit him whenever I was back in Seattle. Frank would make a pot of black tea and put out a plate of cookies (Grandma's oatmeal or dark chocolate Little Dutch Boys), and then we'd sit at the dining room table and talk. I'd talk about my writing or my latest travels, and he'd tell me about what books he was reading or share news from his family. Always there'd be a huge stack of books he'd gotten from Magnuson's biannual book sale; he was an avid reader, sailor, and traveler and thus fond of books about ships and the sea, about early colonial explorers, about Native Alaskan art, about South American culture. He was also a huge fan of Conrad, Hemingway, Melville, James, Austen, and others.

Books were great entryways into conversations about life, about literature, about the world. I embarrassingly admitted that I hadn't read most of the classic canon, though some day I wanted to. Once he gave me an extra copy of Pride and Prejudice to read, and try as I did, I couldn't get through it. Likewise, he called one of the books I lent him (Tim O'Brien's The Things they Carried, set during the Vietnam War) the "worst junk he'd ever read." He thought it was a completely inaccurate representation of war, and of course I couldn't argue otherwise. Frank had served during WWII, though he rarely shared his war stories with me. One day he told me that he read a book that was even worse than the one I'd lent him; someone had given him Tuesdays with Morrie, complete crap. I laughed and was relieved that I could agree with him on this one-- sentimental chicken-soup-for-the-soul life and death lessons for the masses. Not literature.

But books weren't the only thing that we connected through. There was so much about Frank and Els, their home-- a cedar cabin surrounded by tall maples and cedars--, and the way they lived that I resonated with. Frank was a merchant marine, and spent much of his life traveling around the world. Els was a poet, and loved to paint, bake, and philosophize about the meaning of the universe. Every summer the two of them would set out in their sailboat, the Hoko, and cruise up the sound into the waters of the Inside Passage off the shores of Canada. On board for months, they bathed and washed their clothes in the water; read, wrote, and cooked hearty meals on a woodstove in the cabin; visited old Indian villages, some abandoned, some still inhabited; combed the beach for shells, rocks, beads, and bottles; climbed up into old orchards and collected apples, berries, and stories from the locals that came to know this American couple who visited each summer.

They knew how to live a simple, yet decadent life, filled with earthly pleasures. They were extremely frugal, having lived through the Depression, yet their home was filled with treasures from around the world-- woven baskets, wooden chests, woolen blankets, copper pots, bowls of shells and arrowheads. As a child, I relished in the sheltered mossy enclave that was their yard; I inhaled the scent of baking bread, pies, and cookies; I spent hours on their floor arranging smooth black stones into intricate patterns before the giant fireplace. At their home, I felt enveloped in a natural goodness and beauty.

As an adult, spending more time alone with Frank, I looked to him as an example of how life could be lived. One didn't have to spend the entire year working, mired in busy-ness with no time to sit back, listen, sail, cook, and read. One didn't have to acquire a lot of things or a big house or a fancy title or big ego. And one didn't have to only live a settled life or a wandering life, either or-- there were ways to navigate a balance in between. There were ways, it was possible. Here was an elder who understood my impulses. Here was an elder who valued silence, literature, and solitude, as much as he valued people, children, and world cultures. Here was an elder who carried so much wisdom, and yet who was so humble. He knew he didn't have much time. He was a living lesson in how to not cling or hold on too tight. As far as I could tell, he had no regrets. As far as I know, he'd followed his whims and heart in life. And he'd come out okay. In fact, more sane and at peace than almost anyone I knew.

Frank left me a gift, and in moments I am still reeling. After several years of dealing with the probate, a long drawn-out process sorting through possessions and deeds and titles with the family, and a few interim periods where friends or renters stayed in the house, my husband and I finally uprooted from Olympia last summer and moved in.

Now, I live next door to the house I grew up in. I live in the magical secret garden next door, the one with the hidden raspberry patch and giant pile of composting leaves. There is so much more I want to tell you about this still unfolding process -- about the months of cleaning and going through someone else's things; about the discovery of old letters between husband and wife in the attic; the basement filled with artifacts from the sea; the flickers, raccoons, squirrels, and jays that also call this place their home; the yard filled with native plants-- ferns, salal, oregon grape, salmonberries-- and my burgeoning obsession with naming and pruning and caring for these plants that I may very well tend for a lifetime.

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