I’m surrounded by his things. That’s what he’s left behind, things. Well, things and me, I suppose. There weren’t a lot of people at the service. Some neighbors, a couple of old friends, a smattering of relatives. Small but respectable. At least that’s what I told myself when the last of the guests arrived.
It wasn’t at all like when Mom died, when the church was packed, standing room only. She had the advantage of dying young, young enough that the sheer tragedy of it compelled people, her people, to converge in their grief. I guess the funerals are always bigger for those who die young, their friends and family not yet aged and dispersed, not yet accustomed to the natural cadence of life. It’s a strange silver lining. Mom’s funeral was big, though, even by those standards. She collected people, always had. She had a knack for making everyone feel special, because that’s how she saw them.
Dad didn’t collect people. He collected things. A lot of things. Photos are among them, particularly photos of my parents together. They hang everywhere in my childhood home, they rest on every shelf and every end table. If there is anything discernible from the decades strewn across the walls, it’s that they loved each other. I suppose they did, even though it didn’t always feel that way in the moments between the clicks of the camera. Those images aren’t on the wall.
I walk into his office, the chaotic nexus of his collections, the spring from which the stuff seemingly bubbles up and spews into the rest of the house. Even Mom couldn’t control this space, fighting as best she could to prevent the peculiar assortment of items that lay within from bursting beyond the room’s narrow confines. This space is all him, uniquely him. His spirit, his very essence, feels present in this crowded room, far more than it did in that musty funeral home.
I look around, It seems to me that everything anyone has ever thought to collect is here, and likely things people never thought to collect at all. There’s the usual stuff: stamps, coins, books, figurines, trading cards, toys... And there are things more unusual: garden gnomes, decorative soaps, hotel match boxes... I open a drawer, only to find it full of zesters. There’s dust everywhere. The air is thick with it, my nostrils itch with each inhale; it swirls in dancing torrents, glowing in the shafts of evening light slanting in through the windows; it blankets everything, coating the myriad of strange surfaces my dad left behind.
I feel suffocated as I slam the zester drawer shut in frustration. Overwhelmed, I wander over to the printer where I see some pieces of paper still resting in the tray, I pick them up. A receipt for a button, a $75 button to be precise. It supposedly came from the uniform of a British soldier in the Revolutionary War. The other pages are directions to some antique store in Maine, a four hour drive, five with traffic, reads my dad’s tidy handwriting in a characteristic critique of Google Maps’ assessment. I roll my eyes in irritation, I can’t help it. It was so like him to buy a $75 button and then drive eight hours round trip for it, ten with traffic.
By some miracle I find the button collection, sandwiched between a crammed bookcase and a shelf full of glittering geodes. It is surprisingly complete and well organized, the buttons resting neatly on a bed of felt, a small card beneath each denotes the war from which it came. A quick scan suggests It spans the whole of American conflict, no small history. The Revolutionary War, the Civil War, WWII, Korea, Vietnam… Even wars I have never heard of, or have long since forgotten, are represented by a meticulously assembled collection of buttons. I notice one is missing, presumably the one pictured on the receipt still clutched tightly in my hand.
I can’t be in the office anymore, it feels too strongly of him, the dust is making me dizzy. I try halfheartedly to sort through other rooms in the house, but as my hands busy themselves packing dinner plates and folding spare linens, my mind is stuck in his office, stuck on those buttons. The day has been punishingly long, I feel the exhaustion in my bones. I let it guide me to my childhood room, still unable to bring myself to sleep in my parents’. I lay down on the rickety twin bed, the old spring mattress digging into my back, though I barely notice. I close my eyes and let the weariness drag me into a dark, dreamless sleep.
I wake at some point well past mid-morning. My back is stiff. I wander down the hall, rubbing the sleep from my eyes. I trip over a forgotten cardboard box I’d haphazardly packed the night before. I swear under my breath as I return to Dad’s office. It’s just as I left it, just as he left it, both of us apparently unable to sort through the mess. I’m staring, again, at the buttons, at the gap left by the one that’s missing. I’d tried to forget it, knowing it was better to let it go, to pack up as much as I could, as soon as I could, to return to my own house, my own life, my own things. But I couldn’t, I can’t. When I close my eyes I see him diligently placing each button in its place, imagining that smile that always snaked across his face when he procured some new worthless treasure.
I sigh in resignation to what I’ve known was inevitable since I found those cursed buttons. I grab the directions, I grab his keys, I grab him, or his ashes anyway, and head for the door. The car still smells like Dad, like aftershave and spearmint gum. What a strange thing to linger, to remember, the smell of a person, just invisible particles floating in the air. I pull out of the driveway and head north. I have my GPS running and can’t help but think of the exacerbated comments he would've made at each robotic direction. Oh don’t take that exit, there’s construction… traffic will be hell on the freeway at this hour. I brought the directions he printed out though, just in case. They’re sitting on the passenger seat, below the urn.
It’s summer and I have the windows down, the wind is whipping through my hair, the hair Dad always told me was too long, listening to music he would’ve hated. The scourge of the modern musician is the small revenge I exact for subjecting me to this long journey, all in pursuit of an overpriced button. We used to do drives like this all the time before Mom died, when I was young, crammed into the backseat next to camping gear or coolers or suitcases. I felt so safe then, watching the trees blur together as we sped toward some fresh adventure, my parents singing the melody to a song I wouldn’t remember, something from their time together before me. Those stopped when she died. Sometimes I wonder if she was the glue that held us together. Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if he’d died first, not that I ever wished it, just wondered. He retreated into his collections, I ran from her ghost, full speed into adulthood, into my new life. He never said if he felt abandoned, he would've never said something like that, but sometimes I wonder...
I pull off at a familiar exit, one I haven’t thought about for years, but recognized the second I saw it. I’m awash in memories of summers long passed as I pull off the main road and head down the winding gravel toward the woods. I turn off the music to listen to the trees which are rushing with excitement as I roll past. Perhaps they remember me too. The lake is just the way I’ve held it in my mind all these years, still and dark, more green than blue, reflecting the thick canopy that surrounds it. The air is buzzing with the cries of a million insects.
I grab Dad and sit with him at a picnic table overlooking the place he’d taken me a hundred times. We sit quietly together, enjoying the peace of it all, ruminating on the lazy days that passed here. They blur together in my memory, like the trees rushing past the window on those drives from before. I’m suddenly struck with the thought to scatter him here, but something doesn’t feel right. We have hours left to drive, and I can’t bring myself to let him off the hook so easily. We get back in the car.
We’re making good time. That’s the sort of thing he would always say, as if time is a thing one can make. Looks like we’ll get there in closer to four hours than five, then again, we didn’t take the freeway. Even still, the drive is starting to feel long, my back aches and my stomach rumbles. I pull off at a drive through and eat something greasy and deeply satisfying. I’m watching a young family struggle with a car seat across the parking lot, a little girl watches as her parent’s gesture dramatically at each other in apparent frustration. Dad used to blow up over things like that. He’d boil over in a second, without warning, at the little everyday inconveniences that build one on top of another. I’d make myself small during those moments, trying not to inadvertently add to the pile. His outbursts would usually pass with a creative string of expletives and a sullen resignation to the way of things.
I pull up to the store at the edge of a sleepy coastal town. My GPS announces my arrival approvingly. Dad is silent. No one greets me when I walk in the store, just the faint ding of a bell which fades quickly away as if embarrassed to disturb the quiet of the place. For a moment, I’m transported back to Dad’s office as I wander through the store which is bursting with an endless selection of the most curious objects. The place is silent, reverent almost, as I walk through the labyrinthine paths left between seemingly random piles of stuff.
A ponderous little man greets me when I find my way to a desk. He barely looks up from the tome over which he’s hunched. I manage to catch his gaze, however, when I mention the button. He surveys me strangely as I pass the receipt across the counter. “I don’t know about this,” he says with suspicion as I explain my strange quest, as if anyone would go through the trouble to invent a dead father and forge a receipt to pick up a $75 dollar button from a junk pile at the edge of the world. Then again, what do I know of antique dealing? Perhaps this man’s days are filled with sufficiently duplicitous intrigue to warrant such skepticism.
“Well feel free to talk to Dad about it if it makes you feel any better,” I say, plopping the urn down on the counter between us.
The man blinks at me through his glasses and then looks at the urn before him. “Very well,” he responds, apparently convinced, at last, of my legitimacy. “Wait here.” I do as I’m told. I’m not sure what compelled me to bring Dad’s ashes into this place. It just seemed like he would’ve wanted to come in. I’m glad he didn’t live to see it though. He would have taken the whole of the inventory if he could, willing it to fit in his small office back home. The man comes back with the button and hands it over after just a moment more of hesitation. “Enjoy,” he says, “it’s a good little piece of history, that.” I nod my thanks, stuffing the button into my pocket. That’s the type of thing Dad would’ve said, as if the history of an object lives forever within it. Maybe it does.
I’m back in the car, driving south along the coast. I let my thoughts wander as the road winds along the jagged contours carved by the sea. I pull off at a scenic overlook and clamber down a short trail, suddenly compelled to stop and quietly watch time slip away someplace beautiful. I sit on a bench, watching the cliffs before me plunge into the sea, the waves crashing riotously against the steep unyielding stone. It does yield eventually, I suppose, over the course of centuries, millennia. That’s the type of history you can't find in a store. The sun is sinking lower and lower to my back, the sky above is painted orange and pink as an advancing darkness creeps over the horizon. It’s beautiful, the cliffs and sea so ancient and powerful, the sunset just a fleeting moment of gold. Suddenly compelled by something beyond myself, I pick up the urn and scatter the contents, this place and time as good as any. The sun is gone, the gold has surrendered to inky black, the cliffs and sea endure. I get back in the car and head for home.
The office is, of course, unchanged as I open the door and step in. It is still bursting with stuff and yet feels emptier than before, like Dad’s spirit has at last departed from it. Maybe I’m imagining things, tired from the drive. I take the button out of my pocket and run my thumb over its tarnished surface. I fasten it securely in its place amongst its peers. I feel the smile as it snakes inadvertently across my face. So this is what he felt then, when he procured some new piece of worthless treasure. I guess I see the appeal.
I sort and pack the house in the days that follow, a hard and mournful task, though therapeutic in its way. I discover some strange new piece of him with every object I uncover. I found a small historical society to take the button collection, it’s hanging up in a place of prominence beneath a small plaque that reads, “donated by a generous collector.” It was harder than I expected to hand them over, but they should be somewhere with people who appreciate their legacy, who appreciate his legacy of bringing them all together, mine too now, I guess.
I’m holding one of Dad’s old sweaters, the blue one Mom bought him so many Christmases ago. He wore it all the time, the fabric is worn and stained. I take a pair of scissors and cut off a button, a fragment of his life to carry with me as I return to mine. A good little piece of history, I think to myself as I slip it into my pocket, at least it is to me.