Artifacts of your family’s past have a funny way of popping into your life unexpectedly.
The quietness of winter is punctuated with projects and annual chores, maybe the glimmer of adventures to plan, and a hunkering down to survive. Much of this past 12 months has been spent living out of a suitcase, although not for the usual work travel or an exciting itinerary. Sifting through a family home trying to clear the chaff from the treasures of meaning and valued possessions, I have been working at making sense of this passage of time and how the future is to be shaped. These tasks often are done in grief, but not always. Sometimes your life delivers you to a place when there wasn’t a plan, where no-one would have intentionally navigated. A parent or elder relative may experience an event that is life-changing but in ways no-one would have planned, and issues that were left for another time come to the foreground.

Sorting the immediate crisis is a lesson in vertical learning, figuring out who to talk to, when to be where, stepping into the shared world of advocacy, hyper-alertness, medical staff and caregivers. Learning how to focus your own goals and help your parent, grandparent, spouse or loved one make decisions. Many, many decisions. Micro decisions, significant choices, and adjustments.

Understanding the longer path is a phase that settles in, changes and twists. A bit like a game where you bonk the head of a gopher only to find another one has popped up behind you and to the left and right, often all at once. A new set of skills seems to be required. Lessons unexpected, graces to learn. While a piece of your brain is constantly working, a daemon job spinning on organizing, solving and simplifying, it is just as crucial to learn how to be present. This is how you learn to be with the person as they are today, this afternoon, now. Not the person you remember, or, think is who you remember, and some days, not the person you want them to be. And while there are momentary stretches where a great obstacle requires your strongest encouragements and will, some of the factors are not under your influence, and sometimes you face that you cannot be successful wanting something more than the other person wants it. Whatever that may be. You learn a new rhythm, a balance between sense of urgency and building and understanding all the new players that are now part of your life and more importantly, their day to day relationship with your loved one.

You embark on a discovery journey where you may realize that your own decisions – about how to live your own life to the end – are not based on the way things can change in an instant, running off the rails of even the best organized plans. Your own sense of value in the bits and pieces of your life, and how important or inconsequential they may be to another person looking after you, is knocked aside as well. For in learning how to see and be with them, you learn things about yourself and your own plan or lack of plan. You learn to recognize when your childhood home is just a house now, because the people that lived there made it your home. And you find a way to respect the material memories even as they are shed.


 My very observant sprout found this, a memento of a much simpler life when we were all younger. My parents moved to the far northern end of the California around the time I turned one. They were embarking on new life on their own, making friends and a career for my father, a newly minted air traffic controller at a rural county airport.

One of the lasting friendships he made was with the folks who ran a flight service that also contracted with CDF to provide fire retardant bombers (what we called borate bombers when that was the state of fire fighting here in California and the West). During the off season, they flew odd jobs, one being the delivery of a low-risk prisoner to San Diego. A sign of the early sixties economy: a young couple might agree to accompany the pilot in order to have a low cost weekend in a sunny place. I always thought, when the story was told, that it seemed cruel and unfair to the prisoner to be stuck in a small plane with a child in diapers for that many hours.

Another summer, years later, my young uncle came to stay, and while at the airport, walked into the wing of one of the larger planes. My parents probably came up with a creative excuse to keep him a little longer until the black eyes healed a bit. We all spent time in the tower, on the airfield, taking the weather statistics from a weather station at night, and learning cribbage while a midnight shift was being worked. To keep the house quiet enough in the daytime for someone who rotated a mid shift to sleep, we would be off in adventures, in a truck picking blackberries, hunting antique opium bottles or glass insulators, or visiting the rock collecting couple my mother made friends with, and sitting at the counter getting a thimble sized portion of creme de cocoa in an exotic brass-trimmed liquor glass. All of these adventures and memories came from the people who lived in the house and the town, not the “stuff” we owned, or the address on the curb.

This small advertising piece, a freebie given away like a calendar, somehow was forgotten so many years ago, but is now installed in our lower hallway, doing duty both in reading the temperature, and reminding us of a time when life seemed simple, even if it wasn’t. ☮

note: the FAA has long since discontinued staffing of the Montague airport in Siskiyou County. It was staffed 7/24 in the years my father worked there, before transferring to Sonoma County. Staffing small rural airports, like fire-lookout towers for for Forest Service, is now a relic and distant memory.