Monday, July 21, 2008

THE ULTIMATE KINDNESS

My father came from a family of collectors. That is, if you would use "collector" to describe Fred Sanford. Dad's entire family had something in their genetic code that caused them to accumulate what most of us would consider abject junk. For instance, as a kid, when we visited my aunt, we had to walk through the house on a narrow, maze-like path wending through mounds of junk, piles of newspapers and magazines, stacks of flea market "bargains." When you sat in a chair, you could lean your head back against the pile of magazines behind you. And recently, after one of my dad's brothers died, his wife found a huge bin filled with hundreds and hundreds of plastic balls from roll-on deodorant. That was just one of the "treasures" she's wading through in a workshop the size of a large house. And then there's the piles of stuff in the yard, in the house, the junked cars. It is a legacy that will take my aunt the better part of a decade to unload.

While my father had the same tendencies, he did a better job of keeping it in check (thanks in part to my mom walking behind him with a shovel). His collections tended toward more utilitarian things like tools and clothing. But left unchecked he would start stockpiling. Any time he picked up a new hobby, of which there were many, he accumulated all the accoutrement. When he started golfing, he bought successive set of clubs, raincoats, golfball washers, hand carts and minor doodads like handfuls of decorative ball markers. When he started painting, the garage filled up with bins of brushes, tube after tube of paint, easels, canvases and frames. Sculpting, jewelry making, gardening, landscaping. Each hobby came with all new tools.

When dad was in his early 60s he had a massive heart attack that destroyed more than a third of his heart. His doctors told my mother and me that there was only a 50% chance he would be with us five years later. But despite several more episodes and a few minor strokes dad kept trekking for another 14 years. However that heart attack realigned his image of the world as his storage unit. For many years before he died, he methodically began to divest himself of decades and decades of stuff. He gave away, threw away, sold and bartered until at the time of his death, he left us one closet full of clothing, one small bookshelf of tools, the computer equipment from his still-active appraisal business and one beautifully distilled drawer of keepsakes.

As with any act of kindness, the value of it is seeded by the level of effort behind it. Even though I did not inherit that collector's gene, I go through intense emotional upheaval as I dispose of my stuff. And I do it for very selfish reasons: because I want to live on a boat. My father, who must have paid an immense emotional toll during the process, did it as an act of pure selflessness: because he wanted to leave us a legacy of treasures, not burdens.

It was the ultimate act of kindness.

1 comment:

Boyd Barrett said...

I love the tribute to your dad. Beautifully written. Emotions did a little moving around inside me. I'll look forward to reading your blog as your adventure continues.