January 8, 2009 · By Kathee
(LSW circa July 1999) It was my second trip to California for a visit to Dad’s house in Pacific Beach since he passed away seven months earlier.
During my first trip, three months before, I couldn’t bring myself to ask Dad’s widow to leave the house while I took time alone to go through Dad’s personal effects. Not only did it feel awkward to have to ask her to leave the house in which she temporarily resided, I was even more uncomfortable with the thought of rummaging through Dad’s personal belongings in the first place. I knew it would be emotional and I didn’t want to share the moment with anyone other than myself. I finally chose to make another trip in a few months when I was more comfortable with the task. By then, Dad’s widow would have moved out and I could take my time to see what my father had that I might want for a keepsake.
The whole purpose of my second trip was to spend an entire week going through my father’s personal possessions at my leisure. Not that he had that much in material possessions, but I knew many of his possessions would spark memories or emotional responses in me and I felt I needed at least that much time to accomplish the tasks. My brother, Bruce, would help.
My children had expressed an interest in something, anything of their granddad’s that they could keep as a memory of him. I drove my truck out specifically to load things up to take back to Arizona.
It was Monday afternoon when I arrived. My father’s widow had just purchased a mobile home in another city and I learned that the home had been delivered to the lot that same day. She told me it would take about six weeks for the manufacturer to set it up before she could move.
She then dropped the bombshell:
“Would you mind waiting until after I move before removing your father’s things?”
She said it would upset her to see me take anything of Dad’s out of the house while she was still living there – that the place would seem even emptier with furniture removed.
I was upset that she had the nerve to make that request, especially knowing I was coming out especially for this purpose. I felt my memories trumped her’s. I had 47 years of memories with my father, she only had one year with him. I gritted my teeth and I chose to bite the bullet, but only out of respect for my father and his wishes. She was his widow and before Dad died, he asked my brother and I not rush her to move out, to give her a year to make suitable living arrangements. I agreed to wait to remove any furniture until after she moved. It would only be six more weeks.
I knew in advance that it would be eerie sleeping in Dad’s house when he wasn’t even there to host my visit. Knowing Dad had been there and was not there now and was not going to be there ever again bothered me the most at nighttime when things were quiet and I found myself pondering over the permanence of his death.
I had over forty years of memories of the home of my childhood, coming to visit Dad and many more fond memories of living there during my happy childhood.
Each night I endured the ritual of tossing and turning while attempting sleep in the room of my childhood. Sleep would never come. I would eventually grab the blanket off the bed and go out to the livingroom to sleep on the couch, a sleep would come only with all of the lights turned on.
Dad took his last breath in the living room. My choice to sleep in that room was disturbing to me – it bordered on the surreal. Maybe I needed a sense of connectedness with Dad. In reality though, I actually think I simply liked the comfort of the living room. Dad’s overstuffed, wing-back chair was there after all.
My mother had told me that the chair was her’s and my dad’s first piece of furniture; bought second hand shortly after they married in 1947. The green vinyl chair was very comfortable and worth every bit of the fifty cents they paid for it.
As a toddler, my baby doll’s hot water bottle bounced under the chair and I couldn’t reach it. Mom came to my rescue and tilted the chair backwards to retrieve it for me. I was happy.
As a small child, when my maternal grandparents came to visit, I used to hide behind the chair. I was shy.
When my brother and I played with matches and started a grass fire in our yard, we hid behind the chair when Dad came home, and listened while Mom informed him of what we had done. We were scared.
I was caught smoking in junior high school and was suspended from school for a week. That night, I had to tell Dad what I had done. He was sitting in his chair and I sat on his lap as he listened to me confess. I bawled as I buried my face in his chest.
My four children giggled and climbed all over their granddad while he sat in his chair. I was touched…it was me all over again.
Dad had the chair recovered countless times over the years. The seat of the chair got narrower with each re-upholstery.
Shortly after Dad died, I emailed my brother and asked him if I could have Dad’s chair. He replied that he had similar thoughts about the chair. The chair had always been there as long as we could remember. It was… Dad’s chair.
The chair was well worn and basically worthless for resale, but was priceless in memories to us. I really wanted to be selfish — I wanted to demand that Bruce let me have the chair.
Compromising, I wrote back to Bruce and informed him that the chair held so many memories for me; I said I wanted to be the one to keep it. But, if seniority rules…if he insisted on the chair, then I would let him have it on the condition that it stay only with him or be returned to me if he ever chose to discard it. I could do that much, even though I felt the memory of that chair was greater for me than for my brother. I was the sentimenal one.
Bruce wrote back a few days later and said I could have the chair.
I could have Dad’s chair! I was elated.
My brother made several trips over to Dad’s house during my second trip and together we solemnly discussed arrangements we would make for the bulk of our father’s things – items we felt that no one in our respective families would want. Dad didn’t have much in the way of material possessions, just his house and a gun collection in his workshop located in a room behind the garage. I had no interest in the rifles – I didn’t hunt, and I certainly didn’t have use for the countless cans of ammunition Dad used to load his own bullets.
One of the days during my trip, my brother and I sat out on Dad’s back patio for lunch while I ran loads of laundry inside the garage. It was uncomfortable for us to discuss Dad’s personal possessions, but it was something that needed to be done. I asked Bruce if he had any interest in Dad’s photographs – there were several boxes of albums in the house. He suggested that I just take them home; we could go through them another time.
I agreed to come back in September to help some more with the house and pick up the chair and the items I wanted my children to have. I left Dad’s house on Thursday, seeing no need to continue going through Dad’s house during this trip since I couldn’t take anything. I loaded up the truck’s cab with the three boxes of picture albums that spanned Dad’s entire life. I bid Dad’s widow goodbye, thanked her for her hospitality and wished good luck in her new home. I knew I’d never see her again. I then left Dad’s house to spend a couple of days with my mother and then returned home to Arizona on Saturday.
Late Tuesday night of the following week, I received a phone call from my brother. My brother seldom calls and the first words out of my mouth were, “Oh no, is it bad news isn’t it?”
I listened to his reply of “yes” and I met his request to sit down. I thought of my mother and wondered how I could suffer through the loss of her – I had not had time to get over my loss of Dad. “Is it Mom?” I asked. I was shaken and it seemed like an eternity before my brother spoke again.
“No, it’s not Mom”, he said.
“Oh no, it’s my stepfather.” I thought to myself and I wondered how Mom was holding up. Tears welled up in my eyes as I anticipated hearing the bad news.
My brother then informed me that we lost the house. “What do you mean we … LOST … the house?” I screamed. He told me, “there was a fire, it blew up, and it is kaput, gone.”
“Gone? Oh no,” I wailed, “what about the chair?”
Gone? How can that be…Bruce said I could have the chair.
Now the chair was completely wiped out in the fire. Anger rose in me. I had to deal with the evil thoughts I directed against Dad’s widow for asking me to wait on removing furniture. If she had only moved a month earlier, I’d have the chair. If only she hadn’t been so selfish and asked me not to take anything the week before…I mourned.
Now, I had nothing of Dad’s to keep, nothing to pass down to my children. The few things that I had felt were worthwhile keepsakes were now completely destroyed, obliterated, gone forever.
Suddenly, everything my father owned became significantly important. I longed for something to call mine as a keepsake. His favorite glass, his bed, his jewelry, his clothing – anything. There was nothing worthy of salvage. The stress of the fire was greater than any stress I’d experienced in life. I mourned the loss of Dad all over again.
The fire started in the garage, apparently the result of an old, out of code water heater. Fueled by fumes and chemicals in the garage, the fire quickly spread to Dad’s workshop where the ammunition was stored. It took no time at all for the fire to reach the explosives, literally blowing the roof off the garage in the process. The house was gutted before the fire department arrived. Fortunately, there was no loss of life – Dad’s widow was inside the house at the time.
Three months later, I took yet another trip to California. This time, I drove to the restoration company’s warehouse where Dad’s chair had been stored at my request since the fire.
Walking in to the warehouse felt like walking into a morgue. I was somber and felt I was there to identify the body. I was directed to a small corner that held what was and was not salvageable. An afghan blanket had been draped over the chair before the fire. The intensity of the fire melted the pattern of the afghan into what was left of the fabric and stuffing. The water from the fire hoses, had distorted the shape of the chair and shrunk most of its material.
I loaded up two small dressers from Dad’s bedroom and the charred remains of the chair, then headed back home to Arizona.
After learning of the chair’s fate during the fire, my husband and I had spoken to one of our neighbors who upholstered furniture for a living. He indicated that he could probably rebuild the chair if the fire hadn’t gotten to the wood.
As soon as I came within cell phone range of home, I called my beloved husband to tell him the chair can be salvaged. I asked him to call our neighbor. “Tell him I have the chair…I’m on my way.”