This photo seems like a run-of-the mill snapshot, doesn’t it?
Not to me.
To me, this photograph is loaded with meaning, so much meaning I don’t even know where to begin (though I know where to end).
This is a photograph, taken late in the afternoon of Independence Day 1995, showing Jeff and me playing croquet. Dad is walking over to sit on the porch. He has only seventeen more days to live.
Notable elements in this photograph:
- The house
- This is the house in which my father was raised (and Aunt Virginia, too). It is Grandma’s House (or, less often, Grandpa’s House). My grandparents moved here in the late 1940s, and every picture I have of my father as a child shows him someplace on this property. The house is just a quarter mile from Custom Box Service, which itself is housed in the trailer house where I was raised. This is the house where we’d meet all our cousins, ride on Grandpa’s tractor, tromp back to the woods, pick corn and blueberries and flowers. This is the house where I learned to play Scrabble, where I used Bible tracts to learn to read. This is the house with the big chest freezer on the back porch, stocked with Popsicles. This is the house where the pantry was filled with canned fruit, the pantry which smelled rich and thick and musty. This is the house where we gathered and sang as Grandma died. This is Grandma’s House. I grew up here.
- The tree
- Between the house and the croquet players stands a flowering plum. When I was a child, this was my favorite tree. Every other tree I knew had green leaves, but this tree’s leaves were red. It was also a relatively young tree, and though its branches were tightly bunched at the trunk, it was easy for me to climb. It’s the first tree I ever climbed. Later, when I was a bit taller, the oak tree in the back yard became my tree of choice. It was stouter, with more room to maneuver. In the uncropped version of this photo, the oak peers over the rooftop in the upper left corner.
- The barn (and outbuildings)
- Also in the ucropped version of this photo, one can see the barn looming in the upper right corner. In the photo as shown, only the woodshed is visible, behind me (and my lovely plaid Costco shirt), to the right of the house. I don’t know if Grandpa built these outbuildings (Virginia, do you know?). Regardless, they were the playhouses of my youth. In the barn, we’d torment the cows, play with the tools, or climb to the hay loft where we’d burrow in the bales or walk across the strange slatted floor. We’d help Grandpa split firewood from the woodshed or, across the wall, we’d watch the indicator for the electric fence buzz on and off. Bzzzt. Bzzzt. One of the outbuildings we actually called a playhouse, and it was furnished with a little table and chairs and plates and glasses, etc. (Only recently did I learn that it was a good thing we didn’t play with everything in the playhouse — Grandpa stored his blasting equipment there!)
- The Geo Storm
- Just to Jeff’s right my Geo Storm is visible. I had a love-hate relationship with that vehicle. It drove well, it’s true, and it took a tremendous amount of abuse. But the seat made my back sore, and the car was always dirty, no matter how hard I tried to clean it. The back seat was uncomfortable for passengers. When the Storm was totaled in December 2000, I wasn’t sad for long; the joy of my new Ford Focus masked any sorrow. Now, though, I miss the blue beast, especially its manual transmission. Oh, how I hate automatics…
- Jeff and J.D.
- There we are: playing croquet. I’m kicking Jeff’s ass! We both look rather chunky; we each weigh over two hundred pounds. Three years later I will have dropped forty pounds. Five years later, Jeff will have done the same. Today, in 2003, we’re both back up over two hundred pounds.
- Behind us, stretched on the lawn, is an orange and white cat named Snickers. Snickers and my cat, Toto, are littermates, though Snickers is possessed of a much sweeter temperament. Snickers is just over a year old in this photograph, and not yet Mom’s devoted baby. They’d bond later…
- This was Dad’s last Independence Day. The last year of his life. The last month. This was one of his bad days. He didn’t feel well. He couldn’t eat much. The cancer inside of him had won the battle and was now overwhelming his last defenses. He’d once weighed 240, but when this photograph was taken he probably weighed 180. Maybe 160. (His weight-loss is due both to the cancer and to the macrobiotic diet.) Here he’s walked from the back of the house to sit on the front steps and watch us play croquet. He won’t say much. He’ll simply spend twenty minutes watching his sons hit balls with mallets. It’s the last time in his life he’ll do anything of that sort. Over the next seventeen days, he’ll spend a lot of time in the hospital, undergoing various cancer treatments. He’ll also sleep a lot. Two weeks from this day, on the eighteenth, he’ll sit with me in his office and without a hint of hope for the future he’ll outline those things that he absolutely wants me to know above all others about the business (he’s especially worried about collecting on past-due accounts, doesn’t think any of us are ready to do that). All animosity between us is gone. We’re free of it. Three days after that meeting, seventeen days after this photograph was taken, he’ll be dead. I’ll be making sales calls in Salem and Tash will call and tell me to come back to the shop immediately: Dad’s in trouble. I drive fast, but when I get to the office, things seem better. Mom and Dad are at the hospital and he’s under observation. Jeff and I get together with Joel and Sabino and Roger to play games, the first of a planned series of game nights. I make fajitas for dinner. The fajitas are sizzling on the stove when Mom calls, crying, and tells me that we’d better get to the hospital right now. It’s rush hour. Jeff drives from Canby to North Portland as quicky as possible, but when we get there, he’s gone. It’s 6:00 p.m. on 21 July 1995, just ten days before his fiftieth birthday.
This is the last photograph I have of Dad before his death. It may not look like much, but it’s packed with meaning.
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