Sunday, December 14, 2008


My dad and I rake the yard for awhile Thanksgiving morning.

The activity is a pleasant one, the sunlight bouncing through the empty branches and the air, with the slightest hint of winter's chill, pinching our cheeks. Over the years he has developed a method to minimize wasted labor and maximize the amount of leaves in each barrel. I do not know all the rules, but it involves specific patterns of raking, the specialization of labor among rakers, and a large round metal pan to compress the leaves inside each garbage can.

A few weeks after beginning my first internship during college, the first period of more than a couple minutes I had spent in an office environment, I remember coming home (I lived in Albany that summer) and helping my father turn over the soil for the garden, remember using all of my muscles - arms, legs, back, shoulders - to perform the task. And I recall also, a feeling of gratitude for the chance to move like that after sitting for so many days in a row. Thanksgiving morning, it strikes me again, as it struck me that day four (?) and a half years ago: human beings are not intended to sit at a desk all day, every day. It is a virtue to stretch and use the muscles of our bodies as they were made to be used.

“Does it hurt your back?” I ask him.

“Naw it doesn't hurt my back,” he says jovially. “It hurts my arms.”

The brown oak leaves and the dark pink ones like dried rose petals from the Japanese maple lie scattered in the grass/moss/weeds in our yard, strewn by the wind and rain like a fragrantly autumnal potpourri. A few weeks ago, my good friend from high school recounted to me a conversation with a San Franciscan transplant who was aghast that anyone could enjoy living in New England. E. described the first day of each season (the first day of that season's weather, not the first day on the calendar), how there is a change in the air; you can feel it, smell it, and it magically brings you back to each of the two dozen other autumns or winters or springs of your life.

This day, raking with my father, brings me back even further than the span of my own life. He sent out an email to the extended family a few hours earlier. The Reillys, Dad's mother's family, recently off the boat, were living in Maine at the time of the 1918 flu epidemic.

Happy Thanksgiving. I hope this finds you well, today. We just got the pies made.

So I do not know what to make of this story. The dad and the oldest son just lost their lives. No income. There was panic in the surrounding community over the flu. The kids wore garlic necklaces to school, if they were going at all. And the church offered the family a free turkey to cheer them up.

Mary Reilly turned them down. We'd be OK with out the turkey.

I don't know if she was too proud to accept charity. Or she wasn't feeling very grateful. Or maybe she just wanted to rest.

The story touches on some of the darker elements of life, but through it, these people, our ancestors, maintained a certain dignity, just as, to use Beth's words, “Dad's writing has a certain elegance to it.” We talk about where this branch of humanity is headed, about the family reunion this past summer, about next year's reunion, whether we should make a huge water slide from a large tarpaulin greased up with some dish soap. You know. For the kids.

We finish up on the driveway and head inside the house. In the kitchen, he rolls up his sleeves to remove the elastic braces on his forearms. “See I have to wear these because the tendon starts to tear back from the muscle.”

“Why does it do that?”

“I'm getting old, honey. When you're old your body starts to fall apart. You have to be aware of which body parts are most at risk when performing a particular activity. And you act to minimize that risk. So I wear these.”

I do not think of my parents as old. And I do not really want to think of them like that, nor the inevitable, what happens to everyones parents, to everyone, actually, in the end. I never even knew my dad's parents.

Falling asleep on the sofa, because I no longer technically have a bedroom in that house, I am guarded by looming towers of my parents' possessions. And I realize: this is what I come home to, what I come from; this is a part of the package, whether I accept it or not. And it will probably be healthier to accept it. I think of going to visit my mom's parents when we were younger, the forces in her childhood that shaped the person she is today. I consider how the forces in my life so far have shaped who I am, my dad with his six computer monitors tracking the stock market in the tiny basement office, going out to work on the car during lulls in trading activity... my mother quietly collecting every single memento from our childhoods; writing lists of everyones favorite foods on the inside of the kitchen cabinets; carefully taking her rounds of herbal supplements each day, morning, noon, and night. To the ticking of the seasonal garden clock with its familiar sun and moon that rise and fall, I imagine my future children coming to visit my own parents, tiptoeing around tumbling stacks of documents and craft supplies.

Past. Present. Future. Connected to this eternal strand of evolving humanity. Yes. This is home.