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What we leave behind

Started: 2022-02-24 19:44:15

Submitted: 2022-02-24 23:04:02

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Looking through the things my grandfather left behind

The Sunday after my grandfather died I drove to Sacramento and looked through his stuff in his house.

My grandparents' living room
My grandparents' living room

This is the house that I visited on family holidays as a kid growing up in the Bay Area. I remember driving across the lower deck of the Bay Bridge, over the now-demolished eastern span, then continuing the rest of the way to Sacramento on I-80. (On some occasions we must have driven through the Caldecot Tunnels on our way out of the Bay Area, a memory that confused me when I moved back to the Bay Area as an adult and tried to reconcile my memory of driving through tunnels to get to Sacramento with the fact that there are no tunnels on the direct route via I-80 from San Francisco to Sacramento.) At Christmas there was a massive tree in the living room, visible from the entry, and a brood of cousins running around the house.

My grandparents lived in this house when I was born. It's the one place that I've visited consistently throughout my entire life, from a small child into adulthood, then bringing my own children here. I brought Kiesa here to meet my extended family a week after we got engaged. When I parked on the street in front of their house and walked down the steps to the front door, I was aware that this was one of the last times I'd ever visit this house again. A chapter of my life was closing.

My parents had driven down from Walla Walla the previous week to help go through his house, and to begin to claim my grandfather's possessions now that he was no longer in a position to use them. I met them at the house and started looking around, over the piles of puzzles that had collected in the dining room. One of the puzzles had been printed from the six-year-old photo of my family, with my grandparents in the center surrounded by their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. My grandfather's health had been declining for years, since my grandmother died; the house was clearly not as tidy as it had been when my grandparents were able to keep it up.

Logan family photo as a puzzle
Logan family photo as a puzzle

I opened a file cabinet at random and found a folder with my grandparents' old passports, including their 1980s passport photos and international drivers licenses. Their passport entry stamps were just as incomprehensible as the ones in my passports. I helped my father move the file cabinets around to gain access to more built-in cabinets, packed full of more stuff. There were trinkets and books and papers piled everywhere. One artifact in particular caught my eye: a brass model of a P-38 that my father thought was probably built by my great uncle Ken while serving in the Pacific Theater, built from bullets and scraps from the war.

P-38 model built from anti-aircraft shells
P-38 model built from anti-aircraft shells

I went into the garage and started looking through my grandfather's workbench and wood shop. I remember him doing wood-working when I was younger — he made an elaborate dollhouse for my sister — but I don't think I ever saw him actually build anything. (To be fair, it probably would have been unwieldy to have me as a small child looking around while my grandfather used power tools.) I looked over his wood shop tools and wondered whether I'd be able to use any of them and decided that I didn't know enough about the power tools to use them properly (though the drill press did look interesting).

Garage woodshop
Garage woodshop

I found it fascinating to go through the work bench and tool set, looking through the tools across multiple decades. I found a solidly-built corded hand drill (but aged and worn out, with a dangerously-frayed power cord) next to a newer Ryobi corded drill in good condition and a cordless Ryobi drill in a carrying case that looked identical to the one I bought fifteen years ago and still use today. (The cordless drill's batteries didn't work and wouldn't charge with the charger in the case, so I couldn't check whether the drill was working.) I found several carrying cases full of Dremel bits for every possible grinding need, and only at the end of the garage did I find the Dremel tool to use the bits. I climbed up and down the ladder looking at the upper shelves and trying to identify the tools and equipment and other random things. (There was even an undated can of DDT on the shelf, which I carefully avoided, as a fascinating historical relic.)

Workbench in the garage
Workbench in the garage

My grandfather's collection of screws and bolts and nails and drywall anchors looked substantially similar to mine, though larger in size and rather better organized, in the subdivided carrying cases under the workbench. I didn't think I'd really use most of the tools (I already have various power saws), but I found a tap and die set that I claimed as a tangible memento, along with a couple of carrying cases.

More tools in the garage
More tools in the garage

In small wooden chest of drawers on the side of the workbench I found a neatly-organized selection of dental picks, and some tools for maintaining them at the proper shape. I learned that these dental tools had originated from my grandfather's time in dental school decades ago.

Merritt's dental picks
Merritt's dental picks

Following up on the dental body horror theme I found a collection of small sculptures of dentists, ranging from kitschy to terrifying, all of them a little creepy. Most of them were holding large bloody teeth in oversized pliers. They were all packed together on a little shelf in the room at the front of the house. (I keep wanting to call this the "office", but there's no door, and the name "office" applies better to one of the lower bedrooms that usually had a desk.) I have no idea how all of these artifacts came into my grandfather's possession; given the lack of a unifying aesthetic my first guess is they all were gifts from random people at random times. Or possibly my grandparents collected them from little shops they visited, like the lengthy visit to a little shop on Pearl Street called The Mole Hole that traumatized my sister and I when our grandparents visited Boulder in the 1990s.

A bunch of creepy dental sculptures
A bunch of creepy dental sculptures

Going through my grandfather's stuff I couldn't help but think about all the stuff I have: collected in boxes in the garage (many of them still unpacked since we moved last summer), and stacks of papers collected over the years. He's had more than twice as long as I have to collect stuff, and he's been living in this house for more than forty years.

My grandfather was an avid photographer and took pictures of just about everything and everyone. He spent most of his life taking pictures on film, and he printed all of the pictures (which was, to be fair, the convention for what one did at the time) and filled photo albums with all of the pictures he took, complete with pithy descriptions of the pictures. These albums, going back decades, were stacked in every room, some stacks four feet high. I mostly ignored the photo albums on my visit; there were too many of them for me to make much headway, and I didn't think I'd recognize enough of the people or context anyway. (As a point of comparison, my lifetime photo archive has more than 12,000 pictures, but they're all digital. If they were in physical form they'd take considerably more space; "Please don't print it all out", my mother requested when I pointed this out.)

In addition to the albums I found shoe boxes full of pictures of uncertain provenance: probably outtakes. They weren't even dated, and I couldn't begin to wrap my mind around the process of going through all of the shoeboxes to see what was in there. (Just now, while writing this all down, it just occurred to me to wonder how he kept his negatives; and now, having posed the question in my mind, I'm afraid to ask because I probably just don't want to know.) In the closet in the primary bedroom I found boxes of printouts of emails from the early aughts, including forwarded jokes, and an email Bethany sent from her year in France in undergrad.

I stepped out onto the back deck and looked down the hill in the afternoon sun. The tall grass carpeting the steep hill was green in the winter rainy season, and the oak trees towering above were dormant. This was the deck where I'd run around and climb around below the deck with my cousins. My grandfather rebuilt the deck a decade ago, changing the layout a bit and updating the planks, but the idea was the same so I claim it as the same deck.

My grandparents' deck
My grandparents' deck

After an afternoon at my grandfather's house looking through the things he left behind, I drove back home into the setting sun to Santa Cruz.

Unlike most of you, I get to bed at a reasonable hour.
- Dr. Show, to physics class, 20 August 1999