My grandmother asked my brothers
and me to clean up the pole barn
. A pole barn is a wonderful contraption of fiberglass
, corrugated tin
and spare boards put together in a seemingly haphazard fashion that lasts until it is no longer needed. My grandmother is similar in a lot of ways.
So on a warm, Midwestern Labor Day we undertook the job. My brother Chris started by cleaning out the pests, conducting a late night battle with hornets, mice, possum, bats, bees and whatever else stood in his way. It was a dew-soaked war, conducted with a can of poison in one hand, a pint of schnapps in the other and a cigarette hanging out his mouth. It makes me laugh to think of his clown big gestures and fluent curses in the light of a bare bulb ducking away from angry hornets.
The barn had been my grandpa's workshop. He would work in their creating cardinals out of pine boards, giving them balsa wings that spun like you've never seen in a good breeze. Or he'd make little windmills out of aluminum pop cans, mobiles from the spare parts and scraps laying around. It was all crap I guess, but he was an old tool-and-die man, and couldn't think but that he was creating something with his hands. It's been a long time since I've built something with my hands.
Grandpa died, and grandma buried her second consecutive husband. The other died doing cop stuff before I was born. Now grandma is laced with cancer and has had to have both her breasts removed. She excretes into a bag and takes about a thousand pills a day. She can't really taste her food anymore, so eats out of habit. If you ask her how she's doing she'll say "Some days are better than others" even if every motion of her arm is agonizing pain. She lived through a Great Depression, two World Wars, police actions that killed her nephews, two husbands, three miscarriages, and the epic disappointment that is my mother. Cancer is not going to make her cry or feel sorry for herself any more than any of these other things did.
She asks my brothers and me to clean the barn because the barn has always been the domain of Men and she would not, even in Death, think of intruding on my grandfather's space. Still, it needs to get done. She wants to have an auction for all the tools and bits that are in there. I don't have the heart to tell her it's mostly junk, and nobody would bother with it at auction.
Everyone needs a Method and ours is to put everything in the barn into three piles. In the first pile is the stuff we can sell, the good stuff that someone else will surely value.
In the second pile is the stuff we might convince the Salvation Army to take. Old tools. An air compressor mounted on a push lawnmower. 1800 types of screws. Stuff that's not really bad, but no one's going to go out of their way to take.
In the third pile is the junk. Stuff we might as well burn or take to the dump down the road as soon as we can. Rusty tools. A Western saddle that got moldy. A broken sled. Some old shingles, boards, baling twine and hundreds of other llittle treasures that delighted me as a boy, but are in my way as an adult.
At first grandma hovers, makes a case for every little item to go in the "valuable" pile. Most of the evidence is in the story of the item. "Your mother used that saddle when she rode her Appaloosa mare, Flicka, in the state finals." "That drill was a gift I gave to your grandfather for our tenth wedding anniversary." My brothers and I nod, listen to the stories, but toss the drill and the saddle into the junk pile.
The sun begins to set, deeper orange than you can imagine, over neat rows of pines and neat patches of farm land. Everything is harvested. The corn is all dry yellow stalks poking at improbable angles from the ground. Soon, before the first frost, Mr. Fisk will plow the fields to prepare them for winter. We're loading up the junk truck and grandma has mostly fallen silent. The pile of valuable stuff, stuff we think someone will buy, is pretty pathetically small. She barely looks at it. The pile of stuff we think we might be able to give away is slightly bigger, but also the most uninteresting of the piles. What she watches most is the pile of junk, of the items we, her grandchildren, have decided is worthless. After a little while she mentions it's getting chilly and heads back into the same house she's lived for 80 years to put some coffee on for us.
I want to go and tell her that this stuff isn't really junk, but we both know better. I want to tell her that the difference a life makes, especially her life, can't be separated into little piles meant for the auction. I want to take her parchment hands into my own and tell her that most of her life falls into that first pile anyway, that she has produced things that are of value to those who have known her, and we have taken liberally from that pile all our lives.
Instead, we finish up and go in for some coffee and sugar cookies. We listen to grandma tell a funny story about the first time my dad came over and ended up helping to deliver a foal. We watch her grimace as she takes her meds and we say goodnight. Sweet dreams. Don't let the bed bugs bite.