Courtesy of TheNewYorkTimes.com | By Isobella Jade | Photo by Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times | Originally Published 06.21.2018 | Posted 07.14.2018
His house was destroyed in a fire, and all I have left are the ordinary items that were in his car. Memories are held within their scuffs and stains.
When my dad died at age 63 in a propane explosion that destroyed his home, there was nothing to claim besides what was in his car.
That was seven years ago, and in my long grieving process, the few everyday items I retrieved — stained, weathered, smelling of smoke, rusted and patched together — have become deeply meaningful. Memories are held within their scuffs and stains.
After years of bouncing around from apartment to apartment and a halfway house, my father had finally seemed settled out in the country near Syracuse, N.Y.
I thought I could worry about him less, until the morning of Feb. 26, 2011, when I heard about the explosion. I initially wanted to rush to the scene but ended up waiting a few days for the autopsy and cremation. I arranged a visit when I could pick up his urn at a local funeral home and take it back to Manhattan, where I lived.
On that visit, I started down my dad’s snowy driveway but stopped when I saw the charred shell of the former pole-barn that was his home. Chunks of debris and cinders covered the front. The rib cage of the barn was the only part intact. There was a rectangular shape that was once the front doorway, an opening where the kitchen window used to be, the grid of wood planks that made up the bathroom closet, and a big opening where my dad’s bedroom was. There was a huge gash on the roof as if the hand of God went in and ripped out the barn’s heart.
His car, a pre-owned white Hyundai Elantra, was unlocked and I slipped into the passenger seat for shelter from the cold. I pushed a few coffee cups and newspapers aside and just sat for a minute, among all that was left of my father’s world. I breathed in the smell of Newport cigarettes and old attic that used to cling to him. This car was his portable office. I’d never been in it before.
I scavenged through scraps of paper, half-broken pens, a stack of coffee-stained fliers, folders and envelopes, and many other random bits that looked as if they belonged in the trash. These were the only artifacts of my dad’s life. Anything with his handwriting on it caught my eye, and was put in the pile of remembrance.
In one of the cup holders I saw his thermos.
I imagined him drinking from it, using it every day, his breath on it. The coffee was completely frozen inside. Still I smelled the strong scent of dark coffee when I sniffed the rim. After rehab for his alcoholism there was a lot of coffee. Whenever I saw him he would be holding his thermos or a paper coffee cup, from a recent stop at a gas station for a refill. Greeting me, his breath against my cheek always smelled of stale warm coffee and cigarettes. He’d talk fast, peppy from the caffeine. After our chat at the train station in Syracuse, he would kiss my cheek goodbye, and the aroma of stale coffee breath would stay with me as my train lurched toward New York City.
In the other cup holder I found a pocketknife, a couple of keys and nail clippers, all held together by a key ring. He gave me a pocketknife like this one when I was 12. My parents had already been separated for a few years.
I found his old stained Giants hat in the back seat under a food pantry box full of cans of tuna, peas and corn, peanut butter and jelly, apple sauce and a bag of frozen oranges. The smashed hat was damp and smelled of last summer’s sweat and had probably been buried in here since then. My fingers touched the brim where he tried to hand-stitch the frayed edge back together. I could picture him with his jack-o’-lantern smile, wearing this hat to my last high school track meets, carrying a small bag of fruit for me. He wore it sometimes when we met at the train station too, when I was visiting from college. He wore it on the day he met my boyfriend — later to be my husband — and we all went to Onondaga Lake.
His sports jacket was hanging neatly on a coat hanger over the back door — he was ever the ready salesman. I smiled at his enthusiasm for knocking on doors, handing out fliers, and making calls from gas stations and coffee shops to get a lead for the home improvement contractors he worked with. He liked to dress for the part. He knew the clean, straight lines of the collar and brass buttons on the sports jacket were part of the pitch.
When I pressed my face into the jacket, the well-worn fabric felt slightly scratchy and I got a whiff of cigarettes. Even if it had a few stains on it and was paired with sneakers, it kept him looking sharp. When I went through the outer pockets of the jacket I pulled out some used tissues and eight sugar packets and a pen with his name on it. I put it all back into the pockets for safekeeping.
I received Dad’s rings at the funeral home when I went to pick up his urn. I gave one to my sister and kept this one. I took it to Greenwich St. Jewelers in downtown Manhattan but asked them not to clean the ring too much. I wanted to keep it partially raw to honor the reality that he had it on when he passed away. The original mazelike ring he loved had been stolen during a rough patch, some years back. I had seen a ring similar to the original at a silver jewelry street stand in SoHo so I bought it and gave it to him the next time I visited. He had worn a mazelike ring all of my childhood. The fact that this mazelike engraved ring was there on his finger was all the evidence I needed to know it was him.
I was surprised to find an orange pocket-size New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs. I opened it and found his name inside. Growing up, the name Jesus was something I heard when the car stalled or when my dad’s leg had to be wrapped in a big white brace because of gout pains. Recently, though, he had begun to go to church and had mentioned that he enjoyed socializing during the coffee hour after the service. He had even asked the pastor how he could be of help in the food pantry or in any other way. I’m sure he liked the free coffee and the opportunity to talk about the bigger picture, the purpose of all things.
In their creases and crevices, these items carried my dad’s scent, his wit, his long stories with a million tangents, his arching eyebrow, the way he looked obstacles in the eye, the tough times he’d been through and how he had just missed the gateway for a quiet, calmer life.
Isobella Jade is working on a memoir.