by Rick Beck
I didn't know what to expect when I was on my way to the farm, but what I'd learned didn't change anything. It did offer me some insights into my father as a man.
He hadn't been in my thoughts in years. Hearing he was sick stirred no emotion. Sitting across from him, I couldn't find the anger I once felt for him. Maybe time does heal all wounds. Maybe the fact he was dying mellowed us both.
I'd go through the trunk. I might find something of my mother's I wanted. Maybe I'd find something in my room.
"Son," my father said, as I looked down through the hole in the ceiling.
"Keep your eye open for the history of the farm. It's in one of my journals up there. I used to write a bit. Look for a composition books like you used in school."
"I sat a spell with your grandfather before he died. I wrote down the Sorenson history. It's something you might want to keep. It goes back to the 1860s when my father's grandfather came to America and cleared this land. Your mama read them. She held onto them after we married."
"I'll keep an eye out. You think it's up here?"
"I did all the writing I was going to do before I met your mother. She put them somewhere. I never ran across them, but I just now though about Pa telling me the farm's history. Sounds like something you might like."
"Junior read it. He could add things about when we were growing up. Your Uncle Ralph wouldn't be any good at it. He could probably tell you the names of the girls he fancied."
"Uncle Ralph a ladies men. That is a surprise," I said.
"If there was a watering hole, Ralph was drinking from it."
"He is a salesman, Dad ," I said.
"Your mama and grandma used composition books to keep the farm's records. Might be a passel of them somewhere."
"OK , Dad. You rest and I'll see what I can find."
My father as a writer was another surprise. I started out to be a writer, but I needed to eat, so I had to get a job. I wrote my script every day but Hemingway I wasn't. A lot of writers were journalists in his day."
I didn't know much about my father. We never talked as I recalled. He was always in the field. He was at the table for dinner but he didn't have much to say. We lived in the same house for eighteen years and we didn't know each other.
My father could have shipped the trunk and my things to me. He didn't need to call. There was more to being called home than met the eye. I might never know why.
As a journalist I was paid to read between the lines. It wasn't what was said that told the story as much as what was left out. My father wanted to see his son before he died.
I never wrote my father. I didn't ask him about his life. I didn't come to Iowa to find my father. I came for the same reason he called. Perhaps we could put the past to rest.
As I opened the trunk, a colorful sweater came into view. I held it to my nose and imagined I smelled my mother.
Grandma Sorenson brought me a piece of my mother's clothing after she died. I was in bed crying, as I did each night after she died.
When I took what she brought me, she said, 'Smell it and tell me what you smell."
"My mother," I told her, absolutely amazed.
At nine I didn't understand it but that smell put me to sleep every night. Somewhere along the line the piece of clothing with the smell disappeared, but it got me through the hard times.
I carefully placed the sweater to one side, uncovering the secret of the smell. Essence of Lavender was on the oddly shaped bottle. I unscrewed the cap and inhaled a familiar fragrance. It was the scent of my mother. The sweater had been scented with it before the trunk was closed.
I sensed Grandma's hand at work.
I put the perfume with the sweater.
Looking back into the truck, I saw my mother smiling at me out of a photograph of her and my father. They were in front of the church. Mama held a bouquet and my father wore an ill-fitted suit. They were younger than I was now.
I couldn't hold back the tears. I hadn't cried since she died.
Seeing my mother gave me joy. I had no pictures of her or my father. I set the picture on top of the sweater. I wiped my eyes with the heel of my hands.
Thinking about my mother no longer hurt. Her loss was a source of constant anguish back then. Time had healed that little boy's wound.
I reached for my wrist.
That's when I realized my watch was on the nightstand at home. My life was all about schedules and time. I hadn't checked the time for an entire day. How odd was that?
A commuter flight for O'Hare left every other hour until nine at night. I'd be fine. They always ran late. I never did.
I worked my way into the middle of the trunk finding small items, ear rings and a necklace. The next big item was a scrapbook with Clark Gable's, John Garfield's, Judy Garland in the ruby slippers, and Bette Dais's picture. Each picture took up an entire page.
My mother liked movies.
I saw myself in a theater with my mother and father. We had popcorn, I remembered. Where was there a theater?
In between two scrapbooks was a tracing of my head from second grade, Mrs. Johnson's class. I'd printed Bobby Sorenson under the cutout of my head. We pasted it on a sheet of colored crepe paper. I'd given it to my mother.
She hung it in the kitchen. That's where it was the last time I remembered seeing it, but here it was in her trunk. I put the rendering of my seven year old head on top of the other things. My mother had once cherished it. I would keep it.
I sat on the floor and thought about nothing. My mind wandered from one thing to the next without focusing. There were images out of my past that flashed into and out of my brain. Once more I felt like I was a child again.
I took off my jacket, laying it across the open trunk lid. I was sweating. The air in the attic was stale. I looked at the half empty trunk and the pile of things I set aside to take.
Why did I want things I didn't know existed an hour ago?
I sat without having a purpose. I needed to cool off. The sun had obviously come back out. The humidity was on the rise.
Welcome to Iowa!
After a few minutes of indecision, I moved down the ladder out of the attic. I was hungry. I went back to the kitchen and turned the heat on under the coffee pot.
I felt cooler. My wet shirt clung to me. I loosened my tie.
I heard my father in the parlor as I sat back in front of my coffee cup. I was hungry and wondered how we'd deal with getting something to eat.
"Don't do that, son," Dad said, moving the coffee pot off the flame. "That'll be so strong you'll need to chisel it out of the pot. I'll fix fresh. Won't take a minute."
"Don't bother with that, Dad. I can drink strong coffee. Actually I'm hungry. You sleep in the parlor? Your bed would be more comfortable."
"Nowhere is comfortable. The davenport fits the bends in my body. I just let the bones down where I am when I need to. The stairs give me trouble now. It's best I stay off them.
"I didn't get to the store to put anything in for you to eat. We can drive down to the diner and get a bite. The coffee is tolerable. The A&P over in Sims is the closest place for groceries. I don't drive. My eyes are.... Junior hasn't had time to take me this week. He didn't know you were coming.
"I haven't had time to tell him I called you. Anyway, I'll get my sweater. You can drive us. I have a bit of an appetite today and the diner suits me fine."
I guess we were going to eat. It wouldn't take long. I held the door open for him to sit in the passenger seat.
"Just go into town and turn the opposite way on the road that goes to your school. They'll be open. Did you find those journals?"
"No, I got sidetracked down memory lane. I'm only half way through. I'll keep my eyes open and poke around once I empty that trunk."
"Well, if you want, may as well send the whole kit and caboodle out to you, son. They don't make trunks like that any more."
"I suppose not. I still want to see what's there now that I've started on it. I'll look for those journals when I'm done."
"Your mama took those journals out from time to time. When she did the books she got the journals out. Then she'd read from them. You'll find a pile of them somewhere."
"I'll find them before I leave, Dad. Don't worry about it. I'll take them back with me. I'll want to read our history."
I got to the school road and turned left.
"I'm going to be cremated, Bobby! I've decided I don't want to be in the ground. I've told your uncles. I've been in the dirt all my life. I want to be set free. The book says, 'Ashes to ashes, dust to dust." I'll go straight to the ashes and save a lot of laying around trying to get there.
"You aren't going to be buried with Mama? I thought you'd want to be with Mama? There's a plot beside her!"
"I just told you, I'm going to be cremated. They'll spread me out in the meadows. It's how I want it, Bobby. Besides, your grandma is in the plot beside your mother by the church. Those were my mother's plots. Pa wanted to be in the meadows. It's a long story but I'm being cremated. It's already arranged. All I got to do is lie down and die.
"OK! OK! I'm just surprised. I figured.... You say what you want and I'll see to it," I said, saying more than I should.
I could feel my father's eyes on me as I turned into the diner parking lot.
"Sorry, Bobby. I do get on edge about certain things. I don't expect anyone to understand why I want what I want. Once I'm gone, no one will care. In those journals you're taking back with you, there's a story I wrote about someone I was particularly fond of long before I met your mama. Read that and it explains things better than I can."
"I didn't say anything, Dad. We'll follow your wishes," I said. "I'll read what you wrote. I'll find the journals before I go. The house isn't that big. They're probably in the attic."
It wasn't like it mattered once someone was dead. My mother wanted to be at the church. I'm sure it's what my grandmother wanted. Men aren't so worried about where they end up.
"Your mother was a kind and gentle woman who had the misfortune of falling in love with a farmer. She deserved better. She wanted to be where I was in spite of her poor health. It's just the way life is."
There was one waitress and a cook; three old men sat in the last booth in the back of the restaurant. My father nodded and the men nodded back. He didn't interrupt them.
"Howdy, Mr. S. Where you been hiding yourself, sweetheart? You bring your insurance man with you? We don't get many folks gussied up in here," she said, dwelling on my outfit. "I ain't got no insurance and couldn't afford it if I wanted any."
"My son, Hildi. This is Hildi, Bobby. I'll have the meatloaf special if Horace hasn't eaten it all by this time."
"Oh, no, Mr. S. I keep an eye on him so he leaves some for the customers. How about you, Bobby S.?" She asked, turning her attention to me.
"I'll have the same."
"We want coffee," my father ordered, "And if you're still working out of the first pot you made this morning, you can fix us fresh."
"Yes, sir, Mr. S, fresh coffee all around. You look tired. You feeling OK, hon?"
"Fine!" Dad said. "Just getting old, Hildi."
My father left out that he was dying.
"Arles passed, Robert," a red faced man said, standing next to my father's chair. "You know they put him up in that home where they put us when we're too feeble to feed ourselves. Found him dead up there about a week ago."
"Sorry to hear that," Dad said. "Good man, Arles. He'd been up there a spell. I won't ever go up there."
"Four years he was there. Didn't know his own name. We'll all be dead one day," the man reminded us. "I'll do it without a stop over at the home."
"Me either ," Dad said. "I decided I'm not going when my time comes. Who'll watch my farm?"
"Oh, the bankers watch our farms, Robert. You didn't know that? They keep an eye on our land."
Both men laughed.
There were no inquiries about health or crops or any of the things I'd expect on a lazy afternoon in a quiet farm town at harvest time. These men had sons who did the farming now. They drank coffee and remembered how it used to be before they were put out to pasture.
The food was served right away and it was surprisingly good. The coffee was about half the strength of what my father brewed. I had no urge to get up and do laps after drinking several cups with our dinner. My stomach was more than happy to get its fill.
I'd buy a couple of candy bars when I reached O'Hare. They'd get me back to Portland.
My father was quiet on the way back. I didn't know if he was tired or in pain. Once we got to the house, he sat with his door open. He didn't get out.
I walked in front of the car and over beside his door.
"You OK, Dad?"
"How about giving me a hand. Once I get down I can't get out of these things," he explained. "Doesn't help they make the new cars so low. Junior's got one of these puddle jumpers. He drives my truck when he takes me to town. I can still get in and out of the truck by myself."
I felt the need to flee but I needed to get back to the trunk in the attic.
My father held onto my arm as I walked him to the sofa in the parlor. He laid down after taking some pills and I went upstairs.
I saw the string on the exhaust fan. I was delighted by the noise it made as it hummed to life. The air in the attic was stuffy.
The fresh air immediately began to circulate and it helped. I once more became lost in a life I hardly remembered. Being thrust into my past had a greater impact on me than I expected.
As I moved some letters and sheets of paper, the light bulb above the trunk burned out.
"Shit!" I said. "Why me?"
I didn't let go of what I was holding until I felt a place where I could set the papers down,
I went downstairs in search of a light bulb.
"Finished, Bobby," my father said from the hall.
"Hey, Dad," I said. "Light bulb burned out. It's too dark to see anything up there."
"Your grandmother's pantry is the best bet. I don't remember if we have any extra but that's the least of what I don't remember."
"You didn't sleep long," I said.
"It comes on me. I fall right to sleep and in an hour or so, I'm back up. I put that pot of coffee on for when ever you're ready. Should be about done if you want to take a cup upstairs with you."
"That'll work, Dad."
"I can remember back to when I was a kid. I can tell you some of the conversations I had with Ralph and Junior. I can smell roast beef and boiled potatoes cooking on the stove as my mother waited to take the biscuits out of the oven. I remember they melted in my mouth, but I'll be damn if I remember where I keep the light bulbs," he said.
"Arles didn't know his own name for years. How can that be? A man lives, raises his family, tends his farm all his life, and then one day he loses himself? Better to die while I still know who I am." he said, looking directly at me.
"Dad, I need light if I'm going to get out of here tonight."
"The light bulbs? Sorry. My mind wanders. The best I can do is the pantry, Bobby. Look there first. I might remember where they are once I see them. If I recognize them."
"Maybe the hall closet?" I thought for him. "Kitchen cabinets? Fran kept our bulbs in the kitchen over the sink."
"O ver the sink," he muttered. "I recollect the light went out over the sink. There were four four bulbs in the pack and I may have put the spares in the cabinet over the sink."
As I moved gloves, a hammer, boxes of wooden matches to light the stove, and there were three bulbs in a pack.
My father absently held open the curtain that covered the kitchen window with two fingers, like he was seeing someone of great interest to him.
There was nothing in the driveway but my car. He was seeing something of interest to him.
"Yep, here they are," I said, hoping not to startle him. "Let me help you back to the parlor, Dad. I shouldn't be much longer. I was getting to the bottom when the light burned out," I said. "Almost like I'm not supposed to see the rest."
"O nce I'm up, I don't want to go down for a spell. Thanks anyway. The coffee will be ready when you come down. We can have a cup before you go."
He was sitting at the table now. I should have taken him to the grocery to make sure he had food. Sims was the next town over. It wasn't that far. I could leave tomorrow.
"Yeah, won't be long," I said, planning on taking a glance over the papers and letters so I could see if I wanted to take them too. I was sure I'd caught a glimpse of a composition book as the light bulb burned out. I wasn't certain, but if they were in the trunk, I wouldn't need to look farther..
As I picked up the papers I was holding before going down stairs, I noticed more loose papers, letters, and several composition books were under these things.
The top composition book was in my handwriting. It was from my high school English class. Some of my English papers fell out. I had nice handwriting.
The papers were marked in the upper corner of each paper: B, B+, A, C, B. I remembered the teacher without recalling her name. I saw the kids' faces. I knew their names.
I was a good student. My mother encouraged me to read and study hard. The same was true of Grandma Sorenson, when she came to look after me. Dad would say I needed to keep my grades up so I'd have a good future.
I made no effort to save my schoolwork but here it was in the trunk with my mother's things. I was a senior years after she died. My grandmother had a hand in saving my work.
Life before my mother died was good. After that, I didn't know if I would survive. I didn't know if I wanted to survive. There was only pain. It didn't leave me until I left the farm.
Now was sitting on the floor of that farm house's attic, looking to recover something out of my past that meant something.
I began reading from the loose papers. When I scooped them up to remove them from the trunk, there were a half dozen more composition books in the far corner of the trunk.
There were a couple of dozen letters among the papers. When opening one of the letter, it folded into its own envelope. I was amazed at the simplicity. There was a military insignia near the address and no stamp. Turning it over, it was addressed to my father.
'Dearest Robert,' I read. I looked the letter over again.
It wasn't my mother's handwriting. The handwriting was a mixture of printing and writing. You could see where the author stopped writing and then restarted the letter three different times. Some was written and some printed.
I was too caught up in the moment to consider there might be consequences for reading my father's mail. I was a journalist and my journalistic juices had begone to flow.
My father was a farmer who never left the farm. Reading a letter or two from someone who knew him might shed some light on a man I hardly knew. What was the harm?
The letters were in the trunk. The trunk had passed to me. I would read one for a sense of continuity.
Time was immediately suspended. Without a watch time didn't exist in that attic. Like pieces of a puzzle, these pieces of my parent's lives were mesmerizing.
I'd read one letter for perspective.
Confusion replaced curiosity. What did it mean?
My Uncle Sven was lost in World War II. My mother told me. By the time I was old enough to ask questions about my heroic uncle, I forgot about him.
I knew all the Sorensons but I knew nothing about Sven.
I was named Robert Sven Sorenson Jr. My father didn't mention Uncle Sven. He wasn't in the stories Uncle Ralph and Uncle Junior told about their childhood.
As a piece of wartime history, it was a fascinating artifact. As a letter to my father, it was troubling. What did it mean?
My journalistic instincts told me I needed to investigate farther. This man felt very close to my father. Reading another letter might clear up the mystery of who he was.
There was a story about the Founding Fathers that came to mind. They wrote many letters to one another. They were loaded with flowery affectionate language. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams letters to each other spanned fifty years.
In 1776, as young men, Jefferson and Adams were friends. Once they were involved in the politics of running the new nation, they became political rivals. Once they'd both been president and got out of politics, their friendship and their correspondence resumed, as did the flowery prose.
When Adams was on his deathbed, his final words were about Jefferson. "Jefferson lives." Thomas Jefferson died a few hours before John Adams on July 4, 1826.
There was a bond between the two that wouldn't be tolerated in the politics of the 1990s. Any hint of affection between two men today was strongly discouraged. Two male politicians appearing to be affectionate to one another in this day and age would ruin them.
As athletes, sports fans, and even as men at work, you could be good friends under close scrutiny, but there was a line you dare not cross as friends. The difficulty being, men no longer could locate the line, and so any affection whatsoever could be misconstrued as more than friendship.
It was a sad testimony for our society. War was fine. Slaughtering entire populations was necessary, but one man showing affection for another couldn't be tolerated.
Was this what bothered me about the letter?
I remembered the upheaval created when the letters between Lincoln and his friend Joshua Speed were released.
They shared a room in the same boarding house and slept in the same bed for years, long after they were both successful lawyers and could afford their own rooms.
Did this suggest they were homosexual? Were they friends who didn't mind the arrangement and saw no reason to make a change?
The letters by today's standards would be called intimate. He was someone Lincoln knew and trusted.
As president of the United States, considering what he faced, whatever it took for him to hold the country together, wasn't too much to ask. Lincoln needed the counsel of a man he trusted. A man who was his friend.
Does it matter what Lincoln and Speed felt for each other?
George Washington made the new republic work. Lincoln saved it from destruction. What did it matter how he did it or what his relationship with Speed had to do with it?
While I had no trouble believing that Lincoln and Speed were good friends, using the language of the day to communicate, I had no knowledge the same was true of men in WWII. Would a brother close his letter, ' All My Love? '
There was only one way to learn the truth about the letters. The discoveries in the trunk had led me into an unexpected direction. Like any story, I intended to get to the bottom of this one.
There had to be a story about Sven that I could be told. I had a right to know who he was. I carried his name. Had his loss been so traumatizing no one spoke about him?
My father married my mother after the war. She may not have known Sven. Grandma said Sven saved Grandpa's life. She didn't elaborate. There may be more information in the trunk. Before I upset my father, I would read more and try to answer the questions I had.
I sat back down, giving up the idea of going downstairs to ask questions. I picked up the next letter to see if it began and ended the same way. It did.
The next envelope was the final one of this type. I looked into the trunk and only composition books remained. I opened the final letter. The writing was larger and it was neatly written and spaced. The others seemed hurried, tilted on the angle of whatever surface he used to write on. He could have written this one on a desk.
The one unusual thing about this letter, something stained the outside of the envelop. The outline of the stain was apparent on the inside. I imagined he spilled his coffee. The years had faded the stain to an outline and the writing was easy enough to read after so many years.
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