Sunday, September 28, 2008

Assignable Portions


I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air--
Between the Heaves of Storm--

The Eyes around--had wrung them dry--
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset--when the King
Be witnessed--in the Room--

I willed my Keepsakes--Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable--and then it was
There interposed a Fly--

With Blue--uncertain stumbling Buzz--
Between the light--and me--
And then the Windows failed--and then
I could not see to see--

Emily Dickinson, 1862

Every now and again I like to pause and take stock of my life and I like to play a morbid little game while doing it: I make a mental will. It's not so much about my possessions--I have little of value and I like it that way. It's more about my friends and loved ones, and what it is that they cherish about me. The Nephews will get Clyde and Beans, the stuffed horse and dog they play with whenever they come to my house, my best friend the box of old high school hall notes I have saved for twenty years, my knitting friend will suddenly have a much larger stash.

I picture an improbable scene where all my friends and family gather to go through my stuff and pick out the one thing they want to have to remember me by. It won't happen, but it's a comforting thought nonetheless.

A few years back, my single, childless uncle died suddenly, and I went to Oklahoma with my aunt and uncle to go through his things and bring what we could back to the family. My uncle had accumulated a lot of stuff over the years, and there was a lot to go through in a short time. There were a few things that were obvious things to save: a bundle of family letters dating back to the Civil War, an old autoharp in the family for generations, photos. But there was also a lot of stuff that had significance only to my uncle, and that got piled up in a heap to be hauled off. As we surveyed the piles of built up detritus from my uncle's life, we marvelled at what he kept. And my uncle pulled out a small scrap of paper and showed it to me, fondly chuckling at the idea of a 60 year old man still holding on to this:

(click on it to see more detail)

It was a Treasure Map my uncle had drawn. The inscription in green pencil on the bottom, possibly added later, gives a phone number in Milwaukee that dates the drawing to his high school days or earlier.

When I saw the map, chills ran down my spine. I knew this map. I knew the island, with its hidden valley accessible only through the labyrinth of tunnels or the dangerous cave entrance. I knew it because the book it appeared in was one of my favorite childhood books: The Island Stallion by Walter Farley, author of The Black Stallion series. The premise of the book--one of a series about the island and its horses--is that a teen-aged boy gets shipwrecked on the island, discovers the tunnels leading to the secret inner valley, and finding treasure left behind by Spanish conquistadors as well as a herd descended from the horses they left behind. I had read all those books over and over, and imagined myself trying to find my way through the tunnels, and when I finally did, the glorious discovery of a green valley populated with horses. The imaginary island lingered in my memory as a hope of secrets revealed, treasure found, paradise gained. And it must have lingered in my uncle's mind, too, for him to have kept this carefully copied map through the years and through countless moves. I carefully tucked it away, and brought it back home. I knew I had found my inheritance from my uncle.

When I showed my mother the map, she was drawn into a series of reminiscences which revealed a side of my uncle that I had not known much about. He was always into treasure hunting and maps, she said, and went on to share some childhood memories. I took the stories in and added them to my own memories of him. He was a somewhat hard man to know. When I was a child, he was not always at the family gatherings and when he was, he tended to drink too much. He didn't have a lot of interest in children, and didn't have much to say to me. But as I grew older, our relationship deepened. He was good-humored, intelligent and well-informed on many topics. He loved nature and animals and wouldn't kill an insect in the house, but instead would capture it and release it outdoors. He had a sly sense of humor and enjoyed getting away with bullshitting me if he could. He seemed to enjoy it when I called him on it. When he died, he left a hole in the family.

I think about how odd it is, both of us remembering that book and never knowing it was important to each other's childhoods. I think about the moment of serendipity when my other uncle plucked that one piece of paper that would mean so much to me off that huge pile of other papers. I wonder what scraps of my life will mean something to my loved ones when I am gone.


Wade said...

It strikes me that your uncle's map did lead to treasure: the treasure of memory (yours, his, and your mom's). I don't know which is the greater marvel: that he would keep something dear to you both, or that you were in the right place and time to recognize and receive it.

Beautiful post.

lizardrinking said...

Serendipity, indeed, and I second Wade's motion. I love reading these reflective posts.

anglophile said...

Thanks, Wade and rose. I'm not much of one for signs and omens, but there was another sign when my uncle died. On the way to his funeral, we saw about 25 red-tailed hawks along the way. We all felt it was some sort of sign from him. I hope wherever he is, he knows I found that map, and how much it meant to me.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful story 'glo,

I am glad you shared that story with us. By telling us, it is like you shared that bit of treasure with him.

Casey said...

That was beautiful, glo.