My father called to tell me he was planning to move into a retirement community. Friends told me I was lucky that he’d come to the decision voluntarily, and as the only child of a single, octogenarian dad who lives 700 miles away, I agreed. It would have been looking a gift horse in the mouth to complain about his timing, his announcement coming just as I was starting a contractual obligation that would prevent me from participating in any significant way for at least two months. It turns out that dealing with an aging parent is a bit like having a baby—there’s never a particularly convenient time.
The reality is a bit hard to accept. Not so long ago, my dad was insanely handsome, popular, and just the right amount of weird. He was the only father willing to play kickball at recess on Bring-Your-Dad-To-School Day; the others just stood around drinking coffee and talking shop. He also improvised fabulous interior monologues for my stuffed animals. I was wild about him. But lately, he’s been showing his age. He seems perfectly capable of managing his finances, except that it took him a while to recall the name of the place to which he’d be moving, mere days after writing a check for the sizable entry fee. Clearly, it was “go” time.
Fortunately for everyone, in the last decade or so, my father has become friendly with a nearby couple only slightly older than me, who’ve taken to performing the tasks that in other families fall to the child living closest to home. Daddy asked if I’d mind if he were to give Gary and Dan the family silver. Mind? I was delighted to be relieved of the weight of 100-plus pounds of assorted oyster forks, demitasse spoons, and finger bowls. Plus, left to my own devices, I could never have approached such repayment for Gary and Dan’s kindness.
When I finally headed to Indiana to assist with the big move, I traveled with a near-empty suitcase, prepared to take on some of the ballast Daddy would be unloading. I know, how self-sacrificing of me. My husband was not thrilled at the prospect of making room for any keepsakes—our New York City apartment was stuffed to the point of ridiculousness already. But it’s not like I had designs on my late grandmother’s collection of porcelain shepherdesses. For me, the real treasures were all the photos and letters that had wound up in my father’s care. These heirlooms had made their way to him over the years, with second and third cousins sending him the things they found cleaning out their mothers’ attics and basements. Again, it wasn’t the most convenient time for me to make room for this bounty, but I knew he couldn’t hang on to everything. As Daddy mentioned every time we spoke, the new place—a two-bedroom unit in the Independent Living wing—had much less space.
Or at least that’s what he was thinking when he hauled all those photos and letters to the dumpster prior to my arrival. I tried not to dwell on how long they’d survived, those black-and-white images of no-longer-identifiable children, the passionate but chaste letters of sweethearts dead long before my birth. My compulsion to rescue these sorts of items from flea markets approaches ancestor worship. And now the relics of those to whom I’m actually related are gone.
I was horrified, especially after the movers left, and we realized that the closet shelves in the second-bedroom-cum-TV-room were almost completely bare. But what can you say, other than, “Your new place looks great, and the people seem really friendly”? They were much more his belongings than mine, and this was his new house and his future. Perhaps it’s for the best. Maybe someday, my children will be greatly relieved that their mother was prevented from hanging on to every single sentimental scrap of the past. If so, their grandfather is the one to thank.
By Ayun Halliday