Gather & Fetch: an essay by Melissa Matthewson

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My grandmother crafted shadowboxes and hung them on the wall in her two-bedroom home, a one-story spread with a fine backyard encased in broken fences. They were her own chimeras, daydreams manifested, maybe all that she hoped for in her one small life, a reconciliation of neglected dreams: were she to be a writer, an opera singer, a woman who rode horses. Perhaps the shadowboxes were a portrait of all that went unnamed at the end of a long era suffuse with raising children on food stamps and dirt, children who were now adults with their own babies, their own neglected dreams, their own failures and disappointments—divorce, alcohol, poverty, wealth. In her boxes, I’d find little people with fabric dresses and yarned hair, all with their little things—desks and chairs, wash bins, toilets, tea cups, rolling pins, toasters, spatulas. Clocks and birds and spools of thread. I wasn’t allowed to touch them, though I did, at night, after she went to bed, when I prowled her hallway, only a shimmer of light coming from the family room. I took them down from their tiny shelves, shifted them around in my hands, explored the detail of their artistry, and sought to learn their meaning. I liked to rearrange them, shuffle their placement, see how they might assemble themselves into new positions. I handled them for as long as I thought, until the guilt of disobeying my grandmother overcame me, so that I’d quickly replace the little things back to their shelves. I never wanted to disappoint my grandmother, or worse, cause her to stop loving me. I wonder now if she knew their placement as well as she did the freckles on her arm, or the way the front door sounded when it shut. I scuttled in a rush from the dim hallway always back to my guest room, the only thing left but the silence of a house asleep and a low buzz of television voices from the other room where my grandfather dozed to the late night news. What story did she want to tell on those walls? Some sort of alternative narrative devoid of the terrible quiet issued forth by her rural life? Where quilting and mule races and warm soda and thin cigarettes were the afternoons of her marriage to the Owens Valley, to her husband, her sons, my father?

*

Every December, my mother gifted me Madame Alexander dolls. Over the years, the cardboard boxes gathered in precise stacks in my closet, preserved in perfection: cotton dresses with frilly aprons, plastic hair with glue, hands with fingers that could not move. Nothing about the dolls was real: rosy cheeks that couldn’t be unless brushed by wind, lips so red they looked as if they wore lipstick, though they were only small delicate things. I was never to play with them for very long, if at all, but in defiance to the rules, I pulled them from their boxes every so often when I was alone, just for a moment, when the house was quiet, and smoothed the skirts, adjusted the bows in their hair, fingered their soft saddle shoes. I lined them up on my bed, and kept them there while I brushed my hair in the mirror, or wrote an entry in my diary, then one-by-one, I put them away into their blue boxes, shelved them and shut the closet door, the memory of them just as sure as my grandmother’s shadowboxes hung in souvenir along the walls of her home.

*

A few things from that time: the Safeway, always, and the sad people with coupons in their hands pushing carts filled with cereal and donuts. My grandmother’s silk nightgown draped over my shoulders, creeping down over my feet, too big for a girl, but special in its silk and feel. I was a lady, adorned in a lost generation, my grandmother’s grace a special kind of hand-me-down. Other things: hot leather seats in a Buick waiting for fish sandwiches at the drive-thru window. The toy store, my grandmother’s hands, the dolls lined up on shelves in pink boxes, an unknown story of hips and plastic eyelashes. Yes, this is nostalgia. Heaps of it. So too, glasses clinking in the kitchen after that, when the adults mixed drinks at four. Stale smoke settling into my hair. Conversations I could never understand, strained and tensed to the window shades. Just as my own children now might stand in the kitchen wondering about my laughter, the voices of their mother, father, our drinks, the collected shelves of my books, or shoes, or dresses hanging unworn and spidery in the closet. Maybe they’d think to sip the melted ice from my glass after their father and I have left the table for our argument in the next room, or maybe they’d go to the basement and draw out the photographs of deserts, and butterflies, and cousins in terry cloth shorts. Maybe they’d wonder about all that life gathered there between the cement walls dampened with summer dust. Maybe they’d find my grandmother’s tea cup skimmed with porcelain purple roses. Perhaps they’d break the tea cup, crying the fragments into a bowl for us to piece together later.

*

I didn’t know my grandfather except for when he progressed into the garden for zucchini and corn or rinsed his black diesel hands in the sink. He didn’t take me to the toy store. He didn’t take me to McDonald’s. I don’t think he much spoke to me—even a word, a phrase, or something to say he knew I was his son’s only daughter. I’d watch and that’s how I knew him. He failed as a farmer as he failed at many things—a father, grandfather, husband. He tried to pioneer the country, in more ways than you can imagine—took cotton, oranges, and milk as his way, or at least tried. Never succeeding, his poor identity bound up with the junkyard of his rural home. He collected too—metal, tin, and rusty things in his garage and yard. His shed. Which is what farmers do. They store junk, piles of trash mostly, but tires, screws, these things having their importance, their place. I didn’t know that then. With a hesitancy, a worry of intrusion, I explored the landscape of his world, confused by the layer of metal, the bolts, the tires, the fence. I wanted to sift through it all, but didn’t, only because I thought he’d scold me for touching the discarded pieces of his life. He tinkered, quietly, with a disinterest in the doings of the rest of the world. I watched as my father stood with him in the evenings, the day just a neatly laid cloth on the dirt of their hometown, my father’s off-white slacks freshly pressed, saddle shoes clean and shining. He’d say, “What is all this out here?” looking around the piles, throwing his hands around. My grandfather would mutter, “Well, let’s see here…” and then he’d drift off, look out a bit into the sky, maybe squint, watch the airplane cruising by at an altitude high and distant, inconceivable. My father would wait awkwardly, a second or more, look up at the sky too, then turn away, head back inside where the women laughed, grab a cream cheese cracker from the plates of food on the table, open another beer maybe, tasting the bitter cold liquid while my grandfather stood alone in the hazy gray light of dusk, dirty old hands brushing the space my father had just been standing.

*

I think about collected things—shadowboxes, metal, memories. How we gather, accumulate, hoard, our basements or sheds filling with boxes of objects. Or maybe we display these things, like I do books, though it seems static, so burdensome to carry around things we don’t need. What is it all for? To give shape our desires. Like Mozart’s Don Giovanni. He collected sexual conquests. Donald Trump, skyscrapers. Henry Wellcome, sharp objects. Soap bars, toaster ovens, penises from mammals. My son: plastic bags of cards, scissors, a watch, rope, papers, homemade traps, thumbtacks, a whistle should he ever need it. The more beautiful: William Sharp Macleay’s collection of butterflies or a stranger’s assortment of old compasses lining walls I’ll never see. Susan Sontag wrote “to collect is to rescue things, valuable things from neglect, from oblivion…” But I think, they rescue us.

*

There was a highway once, and it ran through town dirty with litter and sweat and cars. This highway—paved with ambition—hastened like a quick shot between the line of shops and sidewalks, past the one stoplight blinking forever on by the Dairy Queen, beyond the last house on the right, and then slanted steep and up into the high desert mountains, heaving us out into meadows thick with flowers, wild and blue. This highway, I used to walk its burning shores, watch the heat take shape, consider the mirages that simmered up when it was so hot the mules couldn’t even shoo the flies. Back in those days, in a town they called Bishop, I lingered down my grandmother’s crescent lane under shady elms to the Safeway, and by the restaurants leaking smells of grease and burger, out to the north end of town where the trucks honked and the rabbit brush blazed. A place too far away now. A town almost mythic in its memory, lodged there for such a time, now evoking regret over fathers who drank, junkyards disguised in copper and tin, all the silent disagreements, sometimes laughter. Or perhaps it’s nostalgia: the way we collect certain items of our youth and pack them into selected memories and images—Barbie dolls, horse races, backyard sprinklers, card sharks. But then too, it might be a remembered longing for a future not yet furnished, a story still to grow. This is all to say I lived among people who mined the world for meaning based on small things amassed. This is all to say this is how I remember them.

 

 

Melissa Matthewson lives and writes in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon. Her essays have appeared in the Mid-American Review, Bellingham Review, River Teeth, and elsewhere. She is a winner of the 2015 AWP Intro Journals award in creative nonfiction. She serves as an Assistant Essays Editor at the Rumpus.

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