Like my father, most able-bodied men of his generation, at least those lean, white men who stayed out of trouble with the law and the union, and who wanted to work, had work to do for as long as they wanted, sometimes staying with the same company and moving up through the ranks, much as they had done in the army.
They did not complain. They did not talk much about things in general and never about what they did when they were away from home in the service or about what other folks, like their children, thought were the actually important stuff of life, like for example, what they were thinking or feeling or why they never went to the doctor or wanted to go on vacation or why they chose to keep all of that stuff corked up inside like a shaken bottle of Moxie that had been sitting too long in the sun.
And then they retired, still in what was considered at that time as reasonably good health, with a pension or social security or an investment of sorts from the company they had given the best years, hours, and days of their lives to, to live a few more years adjusting to imposed idleness and living in very close proximity with a woman who they assumed they loved but knew very little about and with whom they disagreed on almost every issue about which there were at least two sides and sometimes even with only one side, from the proper way toilet paper should be unrolled and the toothpaste should be closed to how often is too often to visit with her mother in Manhattan on a Sunday afternoon when the lawn needed to be mown and the sun was shining.
They watched Martin and Lewis or Abbott and Costello and laughed in the tight, self-conscious, way they approached all joy.
They spent time alone. They ate what was put in front of them. They made things from the scrap that others had discarded. They never threw anything away. They had few things they cherished and fewer things they’d take with them to a desert island. They made do.
They took up some pastimes like golf or tennis or reading Reader’s Digest condensed books and Tom Clancy novels or thinking about going fly fishing.
On Father’s Day they were given ceramic figurines of slump-shouldered, pot-bellied men in hats holding a fishing rod or a tennis racquet or some such symbol of their chosen recreation, close by their side.
These figurines never got returned to the store. They sat on the mantle or the desk in the spare bedroom or on the bookcase in the living room until one day they were placed on the table with a small lamp and a box of tissues and reading glasses next to the bed with aluminum railings and the handset that could be used to raise or lower the angle of the bed to make eating soft foods or sleeping easier, in a pale yellow-painted room they shared with a frail old Italian barber whose children came to visit on weekends in the winter bringing wide noodle and sausage casseroles and changes of bathrobes and bed clothes and brushed his hair as he sat in the soft-cushioned chair by the light through the window in the common room.
And then, the figurines and the photographs of grandchildren would be put gently into an empty shoe box and taken back to an equally empty home.
And then, once the kids agreed to sell the house on the quiet street, the figurine, perhaps by mistake, would be tossed into the green roll-off dumpster that had been backed into the driveway, along with the Reader’s Digests and the hat with the tea-colored sweat stains, that never was washed, and the tennis shoes with dried red clay adhered to the treads and the hole in the toe and carted away, leaving deep gouges in the driveway that the man, if he were alive, would fill in with black asphalt patch, squinting and enduring the smell of the noxious petrochemicals, and a tamping tool he would make with a broom handle, duct tape, four two-inch, number eight slotted flat head wood screws from a Mason jar he’d kept in the basement, and a spare piece of two-by-four that he had once painted red and used one summer as the runner in a four-wheeled two-seater go-cart he made for the kids before they got too big and wanted a fifty-seven Chevy instead and then moved away to have children of their own.
8 thoughts on “Traveling Light”
Your stories leave me with a lump in my throat.
I recently read an article about the Spanish Flu.
Really put things in perspective for me. So does your story today.
Thank you, Pam.
Joe…..”Travelling Light” is a “lumper” all right….in my throat too…..Warren
I love this story, especially the end. It has a perfect flow like the time that passes for these men.
Wonderfully done, from title to inevitable ending.
You evoke men of my father’s generation so realistically. Joe. Kind of tightens my heart. Thank you for this moving piece.
Thank you, Joe.
You had me thinking of my own Dad this morning.
We all learn as we go.
Try to do the best we can with what we’ve been shown, and what we’ve been available to learn along the way.
Circle of Life, Joe.
Like it or not.
I’ve heard that God grades on effort.