“Holding Onto”

Published in Fringe Magazine, Issue 30.

1969 Blue Chevy Stake Truck
Red Farm Tractor with Plow Attachment
Refrigerator
Orange Denmark Riding Mower

My father began to purchase things after my mother died. Large, rusting things.  My mother passed away in August, and Dad parked the stake truck in our Silver Creek, NY driveway by April. We were horrified, my many siblings and I, at its crumbling frame, lack of a left-side door handle, loud engine, and the removable blue fencing that surrounded the flat bed on the back.

“Got a good price on it!” he told us as he hopped out of the cab. It was the happiest he’d looked in months.

“Dad, what is that?”

“It’s my new truck! Got it from a guy over in Angola. Great, huh?”

“No.”

Already labeled weird kids, the word “those” was attached to our last name the moment news of our mother’s death spread.  The six of us became “Those Schwabs.”  We didn’t need this. It wasn’t so bad for my two oldest brothers, Larry and Dan, who were already out of high school. But for Jeff, Kristin, Eric and I, that stake truck served as a parade float to announce our otherness every time my dad picked us up or dropped us off.

Of course, to my dad, the stake truck epitomized practicality. It ran, for one thing, and the fact that the fencing was removable made it so versatile.

“What will you ever need this for?” I asked him, angry and embarrassed.

“All kinds of things!” he answered, and huffed away—a move he would perfect in the years that followed.

When Dad bought the stake truck, we thought he only did it because he could, though a widower’s freedom and a bachelor’s freedom are very different things. My mother would never have let him bring home a vehicle that ugly; wood-paneled station wagons (“grocery-getters”) were her limit.

Between the noises it made and the things that often fell from its underside, we crossed our fingers that the stake truck would die a quick death, and we would be back to riding around town in the only moderately ugly brown Malibu with missing hubcaps.  We would just have to suffer until then, get rides from friends’ parents, ask Dad to pick us up ten minutes after the rest of the kids left. Maybe Dad would buy a decent car next time, we hoped, something less embarrassing, something less bizarre.

But year by year, the collection, the collections, kept growing. The stake truck was just the beginning. Next came the tractor, once red, “for mowing the backyard!”  The backyard is actually a field, and has been allowed to grow wild for years.

He picked up the refrigerator from the side of the road, “to put in the basement for extra food storage.” That actually made sense: six kids eat a lot. But the refrigerator never left the driveway, and has been inhabited for years by generations of wasps.

He bought a lawn mower or two each spring, most of them broken but “easily fixable”; a parade of trucks, each uglier than the one before, all rusting, but “almost ready to go”; heavy equipment that he “might need” for home improvements he would never take on; and enough tires to outfit at least ten vehicles, except that there were never four that matched.

Novelty Coffee Mugs
Staplers
Sewing Machines
Keys

Once our long driveway had filled up and resembled a salvage yard, my father’s various collections moved inside the house, as well. This started innocently. He liked coffee, coffee was sipped from coffee mugs, coffee mugs were often unique or funny, and his mother’s carved cherrywood china cabinet stood in the dining room with two shelves empty. So he started collecting coffee mugs. “Those Schwabs” even contributed, since coffee mugs were cheap, accessible presents for Father’s Day and his birthday. I bought him one that listed to the side. If he held it with his right hand, it said “This mug looks like my hook!” If he held with his left, it said “This mug looks like my slice!” My dad isn’t a golfer, but the mug made him laugh.

When Dad thinks something is hilarious, when he’s really cracking up, he doesn’t just laugh. He guffaws. He holds his stomach and leans over, and the sound forces all the air out of him, and his blue-gray eyes tear up.

The coffee cups he bought came from garage sales and thrift stores. He brought home mugs that were once someone else’s souvenirs, bought places he’d never been to and would never go to, painted with palm trees or mountain vistas or city skylines. “Look at this one!” he’d say, proudly showing off his latest find. He left the 25 cent garage sale stickers on their bottoms and stuck them directly into the cabinet with the others. Soon, he removed my grandmother’s cut glass olive dishes, gold-rimmed china plates, and her silver tea service to make more room for the coffee mugs. Those dainty, feminine heirlooms were packed into cardboard boxes and shoved into the dusty attic.

The staplers went unnoticed for a while, since they gathered on my father’s bureau, and I didn’t often go into his bedroom. They are small and interesting, some with mother-of-pearl handles and carved initials. A couple tiny staplers fit in the palm of my hand. Altogether, there are about twenty, though their numbers have likely grown since I last counted them. I never asked my father about them; I knew he wouldn’t have an explanation for why there were so many.

The sewing machines arrived later, most of them antique, large and cumbersome, straining the tables and desks that held them.  There is a black and gold 1940s machine made to sew silk and attach lace borders, which he’ll clearly never have a use for, and a heavy machine from the seventies for repairing canvas and screens. This he bought “to repair the torn wings of the pop-up camper,” which still sits unused and unusable next to a large fishing boat that will never again touch water.

None of the sewing machines worked properly. My father sent away to specialty stores in Buffalo for the parts he needed to fix them, miniature attachments that I wasn’t even sure my father’s big hands could get a hold of. He’d work on them late into the night, and we often fell asleep listening to the sounds of pedals being pressed and threadless needles whirring.

For my dad, keys hold a mysterious lure. A rack of them hangs over the stove.  It’s a huge rack, with fifteen different hooks, and from every hook at least five keys dangle. Some keys are attached to key chains with labels, but the words on them are faded or blurry, or in crabbed, illegible handwriting that isn’t my father’s. He doesn’t own that many trucks; the keys can’t all be necessary. We never even lock anything.  Some of the keys look very old, some are bound to other keys by dirty twist ties. There are rusty keys, small keys that could belong to lost bike locks or diaries, skeleton keys, keys made from a bluish metal I don’t recognize. They call to mind stories of secret gardens and treasure chests and haunted attics, but a few times, when I took down the strangest keys to ask my father about them, he’d just shrug. He’d say that maybe they were keys that went to something his father used to own, maybe they went to a house they’d lived in before I was born, maybe to an old lawnmower, a lost padlock. He’d take the keys from my hand and carefully put them back on the rack.

We stopped having anyone over but our closest friends. There was no room at our house for sleepovers or birthday parties anyway. No room on the dining table to put a cake or a punch bowl or a pile of brightly-wrapped presents. No room in the driveway for chalk drawings or basketball. “Those Schwabs” felt squeezed out by our father’s possessions. Shoved aside. Replaced.

When I was sixteen, I worked part time as a hostess at a local restaurant. I didn’t have a car, and one night my dad couldn’t pick me up. A coworker offered me a ride home. I accepted—it was late at night—but when he approached my house I asked him to pull over to the side of the road instead of into the driveway. I said I was afraid he’d run over my black cat, Jasmine, if she was in the driveway. But really I didn’t want his headlights lighting up all of the dead trucks and old machinery littering our property, haphazard and abandoned, like the forgotten toys of a bored giant child.

Popsicle Sticks
Plastic Bottle Tops
Glass Jars
Styrofoam Cups

My dad trained as a Licensed Practical Nurse, or LPN, through the Army Reserve, obtaining New York State certification in 1991. He started the program in the mid- eighties, though he got most of his hands-on practice at home. His six rowdy children, four of whom were boys, often broke bones and cut themselves open, requiring emergency splints and tourniquets.

One summer evening when I was almost five, I attempted to cross the monkey bars on our home swing set. My mother stood beneath me, arms out, ready to catch me if I fell. I did fall; my small arms couldn’t support my weight, but she didn’t catch me. I landed on my back, right arm pinned beneath me. My sister Kristin, swinging a few feet away, heard it snap. When my dad got home from work a short time after, he deftly splinted my arm and placed it in a sling, which he fashioned from a pink pillowcase ripped in two. He drove me to the hospital and held me while I cried. I was dizzy from the pain and angry because I thought the nurses there treated me like a baby.

“I’m going to be five soon!” I wailed to him when their starched figures retreated.

“I know honey. I know you’re a big girl.” He held an ice pack gently against the bump of broken bone that showed beneath my skin.

“I’m starting kindergarten! I’m going to school! Mom says!” I hiccupped and couldn’t catch my breath.

“Don’t worry. I’ll tell them.”

Recently, I cleaned out the linen cupboard at my dad’s house. I found the sling that trapped my arm for eight weeks when I was almost-five—it is blue, printed with clowns, and so tiny. I looked down at my gangly adult arm and couldn’t imagine ever being so small. I laughed and held it up to show my dad, who sat in a kitchen chair drinking coffee. He laughed and then told me to put it back.

Ripped pillowcases were not the only items in Dad’s makeshift first-aid kit. A newspaper and some masking tape could brace a sprained ankle. Plastic wrap could hold the gauze on a cut foot and keep blood from getting on the car seat on the way to the Emergency Room. Popsicle sticks made cheap and disposable tongue depressors. Along with a flashlight, my father used them to diagnose strep throat and tonsillitis. When we were small, when we weren’t “Those Schwabs” yet, when my mom was still alive, we could always open the silverware drawer and find a few clean popsicle sticks.

Long after she died though, after my older brothers moved out and us little ones became teenagers, my father still kept popsicle sticks. He carefully washed them and put them in empty soup cans, saved for the sole purpose of holding clean popsicle sticks.  Once a can was full, he moved it to the cupboard with the dishes. Hundreds of the small red- and orange-stained sticks accumulated. But we weren’t sick that often. We didn’t have that many throats. When I pointed this out, my dad said they were also “good for kindling.” He burned yard waste about once a month in a barrel outside, but always used junk mail to start the fires. The popsicle sticks stayed in their soup cans.

Plastic bottle tops collected in a bucket next to the sink. These he used to help us keep track of our milk money. He’d put a quarter and a nickel in each bottle cap, tape the open face shut, and put them in our lunch boxes. It worked, but I stopped taking lunch to school after the fifth grade. He kept saving bottle caps.

We didn’t get rid of glass jars. They were washed and set aside, ready to hold screws, nuts, bolts, drill bits, and other small machine parts and tools. He never seemed to remember there were two boxes of empty baby food jars in the basement, left from when “Those Schwabs” were infants. There will always be more screws, he argued—still argues—different sized nails, new parts for one of his sewing machines, small light bulbs, things. Things that will need keeping track of.

He never uses the “good” coffee cups from the china cabinet. Instead, even when he is at home, even when he sits at the kitchen table watching the news, he drinks coffee and tea out of Styrofoam coffee cups. These are the to-go cups he gets at gas stations and drive-thrus, cups that he washes in the sink. He stacks them on top of the dishwasher next to the bottle cap bucket, never minding that there are already dozens of cups there or that he’ll go back to the gas station the next day and get another one.

Loss
Panic
Collecting
Control

Since my early twenties, I’ve worried about my father and his finances. He’s in his late sixties and still works two jobs. Aside from his utility bills, property taxes, and everyday expenses, he rents several storage units at the local storage facility, which isn’t cheap. He also continues to buy things, vehicles and heavy equipment, taking out loans to do so. I oscillate between being frustrated and scared, worried that my father will go broke, or barricade himself in his lonely house and not come out. That he’ll be beyond my help, or that he won’t want it.

It’s not all selfless worry. My dad has always been my number one supporter, the person who can make anything better, either with screws or duct tape or a proverb that is almost relevant. He used to be over six feet tall. He is my hero, my strongman, my Daddy. So if there is something wrong with him, something not fixable, something that my mother’s death has left broken, where does that leave me?

Sometimes when I visit Dad’s house, and he’s in the bathroom or downstairs switching laundry, I throw a few things away. But I have to be sneaky. I put one stack of to-go coffee cups in my purse. I slip some junk mail into the bucket of things he’ll burn.  I put a handful of bottle caps in my jacket pocket, or move a couple small glass jars to the recycle bin. I never take all of anything, or even a lot. He would notice and get angry, tell me to “tend to [my] own business.”

There will be no cure for my father. He will never seek help. I will never make him, or allow my siblings to do so. He doesn’t believe in therapy or neurotic psychological disorders. I won’t tell him he is a textbook hoarder. I won’t explain how collecting things gives him control, even if it’s over objects, how my mother’s death made him feel helpless, how that would have made anyone feel helpless. That none of this is his fault.

If I did, if I told him all of this, he would start muttering, only the word “bullshit” audible. He’d grow remote, maybe wander outside, leave me standing in the kitchen, open-mouthed and regretful. At this point, the only thing for me to do is throw things away here and there, to keep him company when I visit home, to call at least once a week to see how he is and tell him I love him. To actually and achingly love him.

After I graduated from high school I began to keep houseplants. My mother never had; nurturing half a dozen children had been enough, but something about plants’ happy countenance and the rich blackness of potting soil appealed to me. I liked waking up in the morning and seeing them drinking in the early light, the earthy smell of dirt and terra cotta, watering them and talking to them, giving them names and encouragement. A few weeks into my new hobby, my bedroom became hard to move around in. The plants took up the entire middle of the floor, but that’s where the best light was.

I moved to Georgia to live with my sister Kristin and took my plants with me. I bought more. Kristin complained. I took to sneaking them in, hoping she wouldn’t notice.  I was no longer satisfied with just owning ivy and spider plants and philodendron. I branched out into spiky cacti, tropical prayer plants, curling bamboo, African violets, rubbery succulents. They filled the kitchen and the living room, the front porch and the back deck, even the bathroom sink.

I moved back to New York. I filled my car and the nooks of the moving van with plants. The ones that wouldn’t fit were adopted by my sister, who had grown to like them. A mother-in-law’s tongue went to live at her office. An elephant ear took up a corner of her living room. She kept three African violets and a small ficus tree, and she looked after them carefully. She said plants, like children and lady bugs, were much nicer in small quantities.

I moved to West Virginia for graduate school, but my new apartment was small and could not accommodate all my fleshy green darlings. My father agreed to keep some. They now fill his sun porch and dining room, sitting happily amongst junk mail or nestled in cardboard boxes. Three plants, a red-hot poker and two small trees, perch on top of an industrial sewing machine in the living room. One philodendron’s vines stretch across the archway between the living room and dining room and back again. My father has started to screw hooks into the walls, and says he is going to hang the vines up until they reach all over the house in every direction. When I offered to find room for some of the plants at friends’ houses, Dad told me they were fine where they were and that he’d thank me not to move them. He’s adopted these plants fully, embracing them as another collection, and he faithfully waters them every few days with a giant to-go coffee cup full of room temperature water. He fills jugs and leaves them on the counter for this purpose,  claiming the plants don’t like the shock of cold water. He even knows to water the African violets from the bottom, and to rotate all the plants every couple of weeks so that they grow straight and even. He calls me when the kalanchoe blooms.

I save glass jars for vases—most plant cuttings will root in water. Then I can repot them and give them to friends as gifts. African violets, spider plants, and purple heart  seem to propagate the fastest.

Anything remotely bucket-shaped will serve as a planter. If it has no holes in the bottom for drainage, you can drill some in, or fill the bottom of the pot with gravel or packing peanuts. Five gallon buckets are great for outdoor tomato or pepper plants in the summer. Large coffee cups or deep bowls can be used for small rooted plant cuttings.  These make lovely gifts. Heavy ceramic cookie jars work well for plants that love water and aren’t prone to rot, like spider plants or Wandering Jew. But don’t use these for succulents, since they like well-drained soil. Popsicle sticks make great plant markers.  Just write on them with a thin-tipped Sharpie and stick them in the dirt.

Last winter my dad and I were driving back to his house from a restaurant in Hamburg. I was riding shotgun in his recently-purchased ‘95 Buick station wagon, maroon with wood siding. We’d gone to Root Five, a swanky bar and grill on Lake Erie, with two of my brothers and my uncles. I was a little bit drunk, and though Dad was less drunk, he wasn’t sober. We were in the middle of a conversation about how much more we liked my brother Dan before he became a born-again Baptist, when I spotted a white wicker loveseat on the curb.

“Dad, look at that!”

“I see!”

“Do you think we can fit it in the back?”

“Gosh, that’s a nice piece. I wonder why they’re getting rid of it?”

“It would match the rocking chair I’m storing in your shed.”

“I’ll pull over. Hop out and get it.”

It took both of us to lift the loveseat and cram it into the station wagon. I crouched in the backseat as Dad drove, holding onto a wicker armrest with one hand and covering the dome light with the other, since it wouldn’t shut off with the hatch open. A few feet of loveseat hung over the bumper, and the whole thing threatened to fall out with every turn, swaying dangerously and making my skinny arm ache with the effort of holding it in.

When we got to his house, we lifted it out, set it on the driveway and examined it in the headlights. It had a broken leg and no cushion, and the white paint was rubbed off in some spots. Dad assured me he could fix it; the leg just needed to be braced with a thin metal rod. Spray paint would have it looking like new. Cushions are easy enough to make.

I made him promise not to tell my boyfriend that we’d picked it up. Joel’s patience had already been stretched by the two plant stands, barbeque grill, and old-fashioned metal lawn chair I’ve retrieved from other people’s garbage. I understand his frustration, since one of the plant stands is technically an old wooden high chair, and the other plant stand required sanding and repainting. The metal lawn chair was also in need of complete refurbishment, with lots more sanding, priming and painting involved.  Joel did all the work on both of my finds. But they look great now, and like I tell Joel, you just can’t find items like that in a store.

The wicker rocking chair and loveseat are also going to look great, eventually.  I’m going to sew matching cushions for them, and maybe a few throw pillows. I can picture them already, looking pretty on the front porch we’ll have someday, with makeshift planters of ferns and small palm trees nearby. I’ll relax out there and read a book, comfortable and lazy, glad I kept the loveseat for when I needed it, glad for my father who braced its broken leg, and glad for the rusting station wagon that carried it home.

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