Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Garage Life - A Memory of My Brother

It was six years ago - my brother, a retired Submariner, working for Electric Boat, recently having died and myself still commuting between Indianapolis and Chicago as a newlywed not yet transferred to our Chicago office.  On that day, I headed out in the wee morning hours, back to the Newlywed Range where I'd be working from home that week. Between on-call and some travel, I'd not been home in two weeks and I missed it all, the dust, the grass that needed mowing and as always, that shop smell.  Partner in Grime was able to spend both weekends with me, driving down to Indy while I was on-call, but I missed home. 

Abby Lab, our new rescue settled right into her dog bed, happy to be back, and I headed on downstairs, to run a load of laundry and tackle a project downstairs. The Shopsmith stuff was in the garage with the latest British car project, but the walkout basement (with single bath) had been converted to a shop, with one corner of tables and cabinets (and a big tub sink) for prepping and brewing (the Range is known to make some wicked mead).

It's shadowed and it's old and it has little in the way of modern conveniences. But I like it that way.  It's a place where tools are old, wood is honed, metal is bent and burnt offerings are offered to Lucas, Prince of Darkness (or Dimness, depending upon your religious persuasion). It's easy to spend hours down there without realizing it, the space between tasks still composing time, yet consisting of minutes that no longer run straight ahead in diminishing allotment, but rather run parallel between, like looping bands of wiring, without apparent ending.
It is only when the light fades and the stomach growls that one looks up and notes the time, setting down the tools, rendering the machinery mute, returning upstairs to the house, a faint shadow against the steps in the fading West.

Most of my neighbors now are parked in the driveway, their garages full of "stuff", boxes, bikes, lawn and exercise equipment, you name it.  When I was a kid, it seemed most of our cars were actually IN the garage. Ours was a dark green ranch house with a dark green Chevy Malibu in the garage.  Outside, at the front edge of the lawn, there was a huge tree that Mom loved, that draped its branches over the driveway like a canopy, filling up the gutters with leaves every year. 

No one seems to have their cars in their garages anymore. Is it because we now, as a society, amass more "stuff", or are we more transitory, moving more often, with those things that are precious to us, left in boxes in the garage in between?   It's a little bit of both, perhaps.
When I would spend my vacations visiting Dad after my Mom died, it seemed I always found a reason to visit the garage.  There was always an extra freezer out there, full of an assortment of bundled cow,  mysterious Tupperware labeled "Brussels sprouts" and "creamed peas" which we found out too late, were actually cookies that Mom squirreled away for Church Basement Ladies functions, knowing we'd not raid the "creamed peas".  There was lefse from the Son's of Norway Bake Sale.  There was always ice cream.

In the corner were he and Big Bro's golf clubs, in front of them, space where we used to park our bikes. My last one was a Huffy 10 speed that Dad waited hours to bid on at a police auction of unclaimed bikes, knowing how much  I wanted a new yellow Schwinn,  knowing he couldn't afford $100 for one.  He got it and cleaned it all up so it looked new.  I wasn't what I'd wanted, but it was much more, as it was offered with quiet and undiluted love, the faithful care and attention that most don't put into anything anymore. That was a lesson that I may not have recognized then, but I do today.

The biggest decorative item in the garage was the tacky Mexican bullfighting picture he bought for he and Mom's first home which was immediately banished to the garage.  It joined a well-used dartboard and other works of fine art that found a home in Dad's "man cave".
Off to one side of the garage was a big workbench, with cupboards built above for storage.  To the day the home sold, it had not changed, except for the calendar, always the smiling, buxom girl in shorts and a T-shirt or a swimsuit, selling tools or beer.

In the shadows of the other side of the garage were deep storage cabinets where Dad stored all his fishing and outdoor gear. Everything was meticulously kept in place, even as the fabric of the net rotted, laying in wait with that spent but alert quality that aging things bear, as if they doubted the absoluteness of their eventual discard, as if they will be necessary and needed tomorrow.
There's just a single garage door. There's probably a small dent in the bottom of it. I tried to ride my bike at warp speed INTO the garage when the car was out and the door was partway up,  planning on ducking, just not ducking enough.  It knocked me clean off my bike, but no permanent damage was done, really (twitch twitch). But the windows that once brought light in are covered so not to let potential burglars peer in to see if anyone is home, the neighborhood, no longer being the safe haven that it was.

In the driveway, there used to be a little VW Beetle,  Mom's official  Bug out Vehicle which later became my car. But the Chevy was always stored in the garage, but for those rainy weekends where we set up the Lionel trains on large pieces of sheet plywood, spray-painted green, sitting on trestles. Old Pringle containers were fastened underneath to hold the tracks, and we'd run the trains along frantic loops of a track until our stomachs growled and the fading evening light illuminated them like silvered spider webs that run off into the distance.  Only then, on Sunday night, were the trains put away amidst the other supplies.
When the weather was good, Dad would work at his bench while we'd get a Wiffle bat and send that ball down the drive towards the road, into that conundrum of physics and aerodynamics that never failed to fascinate me.  More than one go-cart was assembled out in the drive with Dad's advice and more than a few of his tools.

As we got older, the trains we played with were replaced by Big Bro's first car. He and his friends forever tinkering with something they bought cheap and fixed up.  One day while I was hanging around, just to be close to him,  as he was changing the oil, he handed me a  wrench and said: "let me show you how to do this".  I asked, "why?" His voice stopped for a moment, though his tone remained in the air, like when the needle is lifted off an old record album by the hand of someone wondering if someone else hears the same music.
I was listening. He paused to wipe the sweat from his brow and said, with a steadiness that told me I needed to listen, "   you need to learn how to do some of this yourself.   I won't always be here, but you will always have yourself." 

Salt and truth. He knew me better than I knew myself.  To my Dad I would always be his little girl, to protect and to care for.  But Big Bro recognized that  I was not the type to be happy dependent on someone, fated to dependency, to settle for flesh and bone durable enough to do battle for both of us, while I stood in the shadows, the inviolate bride of silence, doomed to fail. He saw that, though it was a while and some tears before I learned it for myself.

So I learned how to change my oil and a tire, to do a basic tune-up, and keep my car in running order. While female classmates were frosting each other's hair blonder, I was putting Purple Horny Headers on my VW Bug (it was still a Bug, but you could hear me coming 5 blocks away) while we listened to an old transistor radio.  I learned the safe handling of tools and what was used for what purpose, working together out in the garage as if our forms were joined by some mechanical arm. We'd work until my arms ached, fading light drowsing on the floor like a drop cloth, slowed down by fatigue but still motion, still inevitable. Only when Mom, or later Dad, called us into supper, would we quit.
On my last trip out to check on Dad before his house went up for sale as he went into Assisted Living by his own choice, I made my trip to the garage as I always do.  The car was gone, he'd given it to my brother when he wasn't able to drive any longer and when my brother passed it went to his son.  In its former space were boxes and boxes of life, all of Big Bro's things, carefully packed for his children to take, most of the clothes going to charity, a few pieces of his sub memorabilia on my dresser now, the rest, simple, still shadows.  Still, I could see past them, to what was there, so long before.

I stayed just long enough to take out the trash to the barrel outside and to check the freezer to see if I needed to buy Dad some more ice cream for his last few days in his home.  It was hard to see inside, my eyes misty, breathing in the bracing density of cold air laced with pine and motor oil, a smell I loved, even after all those years. It is the smell of morning's breath, full of wood and silence.
Before I closed the garage door, I stood for just a moment, looking deep into this familiar space, out onto the driveway, shaded by Mom's old tree. For just a moment, the boxes were gone from my vision, replaced by a memory of hands and tools and laughter. I could almost see my big brother there, the shifting green shimmer of persistent leaves creating an illusion of shadow, of form within, working away until Mom called us in for supper.

It was in that driveway he finally collapsed, tending to Dad as we both have always done.  We later asked ourselves, if he'd tended more to himself, and less to the family;  had he shared the pain he was hiding, would he have had a few months longer?  But that is just who he was, always a submariner, always on the quiet watch, the risk and the fear of death second to those things which men store within the depths of a human heart.
The tragedy is, not that he was gone so soon, but that he was no longer here to see what remained, the hearts he repaired, the things that he built that can't be contained in one's hands. He went full speed up to the end, not wanting to extinguish his thirsting heart, but only to slake it.

As I stood on the step from the garage to the laundry room, hitting the button for the garage door, I  took in the sight, the smell of it. I can't imagine him not being here, something that just IS, like the loud CRACK of a bat hitting a Wiffle ball, the bounce of a bicycle off of gravel as kids come careening into home, the way an old baseball game seeps out of a transistor radio as a loved one works away, sounds that echo even as the door closes and darkness descends.

 - Brigid


  1. What lovely memories. Through your words, I could see, hear and smell the garage. Sorry for your loss.


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