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My Mom and Dad were as different as bees and cats; one focused on doing and the other on being. Through my immersion in Model Railroading, a hobby that takes up many fruitless hours and requires tremendous patience, I have realized that my parents’ disparate traits are parts of me to be reconciled.
My mother embodied perpetual motion, doing household chores, running up and down stairs, yelling at one or more of us to pick up this or clean up that. Raising five children was no easy task; after all she carried a diaper bag for 12 straight years! Her whirling would end after dinner when she collapsed on the couch, falling asleep almost instantly.
She was a hyper-devout Catholic who demanded strict obedience to religious doctrine. Aside from our required attendance at Sunday Mass and attending Catholic school, all three of my brothers were Altar boys. The ubiquitous painting of Jesus whose eyes followed you no matter where you stood hung prominently in the living room while a large print of The Last Supper watched over the dining room table. We even had a Holy Water font at the front door and…prayer books on a small table in the first floor bathroom. I know there are many who have prayed to the porcelain god but I doubt that a single one of them thought, “If only I had a prayer book.” Perhaps my mother sought to narrow down the categories in the bathroom library. Yet I believe she was driven either by unyielding religious guilt or by shame, perhaps from an unspeakable childhood trauma.
My Dad was an object at rest whose favorite sweater provided this simple introduction: “Tis’ Himself.” When he arrived home from his teaching job, he sat down at the kitchen table to read the paper while sipping a cup of coffee. In the summer, he would spend the early hours in his garden and then stop for a sandwich which he ate in the den (sometimes with a can of Rheingold) while watching the ballgame, shirtless. Sometimes he’d pick up a train he’d been working on and hours would pass as he absorbed himself in its challenges. He’d forget about the garden or whatever project he was working on at the time, and night would fall. Immersed in his hobby, he tuned out the world. Understandably, this was extremely frustrating to my Mother. But this is not to say he was careless. While it’s tempting to blame, we cannot see or judge our parents with any objectivity; we hardly understand ourselves. Only they know what happened and why, and they’re gone. And when they leave, we change.
I got on well with my Dad; we shared many interests, including a love of words, history, learning, and jerry-rigging. We laughed at the same things. Yet these days I find myself struggling more with my Mom’s legacy. I too am an object in motion; my mind is busy and so is my day. Somehow in childhood I translated her busy-ness into “I am only as valuable as what I do and accomplish.” I long to feel the simple bliss of just being; of valuing myself for who I am. “Tis’ Herself”.
I like jigsaw puzzles; they’re purposeless yet satisfying and meditative. When starting a new puzzle, I find and connect all the edge pieces and corners to make the outer frame. Then I’ll either randomly patch the rest together while checking the picture on the box or separate all the pieces into piles of like colors and patterns. I’m making order out of chaos using my senses rather than logic and analysis; it’s a respite for the mind. Once complete, I feel a sense of accomplishment tempered by a sense of loss at having to crumble it all up and put it back in the box.
Uncoupling someone else’s 75 year model railroad collection is a puzzle, indeed. There’s no picture on a box to match. Everything is piled, boxed, and clumped together randomly—at least this is the case with my Dad’s collection. So many mysteries to be solved, such as finding missing parts that may or may not exist, spending hours researching to identify the contents of mislabeled or unlabeled boxes, or simply recognizing that two things in opposite corners of the room actually belong together.
I miss my Dad. It will be almost a year since he’s gone, during which time I’ve driven a steam locomotive, attended model railroad “meets”, talked with modelers, quit my full-time corporate job and started this blog. Now I understand so much more, and it’s too late to talk with him about it.
I’ve spent the last year collecting parts of my Dad I never knew, piecing him together with my memories. Moments spent with him in the nursing home where he spent his last year; watching him wake up in Recovery after his first operation at the age of 91 (“Oh!” he said, “I’m still here!”); kneeling together on the driveway next to my Dodge Dart to yank out the right rear axle and falling over laughing as tiny metal balls pinged all over the ground from what remained of an inner wheel bearing; trailing behind as he dug furrows in the garden with his Rototiller, following him while concentrating on placing my size 4-year-old feet in his footprints.
Who was this person I called Dad? Who am I without him? I suppose this is one puzzle I’ll never finish. But he lives on in my memories, in my discoveries, and in the person I’ve become. I like to think that he lives on in every customer who buys a part of his collection, which is why I always include a handwritten thank you note in every box. After all, I’m sending each one a present; a part of my father.