Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Are attics history?

Like most every other retired gent, I worry, sometimes promiscuously but not to madness.


But I do. I worry, about lots of things, like whether or not houses have attics.

Curtis Harnack, born and reared not far from here, spends an entire essay on the attics in his ancient Iowa farm house, one complete chapter of his celebrated memoir We Have All Gone Away. A few years later he followed up with a whole book of memories he titled, well, The Attic. His blessed memories of those dust bins got me to worrying about whether or not kids today have attics. Do they, or are attics just plain gone?

Harnack's boyhood attic included a stuffed pelican, a miserably strange old thing his uncle shot on their farm simply because he'd never seen one before, then had the bird stuffed for the same reason. You just couldn't toss such a thing. It became a resident.
We'd ride the humped, feathered back as if it were an ostrich, stare at the yellow glass eyes and stroke the lizard-skin pouch under the beak, not finding plump fish there, only shifting granular wood pulp, like in the limbs of dolls--stuff of no life.
That's only half true. Harnack's childhood imagination gave it life when he and his cousin found their way up and into "the fabulous tree house of the family, enchanted by these talismans of other lives, earlier existences."

Make no mistake: attics are junkyards of stuff rarely, if ever brought back into circulation. But something about those attic relics made tossing them out impossible. What Harnack remembers is an assortment of oddities.
. . .chamber pots, chipped-veneer dressers with murky mirrors, empty dish barrels, used wrapping paper, cribs, playpens, old toys, copies of The National Geographic, Life, Collier's, boxes of textbooks, novels of Winston Churchill, and a years supply of toilet paper.
What gets conjured when I read that is my own childhood attics, places that weren't designated playgrounds, but destinations that, as I remember, were as full of history as mystery. 

One of my parents' attics, one just to the left of my bed, held a pole strung with old clothes, including a fur stole I remember. The only other item from that closet that will always have a place in my memory is an faded orange megaphone imprinted with three blocky letters--OHS. The cold temperatures of its shiny cold mouthpiece I can still feel up against my lips. It belonged to my mother, a high school cheerleader in the early 1930s. 

The attic just down the hall held our box of toilet paper, an huge thing my dad annually bought from the factory's supply at the place where he worked. Essential stuff, of course. But what I will never forget from that attic is what he brought home after the war: marching leggings for his Navy whites, his sailor's hat, a full dress uniform, all of that stuff in a white duffle made of tough canvas. And more--a Japanese bayonet that became a character in a novel of mine, and samurai sword that never made it out of the closet until, years later, he gave it to me. Today it hangs in our library.

They were treasures, mostly worthless treasures, but also fertile ground for childhood dreams. Sixty years later, just about all I remember is Dad's war stuff and Mom's megaphone. When, as a kid, I held those things in my hands, they verified that my mom and dad had once been people too, people maybe I didn't know. In my fingers they were a odd mix of history and mystery. 

We just built a new house. There's an attic above the garage, but otherwise nothing. We had an attic in the house we left behind, an old Arts and Crafts place in a town not far away. But I don't think I ever put anything up there. My children grew up in a house as old as Harnack's, but I'm sure they have no great attic memories. 

Once upon a time people simply had less and probably therefore kept more in their attic museums, those windowless rooms waiting for kids to make meaning. 

In the age of Trump, the storage business is huge, growing by leaps and bounds, simply because we all have so much that it simply can't be stored in as confined a space as an attic. We buy storage bins, bring down the overhead door, lock them up tight, and then forget what's there until realty TV reminds us of that we've got some things stuck away.

I know. I sound like Jeremiah. Woe and woe and woe. 

Still, when I think about it, my goodness, I wish I had that megaphone.

Even though I don't know where I'd put it.

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