Sunday, August 31, 2008

My Own Shadow of the Lost

So I was walking out to my car when I saw it, like some Hiroshima blast shadow of what had been lost. Where my old barbecue grill had been sitting for multiple years unused was a shadow, dark oval remnants of wheels and light gray outlines the barrel and tongue.

For some 20 years I had used this old grill to entertain hundreds with pork shoulder smoked for 24 hours at 200 degrees until it fell apart at the touch. I had used it to train up hundreds of college guys about how one went about cooking pork shoulder to Memphis in May International Barbecue Competition standards. To learn how it was done, I even became a certified MIM Barbecue Judge.

So as boys are want to do, my young friends have grown up become men, developed families, and bought their own competition quality grills which are state of the art, bright shinny, and new minted, all bells and whistles. So my big grill which was built in Mississippi during the 1960's which sits on a Covair chassis--talking about antiques--had been passed by, replaced and left unused. Even so, I used it a good deal over the years to cook for events at our church, but even that wore thin as I grew older.

So I up and sold it last week: hence the shadow on the asphalt. So it goes in our lives. Things are discarded. Pets come and go. People we love leave us, and all we have are the shadows they left behind: their photos preserved in an album in the bottom drawer of the dresser perhaps. Sometimes we have their household gods: antique tables, wonderful old chairs, collectible pictures, old plaster carnival collie the kids played on when they were tykes.

Sometimes I find I have the shadows they had collected too: things from Aunt Mable, Great grandmother Ralston or cousin Earl. The favorite squeak toy of the last furry friend. There are even shadows I have been commanded to treasure, like the huge butter bowl cut from the trunk of a huge old growth tree from upstate New York, or the silver demitasse spoons given to my mother-in-law during her first 12 years on the planet..

My wife and I have a house full of these wonders jettisoned from my parents' home, from her parent's home. Then there are the relics of our 40 year careers teaching classes at the university: a sizeable library of books we have kept and collected over the years, used for teaching, research and just personal edification. We have a row of old CPUs I have not recycled because of all the undeleted financial files in their hard drives. We have tchatzhahs collected from trips here, there, abroad and even from the garage sale next door. There are framed posters, engravings and woodcuts: shadows trailing memories of what we were,where we have been. There are boxes of old vinyl records from the Sixties, tapes from the Seventies and Eighties, DVD's from the Nineties, and even some older records of Caruso and the Big Bands.
Shadows. I seem surrounded by shadows. Everywhere I look there are shadows. There is an antique mall down on Summer Avenue called Bozos I sometimes visit where there are isles and isles of shadows, cleaned up, polished, refinished and offered as "decoratish" [a term art collectors use to denigrate art used merely for decoration, something to match the color of the couch or rug perhaps. Motel art].

Often, as I walk amongst this debris of other lives and homes, I thank God I do not own all that stuff, that someone else owns it, has to shift it about, keep track of it.
Sometimes, though, I suspect we long for shadows: we long to curl up in these shadows, hide from the light, find comfort in the familiar darkness. I suspect they feed some deep need for connectedness and continuity generation to generation.

Sometimes there is a light such as the young require where everything is new and bright. Sometimes some of us have a fear of shadows: we surround ourselves with chrome and glass, bright Swedish rugs and leather, fresh flowers and abstract paintings.

I still cringe when I hear the HTV realtor intone the dreaded words: "It's very dated, isn't it?" It is as if to say "too many shadows around here, let's bring in some light." Sometimes people walk into our library home eying the rare books, prints and antiques and wonder how we can live in such a museum.

My wife and I have come to that age where we are beginning to shed these shadows. To lighten the load so we can move faster, learn to stand in the light before we slide into the ultimate darkness of our pine boxes.

We have given the rare books and prints to our Alma Mater's research library. I am cataloging our trade collection of some 10,000 scholarly books for dispersal to this library, that library or for sale. I have sold my big grill. We are planning a big garage sale. I am told we should learn how to navigate E-Bay.

We need a shadow shovel.

We need to reduce the shade somewhat without seeming to betray those who entrusted their treasures to us.

I had not thought I would miss the old grill so much. For years it was so fragrant of hickory smoke and rendered pork fat soaked ash that it was a pleasure just to walk by it. But it is actively back on the barbecue circuit, smoking and reducing pork shoulders to nurture another family and their circle of friends.

So perhaps that's the secret as we emerge into the light. Perhaps we need to find good homes for our sturdiest shadows and for the more frail shadows like that squeak toy some other container of words to shield them from the light of what is to come.

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