The Authenticity Experiment: the coal shovel edition. A giant United Moving van took my mother’s furniture, clothes, dishes, and memorabilia to Portland. Part of the load was destined for California for my sisters too. Still, we barely filled a third of the truck, but because the bid was based on estimated weight, we weren’t allowed to add anything extra to the manifest. And by we, I mean me. My mom was sitting on the dove grey leather couch in her family room alternating between catatonic and Napoleonic, sleeping in a delirium of denial that this day had finally come or ordering the movers, Stef, or me to add more items to the load.
I’d measured the apartment and I’d measured her furniture and made a grid we could play with, moving items around, so we’d know what to take, but this was imperfect at best. So when we got to the assisted living, it was apparent that I could go back to the house in Sequim for another load—probably two loads—and bring the wingback chair, her coffee table, a second end table, and the floor lamp that had been in my grandmother’s rec room (and now sits in my own hallway—we are nothing if not standing on Ethan Allen tradition here). But really, there was only time for one more load because it took four hours to get to Sequim—and that’s a leadfoot’s estimate—and even with my huge network of people, I couldn’t find a soul to make the trip with me.
So, I drove the Tines’ Volvo station wagon alone, and figured I could pack it with more items than my Kia Soul. Not enough stuff, but most of it. (During the late 80s and early 90s, my ex-wife and I played Tetris on a Gameboy and so I learned a lot about packing a car. I am not joking.) And I did fit the wingback chair, the coffee table, the floor lamp, the rest of the house plants, a three-drawer wicker bathroom storage cabinet, and my father’s coal shovel.
Yes, my father’s coal shovel. As a boy in Wisconsin, he’d had a coal furnace in the basement—one of those giant monstrosities with eight crazy arms coming off of it like some Jules Verne-type mechanical octopus. He, and I imagine his father and brother, too, shoveled coal into the firebox in order to heat the house through the Milwaukee winters. I guess my dad must have taken that shovel when his parents converted to gas heat. I always remember us having it. Its shape made it perfect for shoveling powdery snow, scooping up leaves in the fall, loading wheelbarrows full of bark dust, and other tasks I’m sure I’m forgetting. And there it sat, leaning against the wall in the storeroom of my parents’ house in Sequim, waiting to be sold in the estate sale.
I remembered all the times I’d yelled at my dad, complaining that it was unfair that we had to help with yard projects. I called it “Communist family work camp” and my father, in rare displays of good humor always laughed when I said this and answered, “Jawohl, es ist schwer, ein Kind eines Kommandanten zu sein.” Which basically means, yeah, it’s hard to be the kid of a commandant. Then he’d say “Schnell, schnell.” Which meant hurry your whining ass up, and we’d grumble a little more and laugh because he was laughing and speaking German, which we loved to hear because he’d learned it from his grandfather. In fact, it wasn’t until he was ten or so that he didn’t know it wasn’t just a secret language between grandfather and grandson—and then it deeply disappointed him to know a whole country spoke the language and that other people could understand him and his grandfather.
But that shovel. My dad didn’t take care of his tools. The handle and shaft were rough and splitting, in need of some sanding and new varnish, the bucket of the shovel was rusted over, and little chips along the bottom edge were starting to break. I stood there staring at it. Crying a little and angry because my dad was dead and my mom was losing her mind, and all this responsibility fell to me, and I was trying hard to break the family pattern of keeping items just because they were your parents or might be valuable or used one day.
I called Sue and at first I started laughing and then I started crying really hard and I said I wanted to take the shovel and wasn’t that insane? She said, “Kate, if you want it, take it. Nothing’s crazy now.” And she was right. We we’re literally breaking apart our family, selling the family home, selling the furniture, the books, silver, antiques, and a storeroom full of random crap—you know, jumper cables, an electric fence battery, a push broom, my parents’ old picnic table, a rowing machine my ex-wife and I bought 20 years earlier, 11 cans of Comet, and a freezer full of Trader Joe’s food, among other things.
Seriously people, when you have to move your parents or close the homestead down, you will not believe what’s really at the back of their storeroom or basement or pantry. (At her own mother’s house, my mentor found a bottle of saffron with the price tag still on it: $.25. Twenty-five cents for saffron. Yep, that’s how old it was.)
So, at the last minute, I stuck the shovel in the car and hung it in my garage in Portland, Oregon. And that’s where it sat for six years, until this past December when we got 8 inches of light, powdery snow in one evening. Then I shoveled my front walk. I like shoveling. Like the sweat that forms on you even though it is freezing outside, like the way my quads and biceps strain as I throw a blade full of snow off to the left, like the satisfaction of seeing immediately the fruits of my labor (so unlike writing).
I felt my dad close as I did this—which is an unusual feeling for me. But I could see him so clearly, back in Rochester, Minnesota, his sea-blue wool watch cap on his already grey and thinning hair, shoveling our driveway—first with a classic snow shovel, you know, the ones that are kind of plow blade shaped. (Ours had a purple blade.) He’d push off the big drifts of snow with this, then finish up, getting down to concrete, with the coal shovel. This was in 1970 or 1971.
He must have been only 34 or so when he did this and here I was, almost 20 years older than he was back then, shoveling snow in a city known more for its rain, in better shape—physically and emotionally—than he had ever been. Still connected, though, by shovel that was at least 30 years older than I was. Connected by an object that didn’t get left behind, an object that belonged to my grandparents, to my father, and now me. An object that matters even if I only use it once every six years.
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