What We Keep

SculptureI stand in the yard and stare at the sculpture. Yes, the wood will need a new coat of red paint this spring. Somehow, four years have passed since we moved Dad into assisted living and I uprooted the sculpture from his front lawn near the beach in South Carolina, rented a U-haul, lugged the sculpture eight hours up I-95, and planted it in my back yard in the DC area. The edges are peeling.


He made the sculpture as a tribute to my mother. When she died at age 56 after a five-year battle with cancer, he immediately went to work.  He emptied the house, grieving heavily, tossing out debris from a 35-year marriage:  Old ice skates, Tupperware, winter coats from the 1940s, angel food cake recipes clipped out of McCall’s magazine, July 1955 issue. Mom was a saver; Dad was not.

He kept busy. He purged. One day, he paused. He found dozens of laminated, hand-made book marks in Mom’s sewing drawer in the desk in the attic. Each strip contained words, in my mom’s cursive handwriting, of a poem from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass:   “I celebrate myself and sing myself, and what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”


“I didn’t know she read poetry,” Dad told me on the phone. “How the hell can you be married to someone for that many years and not know something like that?”  In response, he made the eight-foot tall sculpture – geometric, in the manner of Frank Lloyd Wright – painted it cherry red, etched the quote into glass, and fitted the glass into the piece.


At his house at the beach for 18 years the poem “floated” in nature. If you sat on the ground beneath it, the cotton-puff clouds drifting in the azure southern sky formed a living backdrop to the words. Walt Whitman (and Wright) would have liked that.



I pick at a piece of the peeling paint. The truth is, the sculpture looked better in his yard, nestled among the thin, tall columns of the loblolly pines, the chubby palmettos, the fuchsia crepe myrtle blooms. Here, in the cramped quarters of a major metropolitan area, I’m afraid the best backdrop I can give it is the wall of my neighbor’s 1927 brick garage. But it lives on–through every season, cloaked in snow, buried in leaves, a streak of red on a summer’s day. Both parents are gone, now, their lives marked by a headstone in a graveyard in St. Louis, 874 miles away, that I rarely have the chance to visit.  I hold the fleck of paint in my palm.

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