Jam jar of cigarette ends and ashes on his workbench/hammer he nailed our address to a stump with/balsa wood steamship, half-finished— What My Father Left Behind, Chris Forhan
A year and a half into cleaning up my mothers things I have come to the conclusion that the venerable tradition of burying a person’s possessions with them — a horse to ride, a sword to fight, a wife to serve, gold to appease an angry god — may have as much to do with aiding the living as smoothing a journey through the afterlife.
I have ordered the random: pennies put aside in case one was worth hundreds rather than a cent, 1940s on; a tin push toy with wings possibly Mexico, possibly 1945; a Christmas list with who got what and how much it cost, 1954; a once red paper flower labelled as from an Oud maker in Bagdad, 1973; records of building a garden fence, 1976. I have sorted the voluminous evidence of her professional life: folders for festivals; songs lists for gigs; fan letters; milage records for the Farm Security Administration, diagrams of ship parts from World War II. Twenty four boxes, shelved and labeled.
It is the things more precious to my mother that defeat me. She liked pictures of herself — photographs and drawings. She liked the things that people she liked gave her. Once she liked spoons and bones to play and was somewhat a fetishist when it came to jaw harps. In the closet are lace up boots from the 1930s, moccasins with real Indian Head nickel buttons, summer clothes made out out of rice sacks from Southeast Asia. Without her, these things, always visible in her everyday life or carefully folded in everyday drawers, are forlorn, of no more significance than the pennies. What to do? To throw them away is to be complicit in my mother’s exit from the world. I can’t do that. They languish in limbo— large plastic boxes under the eaves. At some point I will redeem the letters from Pete Seeger and the others: Utah Philips, Gordon Bok, Kate Wolf, Malvina Reynolds.
I talk to a friend. She also had a difficult mother, one given to physical outrage. She too keeps as much as she can transporting it from the East Coast to the West. Members of our sisterhood, of our fraternity, she says, practice an archeology of self. What happened to us? Why? When? We excavate.
My found artifacts: letters my mother wrote and letters she received, notes to herself, photographs, short stories she wrote, poems she copied, books she saved.
Before my mother became ‘Faith Petric, the Fort Knox of Folk Music’ — much loved as such, much needed, important — when she was still the person born in a log cabin in the mountains of Idaho making her way to the big city, she had a plan to sail to China. Among the papers I find is a 1940s application for that passport and her picture. She has full cheeks and a white lace collar.
Seattle life — work in a bookstore, friendship with the painters of the Northwest School — and San Francisco life — the Black Cat bar, Chinatown, sailing on the Bay — held her instead. I like her then. She was adventurous. She had the intimacy of friends who read books in the French original and painted and sculpted and wrote funny letters and took photographs, who ran the San Francisco Labour School and went to Paul Robeson concerts, and to anti-lynching parties and wanted justice even as the FBI was breathing down their necks. From what was sent and received they seemed to have loved each other, been angry, disappointed, forgave and loved again. Relationships of equals.
Sometimes in old age my mother would say she was looking for a friend. Not that she didn’t have wonderful friends: Estelle who is making a film about her now, Bonnie who did so much to keep her at home, Morgan the saw player. But once she became the Fort Knox of Folk Music, the head of the San Francisco Folk Music Club, the recipient of the Noam Chomsky Peace Prize these were not quite relationships of equals. And power can corrupt.
I also like the earlier mother for selfish reasons. Shortly after she died I found a note she had written to herself. I was visiting with my daughter who was young. My mother was having a hard time with that visit. For comfort, she listed the qualities she liked about about me and those she didn’t. The didn’t like list had a dozen items. The like list had four – none substantial Do I wish it had been buried with her? I don’t know. I think not.
In that earlier time, when I am ten and she is not yet a folk star, she writes a letter to a man she loved giving news of her life. This one is the gold. “Carol is lovely,” she says.
What My Father Left Behind — Chris Forhan
Jam jar of cigarette ends and ashes on his workbench,
hammer he nailed our address to a stump with,
balsa wood steamship, half-finished—
is that him, waving from the stern? Well, good luck to him.
Slur of sunlight filling the backyard, August’s high wattage,
white blossoming, it’s a curve, it comes back. My mother
in a patio chair, leaning forward, squinting, threading
her needle again, her eye lifts to the roof, to my brother,
who stands and jerks his arm upward—he might be
insulting the sky, but he’s only letting go
a bit of green, a moulded plastic soldier
tied to a parachute, thin as a bread bag, it rises, it arcs
against the blue—good luck to it—my sister and I below,
heads tilted back as we stand in the grass, good
luck to all of us, still here, still in love with it.