THE CLOTHES, THE CLOTHES… It was a beautiful day with pure white clouds in a deep blue sky and I went out and did it. The lady I trusted at the consignment shop suggested the Big Brothers Big Sisters donation bins at Super Save, but I opted for the closer Del Norte Liquors location for more privacy that morning. Good thing, too. The first thing I saw when I pulled up were two non-matching torn-up men’s shoes lying in the dirt out front. Oh God. Don’t stop, I told myself, then tested my resolve with the largest bag because I knew I’d be committed then. The lever squeaked in the dry cool air. The door opened wide and the bag disappeared with a terrible thump. I let go the handle and the green bin shrieked. Maybe some poor girls will love their Pendletons.
I’m sorry, Kathy. It still feels like a sin. But the clothes just aren’t you and you told me so.
All of these were summer items. I’d already consigned the best of them but there were many more. For two and a half years they’d hung in the bathroom “closet” in the old adobe or rested in dresser drawers, the cedar chest, or dusty piles on the bedroom floor I couldn’t face and learned to walk around. In the process of gathering them up, I set aside a few iconic items for keepsakes or to give to friends someday. I’d already taken her winter things to the storage unit to hold for early fall when I could sell the camel hair coat and all her sweaters. She had so many.1 Jeans and skirts and blouses, too, that filled the bags I loaded in the back. There was nearly a full pickup load.
I cried a little when the first bag fell. Then one by one the clothes I’d seen her wear for years went thudding into the bins. (I’d carefully folded everything into paper grocery sacks, then put those into nice clean plastic garbage bags.) Each one went more easily than the last and I knew that it was right. The goods would go to Santa Fe and Albuquerque so I wouldn’t see anyone wearing her things. When I finished I felt shaken, also different, like I’d suddenly grown wings. If I could do this anything was possible. The universe had shifted.
There was still much more to do. When I got home I transferred my clothes from what I call the “Methodist” dresser2 with the peeling veneer from West Virginia into the gorgeous cherry one3 we picked up from her grandmother in Keota years ago. Gram also gave us artifacts from the garden shed and a collection of high-fashion vintage hats from Kathy’s great-aunt Emily. All this went home to Maryland with us in my green Volkswagen bus. I couldn’t tell you which year that was, but as I worked I remembered how good it felt to be driving home in a van full of love and loot, the headers thrumming up and down the hills on clean Midwestern interstates, how young and ferocious we were.
The memory gave me hope. I wanted to start all over in the bedroom so I could breathe and knew that she’d approve. Moving fast, I gathered up her jewelry, the Japanese music box, the Bavarian porcelain dresser set, the tiny perfume bottles we carried home from Venice, the postcard she sent me from Scotland, the scarves, her handkerchiefs, and more for sorting later. Replacing the brown wool Chimayó weaving on top of the dresser with a piece from an artist we’d known in Maryland4 was perfect. On that I centered my own burial urn4—empty of course—next to my bolo ties and a mysterious necklace I’d found in a drawer. The antique shotguns with my .22 rifles6 wanted to go in the space by the wall. The scary bronze cat skull sculpture ended up on the other West Virginia dresser (hers) for being so cool and utterly me. The piles were gone. I had a room. And every night since I’ve slept straight through.
I worry that you’re tired of hearing about this journey. The timing isn’t up to me, though. The biggest question I’ve had all this time is what am I doing here? What is my purpose and how will I live after decades of not having to ask? I’ve rambled and raged, examined my sins, spent money like crazy, charged after distractions and thrills. Some of this was life-affirming. I’ve also had horrible panics and done hurtful things. May life wash them away like dust on the windshield if I only let it rain.
Two days ago something happened that stunned and helped me. Yesterday I understood. The ending of the story is, I found what may be the only video I have of Kathy in a social context and I’d forgotten it existed—only 36 seconds long from June 7, 2013 when we were visiting a friend in Ranchos on a Sunday afternoon. I can’t tell you how much this means to me. The setting is old eclectic Taos, not the shiny patios of modern houses but the real thing on a perfect day. You won’t have any trouble recognizing her. As the video rolls, you hear her chatting with our hostess. Incredible, serene, alive. Pure unfiltered Kathy as I knew her almost every day for over 40 years:
I found the clip while searching for something else on an SSD (solid state drive) with a folder of of videos transferred from an old computer. There were hundreds of them going back to 2009 and I couldn’t preview every one, so here and there I opened files at random. I was just about to quit when I tried one last time and there she was. But what made me choose that file (Zi6_0821.MOV) out of all the others?
Just before that happened, I saw a photo of a shiny ‘32 Ford hot rod in a tweet and told the author, “Perfect! Thanks for reigniting the passion of my 14-year-old heart.” In Abilene I used to devour every issue of Hot Rod Magazine each month. I’d buy it from the little newsstand at a drugstore I walked past on my way home from Jefferson Junior High for maybe 50 cents, then sit at the counter with a nickel cherry coke while I flipped through all the pages. Back then I built model planes and cars from kits. One of my favorites looked just like this. There’s something about the proportions and the stance that resonates with what’s completely me—there’s that phrase again—from back before the world intruded. Even the curves of the roof and trunk lid make me happy. It takes me to a place where I feel safe and real.
This led to a reply from a Twitter follower in Española who sent me a photo of his “rat” that made me happy, too. “Rat rods” are off-the-wall rusted wrecks with wild-ass engines, the more insane, the better. I had no idea he was into that and felt a kinship right away. More simple joy and affirmation.
Can you see where this is going now? The way I’d opened up the bedroom and made it mine. The spark of recognizing something good about my past from growing up. Connecting with someone I’ve never met who liked the same thing.
The rat rod photo fired me up so much, I tried to share a video from a custom car show in Taos but couldn’t find it. I wanted to capture the sound of the open pipes you see below, so I waited for the owner to return and drive away because the show was winding down. He did. If I only knew which year that was, I might have been able to find it. Naturally I’d also taken photos. I mean, just look at the thing.
I knew I’d used one in a blog post once and ran a keyword search but nothing seemed to work. Perhaps the searches were too specific. Then I tried “car” and got a zillion matches. The word isn’t in the filename either, pretty damn mysterious, but I scrolled on down and found the date: 9-27-2017. Now all I had to do to locate the video was go back to the folder on the SSD, but it turned out those files stopped at 2015. The clip I wanted wouldn’t have been shot then but some images were out of place and data gets corrupted. Maybe there was a block of files I couldn’t see. I clicked around at random and was ready to give up when my old life jumped onto the screen. The more I thought about it, I was overcome with awe. Giving away her clothes had freed up both of us. The wings, remember, the string of core associations that lit me up, one leading to another until the channel was clear enough for something to guide my cursor to that Sunday 20 years ago.
I felt I’d come out of a coma. After unpacking the Bavarian porcelain dresser set and perfume bottles, I put them back on the West Virginia dresser with the mirror where she’d always stood, the one that now holds sheets and towels. My cat skull sculpture was already there and looked a little lonesome anyway.
1 Iowa girl is probably why. Born in Carroll, grew up in Wall Lake, Harlan, Ottumwa, and Des Moines. Graduated from Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, went on to earn degrees from Smith and Northwestern. Loved the snow.
2 The West Virginia items came from my grandmother. Her father was a circuit-riding preacher of what they called the “shoutin’ Methodist” variety, the Rev. Hamilton Young from Parsons, WV. Confederate sympathizer during the Civil War! My middle name (I am a “Jr.”) was his first. The furniture is humble but dignified with character.
3 See lead image, left. Gram lived in Iowa.
4 Henry Salloch, who actually lived in Taos for a time some years after escaping from Nazi Germany in the ‘30s. (You can google of course or read a short biography here.) We bought the weaving and a Cochiti drum from his widow before we moved from Maryland. The drum is six feet from my desk.
5 Matches Kathy’s but hers was cream-colored. One less task for whoever buried me in Keota.
6 The old 12-gauge shotguns that would blow up in your face with modern ammo were a gift from Kathy’s father. I bought the single-shot bolt action .22 from one Bob Bogan for $5 back in Arkansas in ‘71. The semi-automatic .22 carbine came from my Aunt Mary’s house in Maine after she died. I found it in a closet, loaded!