My mother’s brother gave my father a box of dirt for Christmas.
Before I tell you about the significance of this dirt, you should know some things.
(My father is standing, in bowtie, behind my mother, sitting next to the dirt-giving brother in overalls, 1959)
My parents grew up next door to each other on a tiny, twisty street on one of San Francisco’s infamous hills. All their myriad of siblings are best friends. My mother bears an ancient grudge against one of my father’s brothers, who was in her class every year, and who was her biggest rival in class rankings. My mother babysat my father’s sister everyday. My mother, at age 12, went to the funeral of my father’s littlest sister, who died at age 5. My father built an A-frame fort in my mother’s backyard with her brother. No girls were allowed in. 30 years later, my mother took care of my father’s mother in her house for months as she died of cancer. My mother’s mother died of cancer when my mother was only 28. My father’s mother was like her “other mother,” she told me. She had known my mother since she was born.
There is a moment I can pinpoint, a pivot between a sob and a sigh, at which I became an adult. It was at my grandmother’s funeral. I had volunteered to give a eulogy. My father went first. My entire family was there, both sides, and it was only then that I began to grasp the gravity of how intertwined and ancient my family was. How strange to be surrounded by people who have truly known each other their whole lives. My father began to speak. He spoke with strength and humor until he mentioned my mother, and then he broke down. We all broke down. “The way my wife took care of my mother these last months…I have never loved her more. This is what we do. This is what one does, without hesitation, for the people we love. We take care of each other.” This was the moment my parents became people to me, the moment I truly realized how much my mother has selflessly Taken Care of people she loves because that is What You Do. The moment I realized how eternally grateful I am to have been raised by two people who instilled that in me. And that, for my parents, with their ancient bond, this was their glue. More than a shared interest in baseball and gardening, or their strange symbiosis of being complete opposites in every way. That watching the person you love take care of another person you love is what makes them shine. That in that darkness of watching the person who raised you die, another kind of love is cemented.
Back to the dirt. Back to the tiny twisty street on a hill. Back to two houses side-by-side. My father’s family moved out after my father graduated high school. My father already knew he would marry my mother. A lady moved into their house, a lady who my mother’s father remarried after my mother’s mother died (another ancient family grudge). They moved to the country. And then, my mother’s brother bought my father’s old house, the house next door to the one he grew up in. He started renovating the backyard, in the shadow of the fort that still stands, the fort built by him and my father. He took this backyard dirt, and he put it in a box on which he wrote the latitude and longitude. On top of the box he put a spoon and a brush. In front of everyone, my father spooned through the dirt, the dirt from his old backyard. In the dirt was an ashtray he made with his 10 year old hands, carved with his initials. A plastic army figurine. The lid to a tin of coffee opened nearly 50 years ago. A marble. These things that lay under the dirt for decades, forgotten but present. This excavation of the past. How lucky to be in a room, 50 years later, surrounded by people who knew what all this meant.
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