Not long ago when we moved my mother and had to break up the home she and my father shared for thirty years, the only St. Louis home my son ever knew, the hardest thing to let go of was my dad’s ancient workbench. This excerpt from Gifts from the Spirit: Reflections on the Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh is for all of us who have lost fathers this Father’s Day.
“My boy is so far away, even here [at her mother’s home]–until I went upstairs. As I walked into his room…everything came back. I looked at his toys, the rooster, the Swedish horse…the little blue stool, his cart of blocks…Then the bureau drawers–each one so full of him. Just the familiarity of my hand on the crib seemed to put him back there. What is this thing that is presence and yet not presence? I went down crying but more satisfied.”
HOUR OF GOLD, HOUR OF LEAD, pp. 257-258
Anne made this diary entry just eleven days after she learned that her infant son had been killed. Charles A. Lindbergh Jr. was stolen from his crib at the Lindbergh’s Hopewell, New Jersey, farmhouse in March of 1932. After two months of raised and dashed hopes for his safe return, the eighteen-month-old child’s body was discovered half-buried in a wooded area less than five miles from their home. He never lived beyond the night he was taken.
Six months pregnant with her second child, Anne was visiting her mother’s home, where she and her husband and child had lived while they waited for their own home to be built. They had not been back since baby Charlie’s death. Anne tiptoed upstairs and gently opened the door to her son’s room. She was flooded with more than memories: she felt his presence. The smell of the tin of Johnson’s baby powder, the little crushed blue jacket he wore over his sleeping suit when he came downstairs to play every night, his gray pussycat with the tail nearly off. In each of these things, she found her baby. She stole back downstairs in silent tears, but was comforted. He didn’t feel so far away.
“What is this thing that is presence and yet not presence?” Visiting my mother in St. Louis a few months after my fathers’ death, this question became real for me. I was there for our annual summertime sojourn, the first time I’d been home since his funeral the winter before. I lived in California now, and the geographical distance had buffered the realization that he was gone. Intellectually, I knew he was, of course. But, emotionally, it wasn’t entirely real; when you don’t see someone regularly you don’t meet the person’s absence as sharply as you do when you live nearby.
While I knew there would be a reckoning with this trip, it didn’t come right away or in any way I expected.
I didn’t apprehend the reality of his death in the places I thought I would. Not in his empty, dark blue, leather recliner, situated in the best possible location in the family room for TV viewing. This was the “dad” chair, reserved for him with unspoken understanding all the years I was growing up and into the present—except when his grandson came to visit. (My son was granted a special dispensation to park there for his morning cartoons.)
I didn’t find it either when I sat at the desk in his study. He’d sit there to read the paper while his grandson took over his armchair in the family room. Tipping back in his swivel chair, with drugstore reading glasses perched on the edge of his handsome nose, my father would peruse the St. Louis Post- Dispatch—even if it was that liberal paper that knocked the Globe-Democrat out of business.
I didn’t realize the fact of his death, either, in what would have been his empty place at the table. Just as his chair had the best view in the room for seeing the television, my father had the best view in the breakfast nook, the place he and my mother took their meals. At his place you could look out a bay window onto a pastoral scene where horses grazed in a field thattouched their property. Now my mother moved my older brother, who was also visiting, into this spot. (If it sounds like the men in my family get preferential treatment, it’s because they do.) So even his absence at the dinner table didn’t strike me deeply.
That my father was permanently gone did not become real to me until several days into the visit, when I ventured downstairs into the basement. That’s where it hit me.
I slipped quietly down the carpeted basement stairs. Yes, carpeted. My father was the kind of man who not only carpeted his basement stairs, but also regularly vacuumed the concrete basement floor. Instinctively, I made my way over to his workbench.
My dad built his workbench when he and my mother bought their first house. They had moved twice since, and never left the workbench behind.
Standing in front of it now, I pictured it in the tiny laundry room it occupied when I was four, and then later in the larger laundry room in the house where I grew up. It was a permanent fixture in the life of our family. It was the place where things that needed to be repaired were piled, where shoes that needed shining were shined, where my father could often be seen hunched over, working his magic on some electrical gizmo (his favorite word of choice) that needed overhauling.
I grew up believing that my father could fix anything.
Years later, when my parents moved to the new house, he would take my son downstairs to the basement and let him tinker with him at his workbench. I can still see my preschool- age son perched atop a sturdy plastic drum of laundry detergent before scraps of discarded wood, drilling holes with the old manual drill that had belonged to his great-grandfather, and hammering nails with his grandfather’s tack hammer—right alongside his granddad. Some summers they would make special projects together. One year it was a birdhouse; another, it was a concrete-and-tile steppingstone for the garden.
Although I stood alone at that moment with my memories rushing at me, I was surrounded by my father’s presence. He was there.
There, in the stained, scuffed surface of his workbench where he had polished shoes, built Pinewood Derby cars, repaired lamps, painted furniture, framed pictures, fixed the cord on my mother’s iron, and completed innumerable other tasks that kept the surface of our lives functioning smoothly. And each tool, hanging in its spot on the pegboard of his workbench just where he’d left it, was full of him.
I was overwhelmed by his presence. And I knew, for the first time, that he was gone. The reality that I hadn’t been able to access before came now. And along with the tears that came from deep inside my body came the knowledge of what he had meant to me.
My father was a man who wasn’t comfortable with his feelings and didn’t share them easily, and so he showed that he cared in practical ways. Building, repairing, improving, fixing–he loved to do all of these things and we received the benefits. Here was a man who showed care through his handiness. He was able to love through doing the thing he loved. My loss became real that summer day because in my father’s workbench I found his essence.
“What is this thing that is presence and yet not presence?” Anne asked. It may be this: We inhabit the things we love and, even in death, if we have loved we leave some of ourselves behind.