A Not-So Empty Palette


I pulled a Mike the other day. I was listening to someone playing the flute on a video and went looking for his little wooden flute to try and play it.


That was Mike; he had all kinds of silly instruments around and was always trying to play them, especially after hearing something particularly moving or beautiful. He had moments of beauty himself; he would sometimes manage a sound he was pleased with and would repeat it over and over to his joy - and our entertained annoyance. He was not trained musically (except on the bagpipes) but had the intent to learn and did just that, quite well, over the years, on lots of instruments - saxophone, drums, flute, keyboards, harmonicas…I bought him a harmonium one year and he loved that…and he got really good at the ukulele living here in Hawaii. He was ticked to learn, when we met, that I was a classically trained pianist and flautist. I don’t play much these days other than for my own entertainment but over the years we had a lot of fun playing silly songs together on all kinds of things.


Well, that flute was not to be found, of course, because it had been gifted to friends in the big sort-out after he died along with most of his other instruments - we’re talking cheap penny whistles and flea market sound-makers, things he collected and people treasured only because they had belonged to him. I knew this even while I was looking for it. But I still looked in the places I knew we had kept the flutes before, because I couldn’t remember exactly who had taken what or where I might have stored little bits like that after things got moved around. 


It was about eight months after he died when his daughters and I went through everything and divided it among us. That was the time I was having severe breakdowns sitting in the middle of the piles of all his stuff in his room and realized…I couldn’t go on like that anymore. I was grateful they were willing to help me sort it out, along with a few close friends.


But the story of his stuff is a long one and I realize now it will probably never end. 


One the one hand, I am deeply relieved to have had the strength and support to redesign my living space when I did. I am still in the same house we bought together all those years ago and that in itself will always garner memories. But to move forward with anything new, to attempt a life not lived within a shrine or museum, I knew much - yes, most - of the trinket stuff had to go. We widowed people all have difference timetables for this story of stuff…but at that time, I really needed to start to try and clear the palette on which to draw my future.


The girls carted off three large carfuls of stuff that day. A lot of boxes ended up at my stepdaughter’s place not far from me here in Kona. We had a conversation just last week about it…she is trying to sort out her own living space, which is smaller than mine, and would I want some of the things back? Again…nothing worth anything except to us. I said yes…let’s just bring it back here and store it until we are can determine what to do. Neither of us is ready to let it all go, and yet…


On the other hand - I still have a few things of his in my living space. I still have pictures of him and us together around the house and don’t imagine that will ever change. The shrine itself, which in the first weeks and months after he died had evolved on an entrance-way table to collect memorabilia and pictures and statues and hats and action figures and yes, his ashes…this eventually got taken down and redistributed. 


I couldn’t bring myself to break down the shrine altogether though. So I cleared off a top shelf in the big bookcase in my bedroom and moved a few pieces there. What I have left of his ashes; a few statues we bought together; action figures, a couple of hats…yes, I went looking there for the wooden flute, because I really couldn’t remember who had taken that or what I had put up there the past two years. (That realization was difficult.)  Since I created that space, as I came across little bits that I knew belonged to him in junk drawers and corners of the house I would add them there haphazardly. No one but me knows or sees it. But it is comforting. A zippo lighter; his favorite woody car toy; his favorite archery arm guard which we had thought we lost after he died but then found to our great relief months later. Funny how seemingly random objects take on so much meaning.


During the wooden flute search I went through a couple of small boxes of his trinkets I still have stored away and found a few other things of his that made me smile…things I’d meant to get rid of but just hadn’t yet…and now, I’m glad to find them there. It may take me more time to feel ready to deal with those last bits. Sometimes I think I never will…then I wonder whether it’s realistic to cart all that stuff around with me forever. With my house and life in limbo like it is…the intention is to downsize. But man…even with all the clear-outs I’ve done there’s still so much stuff, tools, junk, supplies…15 years worth of life collected since the move here together in 2001.


That empty palette is not really empty, I realize, and never will be. Mike’s life and color will always be tools and musical notes that will reverberate in my own life forever. I need to find a way to paint my own pictures…and yet I also need to find a way to incorporate the indescribable influence he has had on me.


None of this is easy.


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  • Cathy
    commented 2016-02-05 05:45:34 -0800
    Stephanie, we’re so on the same page: I also have a top shelf shrine in the bookcase in the bedroom filled with pictures and trinkets that I come across, only meaning something to he and I. Brings me peace to see that part of my life, remembering little snippets of what once was. No, none of this is easy, but so helpful when I read someone elses story. Thanks so much.