Looking For Joe
Photo by Christina Schmidt
I want to be done with you, Joe. Wash my hands, run out of this house, empty my mind of you. Fifteen years we’ve been digging through your stuff and we’re still not done: the garage, the old chicken coop, the porch, the carport, the yard, and now behind this hidden door in the belly of the cellar. Your work clothes, hung where you left them, drooping from hooks like deflated bodies. Coveralls, overalls, shirts, sweaters. Filthy, paint-spattered, and holey. Don’t make me touch them.
But I have to. I jerk a heavy brown sweater from its hook, sending an explosion of dust up my nose and across my tee shirt. I drop the crumbling bundle of wool into the trash. Some things just can’t be saved, Joe. I picture my father-in-law wagging his fat, callused finger at me, demanding to know what I’m doing with his stuff. Good question. I have no desire to sort through a lifetime of crap belonging to someone I barely knew and tried my best to avoid.
Now that Joe’s ninety-four-year-old widow Lucille has moved into an assisted living home, my husband and I have traveled three thousand miles for the final purging of closets, cupboards, cubby holes, file cabinets, dresser drawers, and the shadowy recesses of the pantry. I never understood Joe, keeper of receipts, report cards, school books, church meeting minutes, mysterious chemicals, old cars, tools, batteries, lawn mowers, Christmas cards, and picture albums. The man I never got along with, from whom my husband fled some forty years ago, the man whose towering expectations no one, save maybe the Pope and Jesus, ever met. The racist who hated the “damn free-loading Mexicans” next door as well as the “damn no good Blacks” who slowly encroached on his neighborhood. The man who could smile and say, “You look nice today,” but didn’t mean it as a compliment.
On my first visit to Joe and Lucille’s house, in my mid-thirties, Jim and I had been living together for three years. The entire family crowded around the massive oak table in the tiny kitchen for a dinner of pot roast, mashed potatoes, gravy, iced tea, and Lucille’s home-canned corn and beets. We joined hands as Joe recited the blessing. My eight-year-old daughter Elisha fidgeted, not sure what she should say or do during this unfamiliar ritual. I clasped her warm, soft hand in my sweaty palm, my stomach churning, not from hunger but from dread. I feared the worst from Joe—rejection, outrage, tongue-lashing.
When the pot roast was sliced and the food passed, Jim cleared his throat. “We have an announcement to make.” Heads turned his way. “We’re getting married.”
I held up my left hand to show the simple gold band with embedded ruby that Jim had placed on my finger earlier in the day.
“Congratulations!” Jim’s brother slapped him on the shoulder.
“Well, that’s nice,” said Lucille.
“A wedding!” Jim’s niece Selena applauded.
Joe was silent.
“We haven’t set a date yet, but we’re thinking sometime this summer, at home in Alaska.” I forced a smile. “You’re all invited, of course.”
Knives and forks scraped against plates. I chewed slowly, cupping my shaky hands around a sweaty glass of iced tea, watching my brand new ruby gleam in the harsh overhead light. I hated myself for hoping—joy, acceptance, kisses and hugs around the table.
“Well, that’s just fine,” Joe said at last. “I’ll have some more of that gravy.”
I coughed away a lump in my throat as the meal wore on in silence. In Joe’s eyes his son and I were sinners, previously married in the Catholic Church to other people. We had no right to get married again. The only route to redemption was an annulment, a process requiring you to swear you had entered your former marriage in bad faith, in effect wiping away the existence of that union. Neither Jim nor I was willing to do that.
Finally, Lucille rose to clear the table. “Anyone want dessert?” she asked.
“What are we having?” Elisha piped up.
“If you have to ask, you don’t deserve any,” Joe barked.
My daughter turned to me, wondering what she’d done wrong. I rubbed her knee under the table and stared at Jim. He lifted his eyebrows.
A few months later, we married on a rainy day at a park near our home in Alaska. We were surrounded by people who loved us, including kids running wild, longtime friends, and my family, who trusted Jim’s quiet, steady love of their daughter and granddaughter. On the groom’s side, there was no one.
From the tiny closet, I retrieve a pair of short-sleeved zip-up coveralls, the kind of garb Joe wore everywhere except to church and his own funeral. Next, a pair of gray striped bib overalls, legs dotted with tiny holes no doubt from some toxic liquid Joe encountered in his work with the highway department. Trash. “I can’t do this,” I say. “I’m choking up.”
“I’m sorry,” Jim says. “I didn’t realize you and dad were so close.”
He gets a half-hearted smile out of me. “My allergies.”
Jim jerks a faded red plaid shirt from a rusty hanger and heaves it into the trash. “Go on. Get out of here. I’ll finish.”
Upstairs, sunlight filters through the Virgin Mary, the prisms, the blue and red hummingbirds, the angels, and other doodads that dangle from fishing line in the kitchen bay window, casting rainbows on stacks of pictures, papers, and file folders on the table. Though I breathe more easily here, I’m overwhelmed by the canned food, dishes, silverware, mixers, bags of flour, and all manner of debris strewn on the countertops. In the living room, piles of clothing and linens cover a sofa, a tattered rocking chair, and a good portion of the hardwood floor. I don’t see how we’ll ever clear the place out in five days.
I lift a file folder from the top of one pile, and a black and white photo slips out. Men in wide-brimmed hats, crumpled jeans, shirts with rolled sleeves. Women in flowered housedresses, toddlers and babies in their arms. I recognize Jim, a child wearing shorts but no shirt. He burrows into his mother’s skirt, his eyes seeming to ask, “Who are these people?” Joe’s father stands in the center of the picture, hatless, his overalls stretched over a slight paunch. Joe’s mother huddles among her grown children and grandchildren, her light-colored hair swept up, a wave drooping over her forehead. A full-length apron covers most of her printed dress. She looks weary, the kind of weary that comes from bearing and raising eleven children, working a farm, and trying to feed her family. Absent from the picture, Joe must have been the photographer. On the back, near the right hand corner, inscribed in delicate script, he has captioned it, “End of threshing, August, 1953.”
In the next photo against the same backdrop, Joe, Lucille, and Jim, still backed up into his mother’s skirt, pose with Grandma and Grandpa. Joe’s shirt looks spotless, his pants pressed, a city boy visiting, the only sibling who left their small Nebraska home town. The eldest, Joe was expected to become the family priest, the keeper of the family’s spiritual well-being, their personal representative to God. At seventeen, he was shipped off to seminary to begin the journey toward the priesthood, bowing to the wishes of his father, the man his sons remembered as harsh, unforgiving, and terrifying.
But while still in seminary and serving at a Denver parish, Joe met Lucille, a petite, lively beauty with dark curls and a bright smile. They fell in love. They struggled with their forbidden feelings. They confessed. They consulted the parish priest. Joe could fulfill his family’s wishes, or he could follow his heart. Lucille left the decision to him. The church offered security, contemplation, ritual, and service. Earthly love promised unpredictability, intimacy, children, and hard choices. Joe chose Lucille.
I slide another black and white photo from a bulging envelope. Two donkeys, the larger one nuzzling the ear of the pale fuzzy one beside her. Behind them, bare trees, scraped ground, a picket fence, a large half-barrel feeding trough. The neatly penciled script on the back of the photo reads, “Daisy and Danny.” The scene is here, beside this house, near the old chicken coop, subsequent repository of old paint, pesticides, rusty nails, chain saws, and dead Volkswagens. No matter that this city lot was bone dry or that the gigantic metal scaffolding of high voltage power lines towered over it. Joe let no piece of ground lie idle. Using the old irrigation ditch that ran alongside the house, he transformed the dusty soil into arable land, planting beets, potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce, peas, green beans, and asparagus. Sweet corn flourished beneath the power lines. A crabapple tree produced tart red fruit for jelly, and grape vines hugged the filigree of the wrought iron carport. Any spare time between his two jobs Joe spent in the cornfield or in the garden or with the animals. He kept his family fed and clothed, and his boys in private Catholic schools, but he had no time for frivolous activities like attending his sons’ baseball or football games, or even tossing a ball in the backyard. A getaway cabin in the mountains turned into weekend remodeling and tree-planting expeditions.
But the donkeys served no functional purpose. They carried no burdens, plowed no fields. They were simply Joe’s pets and confidantes. “I’d rather spend time with these donkeys than people,” Joe used to say. “Won’t let you down.” What kind of man lavishes his affection on animals, but denies it to the people closest to him?
Beneath a stack of pictures lies a wooden jewelry box, mahogany-colored, beat-up, and scratched. I lift it, meaning to set it aside—just more of Lucille’s costume jewelry. But clinking metal makes me pause. Coins? Could be worth something. The tiny brass latch pops open easily. Inside, against a rich purple velvet lining, a muddle of red, blue, and gold military medals with embroidered insignias and brass pins. I shake the box to spread them out, pick them up one at a time, holding each in my hand, feeling their weight, admiring their color and shine, then I remember the trunk.
Not long after Joe died, I helped Jim and his brother sort through stacks of Joe’s boxes stored in a corner of the boys’ old basement bedroom. At the bottom of a stack we discovered a dented metal foot locker. Jim pried open the reluctant latch and cracked the weighty lid. Joe’s army dress uniform lay neatly folded on top. Beneath were fatigues for everyday service. The material was faded, but still sharply creased. Nearer the bottom, we found a smashed hat. Jim grabbed the bill, shook it, and the top popped up, revealing gold braids and German lettering.
Digging deeper, Jim extracted Nazi insignias, patches, brass buttons, another cap, and a Nazi uniform. I drew back, too repulsed to touch these macabre souvenirs. Where did they come from? Did Joe strip the bodies of Germans he had killed?
“What exactly did your dad do in the war?” I asked.
“Counter-intelligence,” Paul said. “He spoke German.”
Joe? In counter-intelligence? Maybe he wore the Nazi uniform and insignia. World War II spy movies flashed through my mind—American soldiers posing as Nazis behind enemy lines. But war hero did not fit my image of Joe. Cynical and contemptuous of all authority save the Church’s and his own, he wasn’t one to take risks, nor was he especially patriotic.
“Dad said he couldn’t talk about what he did in the war,” said Paul. “Sworn to secrecy.”
“But there were those pictures,” Jim said.
Rummaging through an old bookshelf when he was a young boy, Jim one day discovered, between volumes of dusty books, an album he had never seen before. He opened the pages to sights not meant for little-boy eyes, stacks of naked corpses and living skeletons—men, women, and children dressed in rags. He flipped through page after page of horrifying scenes, trying to make sense of what he saw. When his dad came home, he took the book to him.
“What are these pictures?” Jim asked.
“They’re not for you to see.” Joe snatched the album without explanation, and the pictures vanished. Decades later, Jim learned that Joe had taken the pictures himself at the liberation of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp. But the rest of Joe’s war history remained a mystery, locked away like the uniform in the trunk.
Before we’re done, we deliver seven carloads of clothing, linens, tools, furniture, garden supplies, books, and odds and ends to charity. We dump a pantry-full of home-canned fruit and vegetables from Joe’s garden—ten, twenty, maybe thirty years old. We heap a stout trailer with recyclable metals and fill an entire dumpster with junk that can’t be given away or recycled. We pack a small stack of folders and envelopes crammed with pictures to carry home.
“I won’t leave you a bunch of crap to sort through when I die,” I promise my daughter when we get back. My own house now appears cramped, cluttered, worn, and tired. Too many pictures, masks, and mementos on the wall, clothes, boots, and shoes I’ll never wear, books I will never read, stacks of old essays, papers from workshops, tax returns, CD’s, journals filled with rambling scribbles. I’m choking on the past.
On a rainy summer’s day, I sit on the floor in the middle of my own sewing/guest/junk room, facing the detritus of my life. A recycle bin overflows with papers and magazines. I’m ruthless, even tossing out a stack of sentimental Mother’s Day cards. In the corner behind a suitcase, I spot a bulging paper shopping bag, a ragged picture album protruding from the top. I grab the bag by the handle and the whole thing rips apart. Folders, loose pictures, and a purple notebook spill out. Jim’s childhood pictures scatter across the carpet—a kid on a trike, a toddler, a scowling teenager on a family road trip. The photos I recognize, but the notebook is a mystery. We must have gathered it as we were leaving Joe and Lucille’s house. I pick it up. Hand-lettering across the top reads, “May 1990 thru 1997 Diary.” Inside the front cover is Joe’s name, printed in thick black magic marker.
Joe— a diary?
I’m curious, but hesitant. I’m done with Joe. I left him in Denver. I completed the job I didn’t want. I cleaned out his house, and I have no desire to revisit those musty rooms.
I tell Jim about my discovery that night at dinner. He wants nothing to do with the diary. Read it or toss it, he says. It doesn’t matter to him. I’m angry all over again at Joe, for never patching things up with his sons. His stained coveralls, his war medals, his pet donkeys are his legacy.
For several days I avoid the shabby notebook the way I avoided Joe. It sits alone on the floor in the center of the room while I continue purging my past. I should dump it, shred it, torch it in the wood stove.
But I can’t bring myself to get rid of it. If you leave a diary you must want someone to read it. I have no right. To Joe, I was always an outsider. But then he alienated his own son. And he’s gone now. He can’t hurt me, or any of us, ever again.
Finally, I open the book and scan the yellowed pages. Joe writes in sloppy, short sentences, abbreviating words as if he can’t get them down fast enough. All of the entries are in May—eight years of Mays, no other months. A paragraph or two nearly every day in May, then a blank space, and May Day of a new year.
I feel cheated, then puzzled. Why only May? I go back, reading the text slowly this time. It’s a farmer’s almanac of sorts, a record of daily weather and ritual. Morning mass (Fr. Freeman is always late). Weather report (still sprinkling, with only 5/8 inch of rain). Garden and yard work. Irrigation ditch repair. Dinner. Church meetings. Collapse in bed. Buried deep in the pages he declares May is his favorite month, the planting month. He tends his crops as if survival depended on them, but he seems to derive little pleasure from his labor. Beneath his terse daily records, there’s a sense of never doing enough, never having enough. He takes joy only in his granddaughter Selena as she stalks mice in the cornfield, shops for candy, reads the lesson at Mass.
Increasingly his notations reveal a failing body. “I hurt so badly I stayed in bed most of the day,” and “inactive forenoon due to pain,” and “stiff and in pain—buttocks, hips, shoulders, hands…I’m real discouraged with life—can’t work anything myself and there’s so much to do.”
At age eighty, Joe wrote his final entry: “Beautiful May is gone…It’s been a tough, painful one for the most part and I’ve done a poor job of keeping records.” Without the garden, without the energy to continue his routine, to keep moving, take care of his land, he’s depressed, defeated. I fast forward my own life to a time when I may not be able to hike or bike or ski or wander along a beach and gaze at birds or even get out of bed, and I’m flooded with a sense of loss—the loss of the body that has always responded to my will, always defined who I am. But more than that, I fear that old age may inevitably bring regret—lost abilities, missed opportunities, and unfulfilled dreams. I suppose Joe was no different.
Tucked between the last blank pages of the notebook is a single sheet of lined paper, much more yellowed than the rest. On it is a poem, written in a neater, more graceful version of Joe’s script. April 8, 1935 is the date, the first year Joe was in the seminary.
Sure my Johnny has been priested
And my joy I cannot hide
For I’ve watched him from the cradle
With a father’s honest pride
Oh, I’ve seen him at God’s altar;
For my heart it was a feast,
For my soul is ever singing,
I’m the daddy of a priest.
To the end, Joe carried the burden of expectations unfulfilled—his father’s, his own. He chose the messier path, through the horrors of war, the financial demands of a family, the turmoil of raising two boys, the struggle to fill his days with purpose.
One final, beautiful May came and went. In debilitating pain, Joe finally agreed to back surgery. But when he got out of the hospital, the roof needed fixing. Against his doctor’s orders, he climbed a ladder to the roof while Lucille was away. His back seized up and he could not climb down. Paul found him there on the roof, hours later, hoarse from yelling for help. He never quite recovered. In quick succession, there was emergency heart surgery, then pancreatic failure, and then he was gone.
I never said goodbye to Joe. I barely said hello. I resented him, avoided him. If I’d been less guarded, more curious, and more courageous, I might have joined him in the garden, in May, his favorite month, when the soil was rich and damp, as a breeze rustled the bright new leaves. Dressed in bib overalls full of tiny holes and wearing a tattered brown sweater, he would have scattered seeds at the bottom of a perfectly tilled trench. Perhaps he’d have let me tamp the dirt down and water the garden. Expecting nothing from each other, we’d have held only to the hope of a gentle rain and the miracle of fresh new shoots. We might have forgiven the things left unsaid, and perhaps even smiled at the foolish things we were bound to accumulate, and then leave behind.