Finding Forgotten Stories


Richard outside his historic shop building with "Matriculation" on the hand-crane he designed for moving boulders and large sculptures.

I’m up to my ears and out of my comfort zone. I’m working with Colorado Art Ranch to get our guest cottage and Richard’s shop ready for the Terraphilia Artist/Writer Residency program beginning later this year.

Working with Art Ranch isn’t outside my comfort zone; it’s the remodeling and renovation part of the “getting ready.” Design of built spaces was Richard’s thing. I paid bills, kept him semi-organized, chose colors and dreamed landscaping. I don’t have the “object manipulation gene” he and Molly share that allows them to see intuitively how physical objects and buildings work.

The bigger project–and scarier to me–is finishing the renovation of Richard’s historic brick shop building, built in 1902 as a millwork shop for a long-defunct lumber company. It had been essentially abandoned for several decades before we bought it in 1997.

Richard spent about ten years (in between building our house next door) getting its structure in good shape, but never finished. Still to come: installing a ceiling (did I mention the building is 1,700 square feet, and the ceiling is two stories high at the center beam of the timber frame?), some rewiring (ditto the above) and repairing the aging plumbing.

The main door to the shop, surrounded by some of the stuff collected by a sculptor who worked with found objects.

Before we can even start on the renovation (which will be done mostly by volunteers, and will likely use up my small hoard of shop-repair cash), there’s a LOT of cleaning and organizing to do. My love was a pack rat. He collected old industrial metal and gears for sculptures, saved scraps of wood to use for levers and fulcrums and chocks in moving boulders, and seemingly hoarded every piece of paper that came across his desk in the almost-three decades I knew him.

“Our” Molly and her sweetie Mark Allen tackled the six four-drawer filing cabinets last fall, hauling 65 pounds of paper to a shredder. That cleared two file cabinets. Then there’s his office, and the boxes and boxes of books. I’ve been going through shelves and drawers and cabinets, all coated with years of dust, sorting out what can be saved from what can be recycled and what is simply trash. That’s where the stories of the title come in.

Tucked into every pile and file, whether it’s outdated supply catalogs or receipts, are mementos he saved: love notes  I wrote, sketches for sculptures, jottings of favorite quotes, cards from Molly, and in one case, a whole folder of precise pen-and-ink botanical illustrations I sketched for my newspaper columns thirty years ago, and had completely forgotten. (I think he was saving them to frame… someday.)

An illustration of a mariposa lily I drew for a newspaper column some 30 years ago.

I lifted each sketch, shaking off the dust, and my hands remembered the feel of the old rapiograph ink pens with their interchangeable points that always got clogged. Feeling the paper, seeing the detailed shading, I recaptured a forgotten part of me. I wouldn’t say I had ever been an artist, but I used to draw plants. That’s a story about myself I didn’t remember.

The sorting-through is slow work. And hard on my tender heart. When I come to things like the shirt-pocked-sized notebook containing the sketch for a Craftsman-style pergola and bridge he planned to build in our front yard, I dust them off, read them, and then must wipe my tears and blow my nose before continuing on.

Cross-section sketch of a Craftsman-style pergola/bridge for our front yard

I miss my love–his brilliant mind, his soaring creativity, the inborn affection for this numinous Earth that showed in all his work, and most of all, his company. I will always miss him. And because he was a packrat, I have a growing stash of poignant–and dusty–treasures to remind me of stories I have yet to write about our journey through this life, together and separately.

9 responses to “Finding Forgotten Stories

  1. You are brave and this is hard. I’m going through the papers of my long-departed parents and some am overcome with a powerful mixture of joy, love, and sorrow. You are brave to do this and carry on with an almost overpowering building project. Way to go! I’m glad for Molly to be there helping and supporting you.

  2. Trilla, It IS an emotional roller-coaster going through the papers and mementos of those we love. But it seems to me that the treasures and the stories we find are such a gift! I can only take a few hours of going through Richard’s piles at a time; I have to pace myself or the emotions are simply overwhelming. Molly was home for the whole five weeks before Richard died, and it was just wonderful. (Her employer, Goodby Silverstein, and the Family Medical Leave Act made it possible for her to be here for so long.) She’s back in San Francisco now; I’ll see her again in July when we gather for the first annual Richard Cabe Memorial petanque tournament and brunch a few days before what would have been Richard’s 62nd birthday…

  3. Beautiful, Susan. Carrying on is difficult work. Sorting, as you well know, is about so much more than each item. Each item holds memories and emotions and a tiny (or large) piece of heart. I am still very slowly working with my eldest daughter’s things. An 18 year old has such interesting things. And there are the things one will never be able to speak with them about..those can be the hardest.
    What a wonderful way to honor your Richard, the petanque tournament. I am still searching for a way to honor my little girl, besides being the best mom I can be to her sister and brother and continuing with some measure of grace.
    I have found much comfort in your words.
    ck

  4. Susan, when my mother died, she left behind 70 years’ worth of letters, journals, and articles she had written and kept copies of. And though my relationship with my mother was conflicted, and these documents are sometimes hard to read, I consider them the greatest treasures of my inheritance. So I think I can relate, in a small way, to both the pain and the joy of the stories left behind by your loving, packrat husband. Thank you for sharing your experience and heart with us.

  5. Carol, I can’t imagine how hard it would be to go through your 18-year-old daughter’s life in that way. It’s got to take incredible courage and endless love. Good for you for having both of those! If it’s not presumptuous of me to suggest, one way to honor her (besides being the best mom you can be and finding the grace to walk forward in your life) would be to write her story as you see it, though her “things” and through your memories.

    Amber, 70 years of letters, journals and articles is a huge amount to sort through, conflicted relationship or now. And that you could see them as a treasure–wow. Good for you for getting to that place, and for sticking with her, as it were, until you did.

  6. Susan,
    You hit on so many themes that are universal and inspiring. Let me focus in on one: sorting. This is one I’ve thought continuously about for several years now as we have sorted the artifacts (I do see it as an anthropological revelation of layers) of my sister, my mother, my own…and that of generations before us. Whew! That’s a lot of sorting.

    In addition to sorting you are doing the lineage and heritage work that’s so important–to give the world a gift that lives on after the death of someone who had so much to give–and gave it to the last breath. So, you continue to sort, to place Richard’s heritage in this larger context.

    I call this “harvesting.” It is a full-body and full-soul and full-mind and full-heart workout. Truly, I believe this sort of sorting is one of the most arduous that a human being can perform. Which might explain why it’s rarely done.

    “Good on ‘ya mate,” as the Australians say.

    Janet

  7. Dear Janet,
    I love your use of language with “sorting,” “lineage work,” and “harvesting.” You have the story-collecting genes of an anthropologist! And you’re right, the sorting is arduous, and rarely done because of it. I think the lineage placement is rarely done too, because we don’t generally remember to value ordinary lives. (You are a shining example in understanding that and putting time and energy into just that kind of valuing.) Thank you for the context, the language, and the affirmation.
    Blessings, Susan

  8. Susan, I just spent a week with a friend who has made collages of the many small items that her “sorting” brought to her. One is full of her grandmother’s things: lace from her graduation dress, a button hook, ivory shoe horn, curling iron and more. It is beautiful and she takes joy in sharing and describing the abundance. Perhaps some of Richard’s smaller tools would lend themselves to a display board or box in the shop?
    The Residency is a fine tribute to Richard, his art and your relationship.
    Arletta

  9. Arletta, I love the idea of your friend making collages out of the items from her sorting. The arrangement you described of her grandmother’s things sounds lovely, and beautifully evocative of her grandmother and her time. The idea of doing something similar is interesting, though I think most of his tools (and there are hundreds of them, just the hand tools) will see use by the sculptors and visual artists who will work there. I’m thinking perhaps I’ll collect photos of his work and display those… Thank you for the idea! Susan

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