He was a simple man who loved simple things, a roadside café, a park by a stream, the scent of a rose. My daddy enjoyed life in its purest form.
But Daddy was not only a lover of nature, he was a collector of stuff, a scavenger of treasures hidden in dark alley-ways. In the middle of the night, he would be hunched over a can in the alley, head deep inside, sifting through bags, resurrecting old tools, and saving dirty hats. My daddy figured as long as it was free, it was his.
My dad was a custodian at an elementary school, a treasure trove of pens and papers inside large dumpsters and beneath teachers’ desks. Papers scribbled on one side were saved, as were mittens without a mate. It never bothered me that my daddy was a collector. In fact, in our home, it provided hours of fun, like the time he brought home a couple of old desks.
But my mom didn’t enjoy it as much. It was a battle between them, my dad constantly dropping treasures in our house, my mom taking them and throwing them away. Even though she buried them deep inside the garbage, beneath chicken bones and wilted lettuce, my dad would find them. By next morning, that treasure was back on our table.
It was an unspoken argument between my parents, one I never fully understood, until my parents divorced, and my dad got really, really sick. I was the eldest, the one designated to clean through his belongings, including a room at the school where he worked.
When the secretary phoned, she sounded annoyed, “We need that room. Come and get his stuff. Tomorrow.”
She was waiting for me that day, beady little eyes staring right through me. She pursed her orange lips and said, “It’s the closet on the right.”
It was more than a closet. It was an 8×10 room with a toilet and sink in the far corner. Large and small boxes were stacked everywhere. Along the wall were tall shelves covered with shoe boxes, hats, boots, and old magazines.
I sat on the floor, sifting through boxes of pencil stubs, crayons, empty chip canisters, old text books, and even a box overflowing with empty pantyhose containers.
I set aside a leather hat, imagining my brother wearing it one day. Then I picked up an old cigar box, caressed its gold lettering, and sniffed it, trying to remember the scent that once covered my dad’s clothes. I opened the box and inside found my own treasure, a pile of brass skeleton keys, just like the ones he used to carry.
My dad loved keys, which is why, I imagine, that he became a custodian. He once told me that keys held the secret behind doors, they were the power in someone’s hands. He rattled his keys, jingling them in his pocket, fingering the ones that hung from his belt. I held them in my hand that day, imagining my dad once holding them in his.
As I set them aside, I looked around the room and saw my dad. In the papers lined on the shelf, in the notes he used to write. In the magazines, the silly cartoons, and the way he laughed. I even saw him in the crayon stubs, and how he brought them home to us kids, and later, to his grandchildren.
I didn’t get to see inside each box that day. Time wouldn’t let me. Treasures were tossed, and with them, a piece of my dad. My dad was in a nursing while I sifted through his things. I never told him what I did, and he never asked.
He is now long gone. Trinkets have been given away, ceramic dogs and kittens, ivory boats bought on distant shores. I no longer own the keys, but every time I hear a jingle, I think of him.
My dad never owned much, other than those things he deemed as treasures, the things I once saw as junk. But he left me something greater than any material item. He left his memory.
Thank you, Dad.