Two Peas in a Pod

February 4, 2008
By Mary Buswell, Shoreline, WA

As Sophie walked into the flat with her mum, she shivered. Even though she hadn’t known him, it was still creepy to think that her granddad had died here. It had been weird to see the old man lying peacefully in the coffin, with gently sobbing strangers surrounding him. He must have been a good man, if they were so upset, she had thought. She had a vague desire to have known him. Sophie didn’t know much of her family, and she was a misfit among those she did know. She lived in England and they all lived in America. The last time she had seen them, Sophie was very little, so she did not remember much. Sophie’s mum, Janet, was divorced, and Sophie only saw her father a couple of times each year.
They didn’t have much money, but Janet felt it was her duty as a daughter to go to her father’s funeral. Janet hadn’t seen her father since her mother’s funeral when Sophie was a baby. Sophie didn’t exactly fit in with her family. She seemed like just a tag-along to her busy mother, who loved her very much but still didn’t fully understand her.
In the kitchen of the flat, Janet simultaneously flipped through a phonebook, stacked boxes, and put the kettle on. “All this junk! Wow, this’ll be a big job to sort it all out. We’ll need to call for a dumpster for all the trash and boxes, and sell or give away what we don’t need. We can’t bring all this stuff back to England with us. I’ll start with the living room, Sophie, you can take the bedroom. Our plane leaves tomorrow, we don’t have all day!”

Sophie, slightly reluctant, entered the bedroom. The bed was all made up, but she was still a little creeped out that somebody had died there just a few days ago. Absentmindedly, she wondered who had made the bed. If somebody was writing a book, thought Sophie, they’d say “The room stank of death.” She sniffed the air. It didn’t smell like anything. Mothballs, maybe.

Sophie got down to work, putting clothes in a box for charity, and a lamp and radio in a box for sale or give away. The room was simple, rather boring actually. Some random knickknacks adorned the bureau. A little wooden box containing buttons, a dish full of change, a ring with keys on it, and a jam jar full of pencils was all. A few minutes later, Sophie heard the whistle of the kettle, and made her mum and herself cups of tea. She showed her mum the knickknacks.

“Nope, I don’t remember them. Don’t mean a thing to me. Of course, I’m not the sentimental type, not like you. Live life for the moment, don’t wander in the past, because eventually you won’t have made any past left to wander in, right?”

“I suppose,” said Sophie. She sipped her tea. “It’s just, who was this guy? What did he love? What was he afraid of? What did he want to do?”

“Well, you can’t know that from a pile of old junk. Plus, it doesn’t really matter now. But if you want, I’ll tell you all I remember when we’re finished cleaning. Don’t keep too much. I know you’ll want to keep something, so how about only what you can fit in this box?” Janet handed Sophie a shoebox. “I keep Dad’s memories up here,” Janet said, pointing to her head. “I don’t need things.”

Though she didn’t say it, Sophie thought, “Well, I don’t have memories, so I’ll just have to do the best I can with a pile of old junk.” She finished her tea and went back to the room. Sophie tried to remember the eulogy as she looked about the room. The old man who had delivered it, with his scratchy voice and dusty suit, had rambled on for ages, listing things Granddad had done. Granddad had gone to college and fought in World War II. It was when he was stationed in Europe that he met and married Sophie’s grandmother, and had her mother. Though the man talked for a long time, that is all he really said. He did not seem like he knew Granddad at all. The eulogy was only a tiny hole into Granddad’s life. Sophie was looking for a window.

What she found was afghans. Tons of afghans. Did Granddad knit? She couldn’t picture him knitting. In fact, she couldn’t picture him at all, she realized. She didn’t count his wake as seeing him, because looking at someone in a coffin is hardly seeing them. You can’t see their eyes either, and you can tell a lot about a person from their eyes. Sophie suddenly needed to see her Granddad, and searched fervently for a photo. Her search was soon successful, as a framed photograph of Nana and Granddad stood on his bedside table. She looked at it, but it wasn’t very illuminating. First of all, it was a completely staged photograph, done in a studio, where they were all dressed up and posing. But it was better than nothing, because at least she could see his eyes, and picture him. But picture him knitting? That was a bit of a stretch. Sophie looked back to the pile of afghans in the closet. There must have been forty of them, maybe more. She pulled one out and mothballs came rolling out with it. The afghans practically filled the closet, except for some shoes on the bottom, a dented old metal box, a violin case, and three suits on hangers. What in the world were all those afghans for?

Sophie asked her mum, who was shocked. “Afghans? In Dad’s closet? No way. I need to see it.” Sophie showed her the closet. “Well I never, would you look at that?”
“Did your dad knit?” Sophie asked.
Her mom burst out laughing. “Oh, no. It was my mom. She was a compulsive knitter, she would sit in the living room at night, just knitting away, not even looking at it. She just reeled off those afghans in no time. It was a hobby. A passion. A habit. It drove my dad crazy. “What do we need all these blankets for?” he’d ask. “They just sit on the armchairs and couch, falling off all the time, never keeping you warm. They’re ridiculous!”
Sophie laughed out loud with her mom, but her mom soon stopped, thoughtful. “But he kept them. He was always saying that whatever people invented afghans were bloomin’ idiots and he would quite like to burn the lot of them in a great big bonfire. The afghans, that is, not the inventors. It became sort of a game. He insisted, but Mum refused to throw them away. She gave loads away, to hospitals, friends, family. But she never just threw them away, and we still had plenty at home. When she died, I assumed he gave away the rest, or threw them away like he’d always wanted to. Yet, he kept them.”
Sophie almost wanted to cry, sitting there next to the towering pile of carefully folded afghans. That simple story was a whole lot more insightful than the dusty old man’s eulogy. She realized how much he must have missed his wife, living alone for ten years since she died. How sweet of him, to keep her treasured afghans. “Oh mum, let’s keep them! All of them!” said Sophie, in a valiant burst of gusto, which earned her a burst of laughter from her mom.
“What are we going to do with forty afghans on an airplane?” asked Janet. “Ha, I sound just like my dad! Well, I suppose we can keep one.”
Sophie ended up choosing one with a zig-zag pattern of purples and greens. She decided to take it, even though it just about filled her shoebox. Finally, she thought, I know a bit about Granddad. These thoughts spurred her search forward. The desk yielded only bills, forms, and office supplies, no journals or photos like she’d hoped. A couple postcards from someone named Phil in Thailand. She’d ask her mom, but doubted Janet would know much.
All that was left in the room was the suits, violin, and shoes in the closet. Sophie sighed. She’d hoped for more of a lead than the afghans. There were only three other rooms in the flat: living room, kitchen, and bathroom, none of which have personal artifacts. Sophie had begun to think of herself as an explorer in one of her books, searching for evidence like Sherlock Holmes, the Famous Five, or Nancy Drew. That was one thing about Sophie that made her different from her whole family. She liked to read. Sophie would check seven books out of the library each week and read them all, one a day. She simply devoured books, something that her parents were proud of, but didn’t understand. “What’s so great about them that they can keep you occupied for hours?” Janet had asked once. “I mean, I like a story once in a while, but I get bored. They’re not true anyway.”
“It’s great you love to read, Soph, but why? Why don’t you want to do something exciting like sports or art or theater or dancing or something that isn’t all words and made up?” her dad had asked. Truthfully, Sophie didn’t know why she loved to read so much. It might have been that it was an escape, or that she loved other people’s adventures, or just that she loved the words and the plots and the places. It didn’t matter why really.
Well, thought Sophie, if I was an explorer in a book, my expedition has failed. All I’ve got is a bunch of useless afghans. I suppose I shall have to be content with that. All that was left in the room was the three suits, violin, and shoes at the bottom of the closet. She kept the violin, put the shoes and suits in the charity box, and began to close the closet door. But she had overlooked something. That metal box was sitting on the floor of the closet from when she had found the afghans. She carefully took it out and examined it, like any good detective would. It was rectangular, flat, dented, and locked. Sophie wished she had a lock pick kit like someone in one of her mystery books. She’d seen people shoot the locks off doors in the movies, but she didn’t have a gun. Particularly resourceful detectives could pick a lock with a hairpin. Sophie took hers out and wiggled it around in the keyhole, to no avail. She was stumped. I’d make a really rubbish detective, thought Sophie. I give up too easily.
“Okay, how do you open a lock?” Sophie thought out loud.
“A key, of course,” said her mother, as she walked down the hall with cardboard box.
“That’s it!” exclaimed Sophie. “Good grief, why didn’t I think of that? I suppose I was thinking a bit too hard. And I saw keys, on his bureau! And I put them… in that box! Mum! Wait! Stop!” She ran out the door and just barely saved the keys from landing with the rest of the junk in the dumpster outside.
Sophie tried 18 keys on the gigantic ring before, finally, one fit. “Hooray!” shouted Sophie.
“Hooray!” shouted her mother, from the kitchen. “More junk! Honestly Soph, don’t get too excited. It’s probably just rubbish.”
Sophie ignored her and got her hopes up anyways, as she opened the box with a hideous creak. Her hopes were not dashed. Sophie gave a soft “Oooh” as she saw the contents, lovingly organized and placed carefully in the box. This must have been like the tomb raiders felt like when they broke into the pyramids in Egypt, she thought. She inhaled a musty scent that she couldn’t name, before digging through the contents.
The first thing was a picture of Granddad in his military uniform, with Nana beside him, looking young and pretty and holding a tiny baby Janet. This picture was not staged like the one on the bedside table. It was cut out from a news clipping about soldiers returning from World War II. Granddad had his arm around Nana, and was looking at her, who was looking at the baby Janet, who was staring straight into the camera.
The second thing was a tassel with a little metal “51” on it. Sophie supposed it was from Granddad’s graduation from college, which must have been in 1951. There was a congratulations card with it. Sophie opened the card, which read things like “We’re so proud of you. It took a lot of determination to put yourself through college,” and “Good on you Will, none of us even thought about college. When you said it was your dream, we thought you were crazy. You and your crazy books, we thought. But you really did it.” Sophie hadn’t known he’d put himself through college. He came from a family of nine, he was the only one who went to college, the card said. Sophie’s heart had swelled up with joy when she read about “You and your crazy books.” So she wasn’t the only one! Granddad had read books too. And dreamed of going to college, just like Sophie dreamed now. If Granddad had gone to college from a poor family, so could she.
Next, there was a receipt for a violin, probably the one in the closet, which Sophie had kept. Who bought it for him, or did he buy it himself? There was a photo of him as a boy of about twelve, in a little suit and bowtie, playing his violin at some sort of concert. Next came a 2nd place certificate from a talent show. So that’s where he played his violin. Sophie hadn’t known that anyone in her family was musical. She had taken lessons for a few weeks, but it was too expensive to buy the instrument. Maybe she could play Granddad’s violin.
Next came a big stack of letters, from Granddad’s family, friends, teachers, veterans, wife, and a little finger painted card from Janet, wishing him a Happy Birthday. There was one from Janet which Sophie had signed as a baby, with a tiny handprint. The letters thanked him, asked him questions, told him they missed him, and all manner of things. They were slightly confusing, but very informative to Sophie.
At the bottom of the box, carefully wrapped in felt, there was a whole assortment of mysteries. A religious confirmation medallion, a bag of handmade clay marbles, a horseshoe, a boy scout handbook, and a little beaded Indian doll made out of a rabbit’s foot. Where had they come from? They were obviously treasures, but why? Sophie wondered if there was anyone who knew.
If only she had been here a week ago, before her Granddad’s heart attack, to ask him. But if she had, she would not been looking around in Granddad’s closet to find the box. Sophie wondered if she would ever know. Know what? she asked herself. Maybe I don’t need to know. Maybe it’s enough just to know that these were his treasures. I know how much he loved my nana from the afghans and the World War II picture. I know he was smart and hardworking from the college card. I know he was musical from the talent show. I know about his family and friends from the letters. I know that he made his conformation, played marbles, believed in lucky horseshoes, was a boy scout, and loved that little Indian doll. Maybe I don’t know everything, but what kind of goal is that? No one can know everything. Maybe it’s just enough to know a little.
Sophie carefully stuffed the metal box into her shoebox. The lid wouldn’t fit on, but Janet didn’t really care. All she’d brought was one picture she found of her mom, dad, and her as a kid. When Sophie exclaimed at the lack of keepsakes, Janet just tapped her head.
The next day, they went to the airport. Sophie checked the afghan, but carried the box on board. She asked her mom about each part, and her mom told her all she knew. It wasn’t everything, but it was enough. It was enough, Sophie decided, to know that she wasn’t the misfit in her family. Even though she never met him, Sophie and her granddad were two peas in a pod.

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