Bringing Home the Oddly Practical

The box on the table contained a jumble of completely inconsequential objects with which you are intimately familiar and feel absolutely no passion about one way or another.

This box had in it: two Sharpies and several ballpoints, some emblazoned with logos of businesses and charitable organizations. There was a misplaced Crayon (Carnation Pink) and several “Chip Clips.” I saw a stapler hiding among the twigs and plastic of writing implements.

The pressure gauge was an afterthought; having created this pile of oddly practical things, I decided it was also oddly practical and belonged with them, though in truth I’d be surprised if it made it to any practical location for practical use. The gauge would eventually end up in the basement surrounded by dusty tools we don’t use. The tools we do use always end up at the top of the basement stairs waiting to be put away. By the time we finally put them away, we use them again.

The tire gauge would not live with these tools.

On the other hand, the tape dispenser was invaluable. Sick to death of little plastic cases of Scotch® Tape, we started buying rolls to refill our dispenser, but then lost the widget which held the tape, rendering it a paperweight. No longer; now we had a tape dispenser.

There was a stapler next to the tape dispenser, and this, like the tire gauge, I took because I didn’t know what else to do with it. Do people buy secondhand staplers if you give them to Good Will? We already had a stapler. Do people keep multiple staplers?

A box of white schoolhouse chalk; a pencil, specific to both its location and its task: you only ever see these pencils in bulk bin aisles or the library where people pocket them and bring them home, just like this one. A “click eraser,” which was peculiar. When would you ever need so much eraser which wasn’t attached to a pencil? But I knew the answer to this question.

Working Vacation, gouache on paper, 1996

Working Vacation, gouache on paper, 1996

A Rolodex took up a lot of space in this small box. It was nothing to look at: black plastic, white cards, handwritten entries—sometimes in multiples, which were scratched out as entries documented the movement of the person it recorded. The Rolodex was an anachronism, which is funny. This one might be 15 years old. Still, outmoded by electronics.

Perhaps the only true oddity in this box was a metal utensil. It looked like a very tiny prop in a Terry Gilliam movie, or a gigantic piercing gun for a really sadistic tattoo artist. But this was the only object of sentiment in the box, though inscrutable in purpose.

It was an olive pitter, of all things. Top of the line, $9.95 at the Peppercorn kitchen store, and I bought it myself about twenty-five years ago. I remember buying it, which is strange because it’s a kitchen implement. It’s a really classy model, too, because you can pit two olives at once. I thought it was ingenious at the time; I was proud of myself for buying it.

I bought it for Dad’s birthday one year. I bought it because our family ate buckets of Kalamata olives: in salads, in dishes he cooked, in pretty much anything that would benefit from an extra hit of salt, which, as we know, is everything. It might be the first present which I bought for Dad instead of for myself, in that profoundly myopic way that kids buy their parents presents. And Dad was completely over-the-moon with my present. He loved it genuinely—not just because I gave it to him. He loved it because I knew he would use it, and he knew I thoughtfully picked it out for him.

And since improvisation is the cook’s bread and butter, Dad invented a new use: that summer, he pitted the sour cherries from our tree in the back yard, and baked pie after pie after pie all summer long. Dad made the pies as fast as my friends and their ravenous young appetites could scarf them down. On good days, it was a pie a day. I don’t even like cherry pie. But those pies were loved completely and thoroughly by a rotating band of hormonal, growing late-teens who loved my father because they loved his pie. They also loved Dad, but they really, really loved his pie.

Dad always welcomed the roving tribes that wandered through. We sat in the kitchen or the living room, and he wouldn’t engage us in conversation—sometimes he’d interject some funny quip—but he’d stand in the wings to observe the strange habits of a completely alien species. There wasn’t any protective nosiness in it, just curiosity. In fact, Dad should have intervened more often than he did, but I know why he didn’t. I forgive him this flaw. He watched us, a mixed band with funny hair: boys, girls, hippies, punks, bohemian knockabouts; my first love, a young Turk with a slight lisp and a rapacious appetite for screwing my friends.

Dad, the artist and observer, was always amused. Who wouldn’t be? Teenagers are funny, thinking they’re the center of the universe, the smartest guys in the room and the most charming, even if all the other losers didn’t know it yet. Dad didn’t talk much, just made pie. All summer long, pie after pie after pie.

Funny. I ate maybe three pieces of those pies.

The olive pitter had been following Dad ever since, and he used it until he stopped cooking. He loved olives, though he no longer had a reason, nor the cherries, for making pie any longer.

Now this box of oddly practical things sat on my table and I needed to put them away: an Ebony artists’ pencil Dad used in his sketch books (the “clickable eraser” was its mate), the chip clips with which he closed pretzel bags, Dad’s one snack addiction. The Sharpies he used to title his watercolors, those he painted until his final collapse. Photos of our family from his refrigerator. Dad’s Rolodex, full of friends and loved-ones and former students, whom I hoped had learned that Dad had passed away: he received a final Christmas card from a friend promising a phone call and a visit later in the new year, full of jollity and unfulfillable expectation. I was saddened by this card; I had to write the author to tell her Dad was gone, but I didn’t know how to say what needed to be said.

The tire pressure gauge was from his days as a bicyclist; Dad never learned to drive. I’m relieved he never drove because he was always preoccupied, looking at the world around him through the eyes of an artist, not the eyes of an alert driver. The world was a safer place with him on a bike.

The box of chalk might be twenty years old for all I knew. It was the companion to an ancient slate chalkboard that we used when Chris and I were growing up. It was our grocery list, evolving each month as the refrigerator became bare, until payday when the list was erased and the fridge refilled. Dad was an impossible creature of habit and though he always had to transfer the chalkboard list to paper when he went shopping (on his bicycle, of course), we used it forever. I picked up the habit myself, and we have a chalkboard in our own kitchen. And now Dad’s chalk, though Dad finally retired the board and just wrote lists on slips of recycled paper he culled from old lectures or other things he’d written.

Cheesecake Meets Victoriana, watercolor and ink on paper, 1985

Cheesecake Meets Victoriana, watercolor and ink on paper, 1985

These little things, oddments of life, strange detritus from an archeological dig, were meaningless without the animation of human touch. I sifted through the rubble of Dad’s life, not knowing what to do with most of it, not knowing what to do with the stacks of art books, the thousands of photographs he shot for his landscape paintings, the hundreds of paintings themselves. They had meaning with Dad living among them; now there was so much to pick through and we couldn’t absorb it all.

But the oddly practical things were easy. I’d bring them home and use them until they too were gone.

Previously: In Memoriam  Next: Passing Through


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