I shift a pile of books on my desk, and dozens of slips of paper shower to the floor. They’re wrinkled and torn, some no larger than one square inch, each decorated in my dad’s shaky cursive—noting an idea, a page number, the name of a theologian long dead.
My dad threw away nothing. His home office was uninhabitable, full of faculty meeting agendas from the 70s; sixty years of tax returns; yellowed articles about canning tomatoes and pruning apple trees; tattered lecture notes for every class he ever taught; a lifetime of letters from his mother.
During his final year, I pressed him to go through boxes—“What do you want to keep?”—and he would grow quiet, brow furrowed. I scolded him as I sat on his living room floor, sorting bag after bag of junk mail. “Why don’t you just throw these away?”
Going through his things, I sometimes discovered a treasure: the letter written to his congressmen when he was twelve years old, imploring them to help the people of Finland and China; the curled black and white photos of him at eighteen on a San Diego pier in his Navy uniform; notebooks from his first year at Yale, thanks to the GI Bill. Each provided a glimpse into an earlier version of my dad, before I knew him.
But why keep the departmental minutes from 1982? The dozens of church bulletins? The wrapping paper scraps and flyers from neighborhood handymen he never hired?
Now that Dad is gone, it’s up to me to parse what has value and what does not. But now, of course, everything holds more value than it did before—each item or paper or Post-It note a tether back to him.
So, I have become a curator of his things: the faded red tape dispenser and the heavy lead stapler that sit on my desk; his unfinished manuscript, which I emailed to myself for safekeeping; hundreds of his notated books that populate my shelves; his Martin Luther bobblehead perched on my dining room window sill; his prize tangerine tree, which I carefully rotate into the sun. And those many slips of paper decorated in his shaky scrawl—the physical manifestation of his mind at work—those I hold in my open palm like wilted blossoms so that they, too, are not lost to me.
Kate Hopper is a writer, editor, writing coach, and the founder of Motherhood & Words®. She is the author of Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers, Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood, winner of a Midwest Independent Publishing Award, and she’s co-author of Silent Running, a memoir of one family’s journey with autism and running. Her writing has appeared in a number of journals, including Brevity, Creative Nonfiction’s True Story, Longreads, Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times online, Poets & Writers, and River Teeth. Kate has taught creative writing for over 20 years, and lives in Minneapolis with her family. For more information about her work visit www.katehopper.com.
Governing the Western Field
Mowing the field west of the train car my grandfather bought in 1935, a retired Pullman, the “Constitution.” It perches above Rock Creek, overlooking a floodplain of thick woods where bluebells carpet the floor in spring.
I’ve waited too long. The grass, two or three feet tall, hides mounds of dirt and winter-downed branches dropped from oaks fringing the field’s perimeter. My right foot rides the Deere’s clutch continuously, my right hand on the mower’s lever to raise when hearing the blade hit wood or hillock. Duck out of the way as brambles and branches the vertical exhaust pipe catches then sweeps back at me. The first pass goes slowly, in first gear, gas levered high to speed the mower’s revolutions, my path a snail’s coil into the center, throwing what amounts to hay bubbling out like a wake behind the five-foot blade, the right front tire treading on previously mown grass. The fuzz of dust and seeds build on my naked back. Something briefly blinds an eye. The knuckles on the index finger of my left hand turning the steering wheel burns like it’s been macheted. The mower lowers to kill what poison ivy it can. I swing as close as possible to the trunks of outlying trees to cut the flora around visible and invisible roots.
There used to be beef cattle here. We’d climb the fence, the top wire barbed, and walk with our hardballs, mitts, and Louisville sluggers to the open area of the field from which we’d chase any cattle grazing there back into the woods and ravine beyond left field. We’d pitch and hit, run to first while the outfield ran down the ball, no one not stepping in cow pies, their crusted shells squished open to gooey yellow filling spreading onto the rubber bottoms and up the canvas sides of Keds. Rules were Main Man out, right field closed if not enough players, at-bat team pitches to itself, and any ball thrown to home plate for an out can’t be intentionally dropped.
Now the fence is down, the farmland’s sold, and the floodplain where my brothers and farmers on horseback herded cattle up to the barns for feeding has been given to the town for a public park. Our family owns only the five acres around the train car.
A third time around mulches, somewhat, the long, bunched, pale green clumps of stems, thistles, and occasional early wildflower. The field needs raking. I’ll wait for people to help me with that. It’s illegal, but we’ll burn the piled grass, the gray smoke giving us away. No one will bother to come. It is, after all, early spring, and nature needs to be governed.
Richard Holinger’s books include the essay collection, Kangaroo Rabbits and Galvanized Fences, and North of Crivitz, poetry of the Upper Midwest. His work has appeared in Southern Review, Witness, ACM, Ocotillo Review, and Boulevard, and has garnered four Pushcart Prize nominations. “Not Everybody’s Nice” won the 2012 Split Oak Press Flash Prose Contest, and his Thread essay was designated a Notable in Best American Essays, 2018. Degrees include a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a M.A. in English from Washington University. Holinger has taught English and creative writing on the university and secondary school levels and lives northwest of Chicago far enough to see deer, turkeys, and foxes cross his lawn. He’s working on two collections, creative nonfiction and short fiction, many pieces already appearing in journals such as Iowa Review, Western Humanities Review, Chicago Quarterly, Hobart.
I navigate this world,
kneading dough for company
as I swirl about memories
in a delicate chipped cup–
I move through the stars
spheres rotate between seconds
and I whisper to crystals when you are gone:
for the closets were just emptied of camping gear–
and when I sleep through the sleet and snow
the umbilical cord is released
before I rush into my own ravine.
Cosmic scissors unchain my feet:
I scribble secrets within the sacred box
and wait for cherubs to rush before me,
fluttering scents amongst the ripening seeds.
Caroline Reddy’s work has been published in Active Muse, Calliope, Clinch, Clockwise Cat, Deep Overstock, Grey Sparrow, International Human Rights Arts Festival, Star*line and Tupelo Quarterly Review among others. In the fall of 2021, her poem “A Sacred Dance” was nominated for the Best of The Net prize by Active Muse. Caroline Reddy was born in Shiraz, Iran and participated in Mohammad Barrangi’s exhibition-Playing in Wonderland. Caroline Reddy also performed her poetry and presented an artist talk with VALA Gallery pertaining to the events in Iran womenlifefreedom-Zan-Zendegi-Azadi.