December 15, 2010

Bundled up

I’ve got a pair of Carhartt coveralls in the dryer right now.

The triple-stitched, quilt-lined duck fabric was formerly the trademark Carhartt brown and is now a burnt mustard color with house paint highlights and brake fluid accents on the shoulders and elbows. The zipper will respond to tugging and authoritative force eventually.

It’s very warm in there, though.

When my uncle, John Manning, passed away about 15 years ago, I inherited his 1979 Chevy Impala, a socket wrench set, and this particular pair of coveralls.

John kept largely to himself, but I know I remember him correctly as a warm, bright and gentle man who spoke thoughtfully on interesting topics, and whose particular brand of wit and delivery were equally dry, measured, and funny in a way that I’ve only ever known from the Manning family.

My parents had a standing card game at our house every Friday when I was a boy, and I’d sit on everyone’s lap, occasionally commenting conversationally on their hand to the delight of everyone else at the table. I don’t remember if John was a good poker player.

He did a stint in the Air Force, wore plain, good-looking shirts, was smart and understood in the earliest days of electronic computing the huge promise that lay ahead in that field. He crossed his legs when he sat and gesticulated reassuringly when he spoke. He had wavy, silver hair, a kind mustache, wore wire-rim glasses, drank his beer from a glass and smoked Winstons. Those are some of the things that come to mind when I think of my uncle John, whom I didn’t know well enough.

Every year around this time, I drag the Carhartts down from a shelf and pack my nearly too-big frame into the stiff canvas folds that once kept John from the cold, too.And every year, I find his grocery list in the left breast pocket, just where he put it on his way out the door on a day — maybe like today — that required an extra layer. I take it out sometimes, read it, place it back in the pocket, and pat that spot with my right hand a couple of times when the zipper is closed.

Bread/Bagel

Bananas/oranges/grapefruit

Cream

Chicken Soup

Milk

Cheese Curls

Yogurt

Pudding

Cigarettes

Fruit bars/cookies

It’s just a grocery list, but it’s comforting to me, maybe more than the quilted canvas one-suit where I found it.

It fits in a pocket, unfolds in my hand, and it reminds me how damn lucky I am, and that some things can still be simple; getting what you need when you need it, getting what you want when you can, staying warm when it’s cold out, remembering good people who deserve to be remembered, and keeping things simple when every indication is that they are not that.

It’s curious how artifacts and ephemera unwittingly left behind can come to represent more than they were ever intended to, and that things which were meant to be thrown away can reveal what ought to be kept closest.

If they are met at all, our needs and wants are brokered by luck, work and, in the best circumstances, by cooperation. Winter is one season that reinforces these points clearly, even explicitly.

Winter demands attention and encourages a vivid appreciation of simple things. When the roads are covered in ice, the holidays hectic, the car won’t start, and daylight evaporates into dusk like steam from a manhole cover, it feels good just to get where you’re going. Just arriving in one warm piece is a blessing all its own, the response to which is a vigorous stamping of the feet, a quick, forceful sigh, and a shake of the head. A bowl of soup is good in the winter.

When I look at that small list written by my uncle who was a good man, I like to think of him coming back to his house with a few things from the store, stamping his feet, hanging up his coveralls and spending a comfortable afternoon in a warm, simple, well-lit room.

I think the dryer’s done, and I’ve got a couple of things to get at the store myself. It’s snowing out. A short walk in cold weather is good as long as you end up at home when it’s over.

Come in from the cold when you can and get warm, friends.

Good tidings to you and all of your kin. 

Tagged: Raised Relief |