My godfather’s house smells musty. When the furnace runs it reeks of gas. The interior is adorned with lacy cobwebs where every wall meets the ceiling and a spider doing a bungee jump is not a surprising visitor in the shower. The lizards are never barred from the home and neither are their droppings; which litter the corners of this old Florida home. My godfather has lived in this modest lake front bungalow since the 1970s, forty years. The landscape around him has certainly changed. Acres of orange groves have become multi-level apartment complexes and theme parks. Cattle-leveled Florida scrub land have become outlet malls and strip shopping centers. Florida Cracker Cowboys became land rich and it made more sense to sell than to hang on to a legacy. Cattle grazing on undeveloped land in the Orlando area are no longer a way to make a living but simply a tax relief waiting for their next relocation. Where will they go when the land runs out?
Yes, the landscape around this modest and musty home has changed but in this spot everything stays the same. It only ages. As I lay in bed this morning contemplating what to do in the three hours before I board the plane back to my home in Wyoming, I fail to resist the urge to scroll on Facebook. I read a post that mentions that in the amount of time the average person spends on Facebook, they could read 200 books per year. I thoughtfully set my phone more than an arm’s length away. I lay there in bed and stare at the dark wood paneling of the home and wonder at the musty smell, trying to discover its origins with my mind. That is when it hits me. Books. Stuart has kept every single book he has ever bought and read. He considers them to be like little dead soldiers, a conquest of sorts, a tribute to a lifetime commitment to learning. I get out of bed and begin to pull these dusty, musty books off of the shelves; The House of the Dead by Dostoyevky, Don Quixote by Cervantes, The Thurber Carnival by James Thurber, On the Road by Kerouac. This is only a sliver of the tomes I see on the shelves. I feel almost embarrassed. I have not read any of these books and yet I spend the time required to read them staring at a screen and laughing at memes on Facebook. I grab The House of the Dead and feel compelled to write.
We live in a culture that encourages us to purge, update, remodel, and to forget. We separate ourselves continually from the outside world with air conditioning systems, pesticides, closed doors and windows. We build things that are destined to die or to become obsolete, encouraging us to continually replace the microwave, the toaster, the oven, the washer and dryer. Our landfills are seepingly and creepingly full with these discarded things. Well, not here in this old Florida bungalow. Here you will find an old plexiglass wastebasket from the 1980s that has never been used but was a gift and is “too pretty to throw away”. Here you will find a box of office supplies that hasn’t been unpacked since the law office closed two decades ago. Inside are paper contracts for the transfer of land that are no longer useful in the digital age but should be hung on to for the purpose of “information”. You will find a View-Master from the 1940s and the souvenir photos acquired from a mid-western family’s travels around North America. There are kitchen utensils and knick knacks collected through a lifetime of exploring international and healthy cooking. Nothing is ever disposed of because everything has a story or a memory attached to it and just may possibly be useful again some day. The walls are covered with photos and art collected through a lifetime of travel and living life in real time, seeing it through the lens of one’s own eyes and not through the screens we are all so accustomed to. There are chessboards from every country ever visited, too many to keep out on display. His mother’s collection of china teacups from the 1930s is tucked in a kitchen cabinet near the family silver. His father’s tackle box still sits next to his fishing pole waiting for a long deceased man to pick it up again. There are boxes of “doodles”, thousands of tiny artworks created while a lawyer practiced his craft for almost 40 years. Not a nook, not a cranny, not a closet is empty but rather filled with memories lovingly and fiercely held on to. Everything, everyone has a story and might be useful again some day.
Yes, my Godfather’s house smells musty. It smells of yellowing and dog-eared pages. It smells of chess dates that lasted for decades and pipe tobacco smoke that eventually waned. It is what a Florida home would become if it wasn’t bombed with chemical pesticides every so often; a haven for insects and reptiles of many varieties. You might share your shower with a spider or a cup of coffee with a meandering lizard. When friends come to visit they tend to glance furtively around, never relaxing. They aren’t used to the natural state of Florida that is my godfather’s home. I guess I must be used to it because I look forward to returning to this lake front bungalow every year. It is like entering a museum. No, not a museum. It is like entering a dark trinket or antique shop in some ancient city that has seen wars, famine, and lack. The real treasure is always the gray-haired bespectacled shopkeeper with a twinkle in his eye as he waits for you to share your curiosities as he so willingly will share his. It beckons one to slow down and to look, really look, because everything around you is a story waiting to be told if only we would stop to listen.
I leave today to head back to my organized and continually purged home that smells nothing like an old bookstore. I will return in six months and I commit to myself now that I will pay better attention. I will log off of Facebook and tune in to a history that begs me to peel back the layers.