Bringing Home the Oddly Practical

I'm looking at a box on my table which contains a jumble of completely inconsequential objects with which you are intimately familiar and feel absolutely no passion about one way or another. This box has in it: two Sharpies and several ballpoints, some emblazoned with logos of businesses and charitable organizations. There's an oddly misplaced Crayon (Carnation Pink) and several "Chip Clips." I see 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 will be surprised if it makes it to any practical location for practical use. The gauge will eventually end up in the basement surrounded by dusty tools that we don't use. The tools we do use always end up on 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 will not live with these tools.

On the other hand, the tape dispenser is invaluable. Sick to death of little plastic cases of Scotch® Tape, we buy bulk boxes to refill our dispenser, but now it's missing the widget which holds the tape roll, rendering it a paper weight. No longer; now we have a tape dispenser.

There's 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 second hand staplers if you give them to Good Will? We already have 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 is peculiar. When would you ever need so much eraser which wasn't attached to a pencil? But I know the answer to this question.

A Rolodex takes up a lot of space in this small box. It's nothing to look at; black plastic, white cards, handwritten entries, sometimes in multiples, which are scratched out as the entry documents the movement of the person it records. It's an anachronism now which is funny because it's a relatively recent invention. I mean in the big scheme, not the little one. This one might be about 15 years old. Still, outmoded by electronics.

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

It's 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 actually remember buying it, which is strange because it's a kitchen implement. Do I remember buying my dishcloths? (I do. Maybe I should evaluate my memory.) 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 so 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 unbelievably myopic way that kids buy their parents presents. And he 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 because I thoughtfully picked it out for him.

And since improvisation is the cook's bread and butter, he used it so that my friends benefited from it in countless ways: that summer, he pitted the sour cherries from our tree in the back yard, and baked pie after pie after pie all summer long, making the pies as fast as the ravenous young appetites could scarf them down, which, on good days, 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 just loved him, but they really, really loved the 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 observing the strange habits of a completely alien species. There wasn't any protective nosiness in it, just curiosity. In fact, he 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 of weirdos 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 around with my friends. My cronies.

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 think I ate maybe three pieces of those pies.

The olive pitter has been following Dad ever since, and I know 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 sits on my table and I need to put them away: an Ebony artists' pencil Dad used in his sketch books (the "clickable eraser" is its mate), the chip clips with which he closed pretzel bags, his one snack addiction. The Sharpies he used to write the titles on his watercolors, those he painted up until his final collapse. Photos of our family from his refrigerator. His Rolodex, full of friends and loved-ones and former students, whom I hope know that Dad passed away: Dad received a Christmas card this year from a friend promising a phone call and a visit later in the new year, full of jollity and unfulfillable expectation. I'm saddened by this card. I have to write to the author to tell her Dad is gone but I don't know how to say what I have to say.

The tire pressure gauge is from his days as a bicyclist; he never learned to drive. I'm relieved he never drove because he was always preoccupied with 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 know. It was the companion to an ancient slate chalkboard that we used when my brother and I were growing up. It was our grocery list, evolving over each month as the refrigerator became more bare until payday when the list disappeared and the fridge refilled. Dad was an impossible creature of habit and though he always had to transfer the list to paper when he went shopping (on his bicycle, of course), we wrote on that chalkboard forever. I picked up the habit myself, and now we have a chalkboard in our own kitchen. And now Dad's chalk, though Dad finally retired the board and just wrote lists on little slips of recycled paper he culled from old lectures or other things he'd written.

These little things, oddments of life, strange detritus from an archeological dig, are meaningless without the animation of human touch. I sift through the rubble of his 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 him living among them; now there's so much to pick through and we cannot absorb it all.

But the ridiculously commonplace objects are easy. You bring them home and use them until they too are gone.