When I bought the house I live in from my parents, I got more than a lifetime of childhood memories. I got all the junk my father had spent his adult life amassing.
If he was alive, he’d be 85. I’ve been here the 15 years since his death, yet every time I go into the basement or garage it's like some weird treasure hunt – though the treasure is more likely to be Fram oil filters he bought in the 1970s than gold bullion. My father believed in Do It Yourself long before it was trendy.
I face the same dilemma every time I embark on some project. Moving in, we had to have dumpsters here to clear out a shed, the garage, the basement and a woodpile that had morphed into a yard-eating monster. My father was a Saskatchewan farm boy; a friend once noted you can take the boy out of Saskatchewan, but you will never take Saskatchewan out of the boy.
I now have another dumpster out front, as I renovate a basement still clutching to remnants of my father. I’ve no doubt he would be retrieving things as fast as I could ditch them, though the urge to get rid of the more unremarkable vestiges of both Pop and prairie is strong. There is nothing remarkable about 30-year-old oil filters, moth-eaten window screening or rusted pliers.
Very much a product of his Depression-era upbringing, my father was careful with his money. I would stand at his elbow, cringing as he bargained at a flea market or a farmer’s market, a car showroom or an auction. It would take me years to understand he preferred these venues to the malls my mother loved, because he needed to exercise his instinct to hunt and barter, bargain and win. I’m sure he would be noting our present economy with a knowing shake of his head; it didn’t hit again in his lifetime, but he always said it would.
He wasn’t much of a mechanic, but he changed his own oil. As a tag-along kid, more than once I’d come into the house after helping, hands mucky and the back of my shirt gritty from sliding under the station wagon du jour. I was allowed to pour in the new oil. It was always Quaker State.
He would buy a case at a time – it was cheaper that way. As a teenager, I worked for the now-defunct catalogue store, Consumer’s Distributing. My father would watch the fliers, and stroll into my store when his liquid gold appeared. I’d plunk the case on the counter, listen to him remind me it was on sale, listen to him remind me to apply my employee discount, and tell him what he owed. He would then pull a coupon from the recesses of his wallet, and make me rework the whole thing.
He was a Quaker State man the way he was an AMC man. If I told him another brand of oil was on sale, he’d shrug. As boys showed up in a string of ever-changing cars, Dad would agree the cars were interesting or exciting, but it was too bad they weren’t AMC products. The smart boys knew better than to argue.
The demise of AMC mattered little to me at the time; I thought you could buy an ugly station wagon pretty much anywhere. I recall one young man I brought home trying to convince my father he should consider a little Renault when that French company teamed up with a dying AMC. I don’t believe my father even answered him. You weren’t going to curry favour with such a poor understanding of what it meant to be an AMC man.
We have a towel bar in the hallway at our cottage. At first glance, it’s just a long, chrome bar. What we all know is that it is the grab bar from behind the back seat of our 1966 Rambler wagon. Even when a car was finished, it was never truly done.
Things like this used to embarrass me; now I’m cautious before throwing away anything I stumble upon, worried my father might have had a use in mind. An impatient man in many respects, he had all the time in the world to wait for imaginative applications to present themselves.
I realize now I’m down to the final traces he left behind. He may have held on to too much, but I worry I’ve saved too little.
I can’t tell you the brand of oil in my car, and I hop car manufacturers with ease. But I do know if the cottage was on fire, it’s that towel rack I would want to save. Loyalty reveals itself in unexpected ways, sometimes.
I put the oil filters back on the shelf. Sometimes things unremarkable in the moment indeed become treasures over time.