No doubt about it, going through Dad’s things after the funeral was awkward. It was a little like rifling through another woman’s purse or reading someone else’s journal with small revelations sprinkled throughout like herbs in a sauce.
I was saving his guitar for the last thing to pack. Those of us who were closest to him knew that the guitar was the thing most precious to him. My brother and I had saved up money from mowing lawns all summer to buy it on lay-away from a local pawn shop. It was a surprise for his birthday and he had been almost bashful when we presented it to him like he was receiving a medal or something. If he was going to haunt anything it wouldn’t be the house or the garage, it would be that old Gretsch Dorado with the birds on the pick guard.
I gathered a pocket knife with a broken blade, some fish hooks, two ragged pieces of chamois and his old whetstone from his night stand. There were two more knives besides, one 2-bladed folding knife with a pearl handle and the other a lockback with rough blackened horn. A piece of soft pine with what looked like an elephant’s trunk and the beginnings of an ear carved into it went into the box next. There was a long metal cylinder that ended in a flat oval with a hole through it that I recognized as a cable terminal from his days working for McDonnell-Douglas. He liked to use those as whistles, like blowing across the top of a bottle, and my baby brother would definitely want those. I found two more in different sizes under a dog-eared copy of Dune that he had loaned to each of us kids in turn, always insisting we give it back when we were done reading it. The last thing I picked up was an assortment of river rocks with holes all the way through them strung on a piece of fishing line. That made me smile, remembering all the times he had had a whole pack of offspring, nieces and nephews scouting the creek for holed stones.
There were a few other books on his dresser top, including a pair of ancient Fritz Lieber books containing stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser that I set aside for myself. I knew my middle brother would want the full hardback set of Asimov’s Foundation series. My sister might want the Avon cologne bottles shaped like a chess piece, a drinking horn and a leaping dolphin that were still mostly full after all these years. Mom bought them for him along with those on the high shelves around the perimeter of their bedroom more for their esthetic value than Dad’s need for cologne, which he only wore occasionally to church. I was sure he’d understand if I sold the rest on eBay. I would wrap them in newspaper and box them separate from the things his children would want to keep.
I meant to leave his clothes to the boys to go through. I didn’t think I could live with myself if I rifled through Dad’s underwear drawer, and I’m sure they would enjoy dividing up his luau shirt collection.
I slowly opened the drawer of his night stand, not sure what to expect. There were only three items lying in that shallow drawer. The first was the old King James Bible in a zippered leather cover, with tabs for each book, that he had carried my whole life. He had tied a double-row sennit to the pull tab, and the top stops had fallen off the zipper years ago, replaced by my careful teenaged stitching with silvery thread. Next to the Bible lay an ancient mechanical pencil and the little black leather binder containing his song lyrics. I clutched the little notebook to my chest and the scent of old leather drifted into my nose. He had bought it when he first joined the Navy at age 16 so he could write down words to songs as he learned to play them. Some of the pages were typewritten with guitar chord names written above the double-spaced lines. Other songs were written in Dad’s hand, easily identifiable by the Catholic “r” he favored when printing. They were not arranged in any particular order, although he could have popped open the rings and removed them for alphabetizing, but he seemed to be able to find any song he wanted pretty quickly. Contained in those pages were obscure Celtic folk songs, Spanish ballads, popular music he had heard on the radio and lots of salty sea shanties he wouldn’t let me read until I turned 16.
I started to place the notebook in the box with the other treasures when a small sealed envelope no bigger than a thank-you note slipped out with my name written on the front in pencil. I sat in the old rocking chair and carefully broke the seal, pulling out a ruled sheet of paper from the little notebook folded in half.
“Dear Slick”, it began. “I figure it’ll be your job to get rid of my junk when I’m gone. I don’t care much about anything else but I do want you to give your oldest brother the Dorado and for you to keep my Bible. But you know this little songbook is a piece of me. If you can find a way to do it each of you kids each need to have a copy of this notebook. I love you and I’ll always be with you.” It was simply signed “Dad”.
Maybe I bumped it where it rested against the wall or maybe Dad’s ghost did it, but just as I was folding the note to go back in the envelope the old Dorado chimed a faint chord. That was when I finally broke down and cried, realizing he was really gone and had known ahead of time that he was going.