By Matthew Wallenstein
My father called me the day after Mother’s Day to tell me that for the next two weeks he wasn’t able to see his new girlfriend who he is crazy about. He said he had been around a few siblings and nephews and did not want to risk giving her the Corona Virus if he had been exposed to it. It was his way of leading into what he wanted to talk to me about. He went on to tell me about why he had been around them.
He was woken up by a phone call. His sister, my aunt Nancy, and her husband Eaton’s house was on fire. He rushed to his car and drove through the towns between to get to the old country road where their house was.
A few of his siblings and two of Nancy and Eaton’s sons were there standing in the cold. Black smoke dumped from the house out into the sky. He talked to my cousin Aaron for a while, both of them shaking, blowing into their cold hands, looking for composure and doing their best to keep it. Eventually they brought out the bodies. They had died of smoke inhalation, ten feet apart from each other in their bedroom.
Aaron told my father how much Eaton had softened in the past year, how much their relationship had grown. He was calling often, asking about his grandkids. I had always liked Eaton, he had the dry deadpan humor of an old New Englander, but it was good he had softened, giving his kids a more human side before the fire took him.
My uncle Mark is a carpenter. He was largely taught by Eaton’s father, a talented but rough man who had been hard on Eaton. Mark called some people who worked for him and my dad helped them board up the windows and doors to keep people from taking their things or getting to the wiring and plumbing for scrap. There was frost over Nancy’s Garden. The men’s breath rolled out of their mouths in clouds while they held plywood and drilled and hammered. My father is in his 70s, Mark in his 60s. It was cold out and unpleasant work to be doing.
Not far from Nancy and Eaton’s house is their shop Not Necessarily Antiques. The sign faded, the white paint chipped. When I was a kid we would go there to buy our Christmas trees each winter. If I remember right, my father introduced them to the idea of selling them to make some extra cash. My sister and I would argue over which tree was best. Then, I would go inside and smell the cigar boxes and hide in the stacks of old furniture. The shop was always very crowded with antiques and I loved the look of the old wood, the scratches and red stain.
There are still a couple of saw horses sitting outside on the side of the shop that Eaton used when he was fixing up the furniture to sell. A sort of evidence of a life, of quiet work and craft.
Hanging above the basement stairs at my father’s house is a painting Eaton did when he was 16. He and my father used to smoke cigarettes and listen to old jazz records and paint together. Eaton often came by his house when they were teenagers, sometimes just to sit on the porch where my grandfather had his office and ask him for advice.
The last time I saw them I ate dinner at their house. Eaton made curry and talked about his time living in Thailand, the endless rain, how cheap it was to live, how beautiful it could be. He told me a lot of stories, more than I had ever heard from him. He told me about the time he was thrown through a plate glass door by a Hell’s Angel when he worked as a repo man. Nancy made the first and only Rhubarb pie I have eaten. It was delicious. Then she took me outside and walked me around her garden, showed me the rhubarb plants and the strawberries she used in the pie.