It is amazing to me, the smell of the hay. There are so many things I can no longer smell. They’ve just vanished, bit by bit from my reality. All of my senses are dulled, like I’m retreating from the world. I look up, the barn is still far away. A long walk from the house, with its paved driveway. The path to the barn has no paving, just two parallel dirt tracks, overgrown with weeds. Once upon a time tractors and horses used to go along these tracks. The ruts are from the tires of the tractors. But decades have passed since then. Today, there is only one thin path, a string of dirt meandering gently to capture the smoothest sections of what once was a makeshift road.
I have to concentrate when I walk now, it is no longer so easy to do so. And I have a cane with me, prodding the ground. It reassures me that my footing is solid. But I know it isn’t enough.
I can still fall, at any moment.
Everything has been dulled. The world has gone darker and less distinct. I know there are birds, but I can not hear them. To me, right now, there is just a the narrow path and me. And I am gingerly making my way down it.
Perhaps this will be the last time.
I used to walk this path when I was a child. I would run it, as often as not, leaving the smell of my mother’s fried eggs behind as I ran towards my father’s barn. My memory of that smell is stronger than any ‘real’ smell has been in years.
A long time has passed since I was a boy.
At last, I come to the end of the path. The barn door is old and rusted. The barn itself is almost stereotypical. It is a deep red and several stories tall with a gentle rounded shape. It would have been a proud building once. But not anymore. The paint has been darkened by weather. Old windows have been boarded over. It looks derelict and empty. But I know that it isn’t.
I grasp the metal handle of the door and then I pull. I pull with everything I have. My arms ache with the effort. I can’t put much force into the effort. Nonetheless, slowly, with the screech of rusted metal, the door slides open.
It is dark inside, but it doesn’t take long for my eyes to adjust.
The space inside is filled by shapes. Shapes covered with tarps.
My father worked in the barn, but he was no farmer. He’d kicked out the horses and loaded the place up with his equipment. And then he worked. He was a sculptor. He started with tiny models and then slowly made more and more intricate forms. The scale increased until he had giant wax models. But wax was not the ultimate material. In a careful process, he would create huge plaster forms around the wax and then pour paraffin into those forms. And then, he would delicately shape clay all around the core paraffin model and even within it. And finally, he would pour molten copper into the void between the clay layers. The paraffin would melt away and a bronze statue would be left behind.
It was incredible delicate work. Delicate and expensive.
The casting itself was an art, to say nothing of the pieces he sculpted.
My father used to tell me, lovingly, that he did his work the same way the ancient Greeks had done it. In a way, he said, his work was timeless.
Few people worked that way any more; at least on that scale. Modern welding techniques and modern materials had made the process simpler. But my father didn’t seek simplicity. His sculptures had an ancient feel to them, a feeling he cultivated. Of course, the subject matter was modern. His most famous piece was of a man sitting in the back of a cab, his eyes pensively watching as an unseen city passes by his window. All the statue had was the corner of his bench seat, a touch of the door and the man himself. And yet everything was evoked. Everyone who saw it was pulled into the reality my father had created.
He was considered a modern master.
When I was a little boy, I used to wonder at the work of his hands. To me, he was the greatest of men and could do no wrong. His barn was a treasure house of all that was perfect in the world.
But I didn’t stay a boy. I grew up. And I began to understand more of what he did. I began to understand the expense. And I began to understand the profits. My father made millions. And slowly, his art – in my mind at least – was replaced by the money it made.
I began to think that that was why he did what he did.
When I was in high school, he would drone and on about his technique. He would spend dinner talking, ad nauseum, about how a sculpture – a great sculpture – can reach across time.
And, bit by bit, I learned to tune him out. Everything he said just turned to meaningless noise. As I saw it, he was pretentious and he was preachy.
I asked him once, about the money. He brushed me aside, saying the money wasn’t why he did what he did.
“So, why?” I asked him, “Do you charge so much?”
He smiled then and said that, for some people, money was among the most important things. They invested in his pieces, and made them a part of themselves, precisely because they spent huge sums on them.
It seemed like a self-serving argument. Like he too was acknowledging the importance of the money. But he didn’t spend his money. We lived in a small house in a small town. Maybe he felt guilty about what he had? The idea disgusted me.
I started to see my father as a hypocrite. I stopped going to the barn.
I couldn’t understand what my father was doing. With all this money, why didn’t he go and see the world? Why not travel? Why not enjoy the finer luxuries in life? Why were we driving old cars and living in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by country hicks?
Things only got worse from there. He started delivering angry speeches around the dinner table, condemning my short-sightedness. And I began to totally tune him out.
One time, he told me I would grow old and die alone – with nothing to pass on or share. But I just ignored him. Like the smell of fried eggs, he just began to recede from my reality.
After all, life was too short to spend it worrying about old age.
My mother died when I was 16. Maybe he thought it would change me. I certainly thought it would change him. How could he not travel, now? But nothing changed. Tensions just grew in the house. It turned out she’d been the only one holding us together. I moved out when I was 18, as soon as I could. I went to college at a state school far from our little homestead. And I had nothing more to do with the old man.
He died when I was 23. But at least he left me his money.
The will ended with a simple sentence: “I know you will return.”
But I knew I wouldn’t.
Unlike my father, I spent his money well. I enjoyed the finer things. I had beautiful girlfriends and cars and houses. I travelled. I enjoyed life thoroughly, exploring and learning and living.
Sometimes I would think of him and his foolishness.
But I knew I had done it better.
I was thirty-eight years old when the cash finally began to run out. I sold a few things. Some cars. A few houses. I started travelling less. And then I remembered the old homestead. That I could sell and not miss in the least.
And so, for the first time in decades, I travelled home.
I drove up the old driveway. The house was in terrible shape. It had been abandoned for twenty years and it showed. It wouldn’t be worth much. I made my way back to the barn. Perhaps some of the equipment would be salvageable. But the barn was locked. I tried to jimmy the lock, but I couldn’t manage it. And so, I called for a locksmith and, finally, we pulled open the door to the old building.
As the first light cast into the vast space, I didn’t understand what I was seeing.
Inside there were shapes, everywhere. They were covered by tarps. So, I walked into the barn, flashlight in hand. I walked towards the first of the shapes. With a tug, I pulled the tarp back and I revealed a sculpture I’d never seen before. It was a sculpture of a man and a boy.
It was a sculpture of my father and me.
The boy was pointing, excitedly, at something.
And the man is watching the boy, smiling deeply at the scene.
It was a sculpture of my childhood.
And it condemned me.
I’d lived a life of luxury, but I didn’t have this. Everything would vanish with me. His sculptures condemned me as his words never had.
I began to walk through the barn, that day, uncovering more and more of the shapes. I didn’t understand them all, not then. But somehow, they seemed to understand me. I felt like a child again, awe-struck by his work. These sculptures were the best my father had ever done, and nobody had ever seen them.
For a moment, I thought of how much they would be worth. I could live the rest of my life off of these works. But I knew, even as I thought it, that I could not sell them. They were never meant to be sold.
I moved into that decrepit house, almost penniless. I took a job at the local grocery and I began fixing up the house. And every day, I made my way down to the barn. Every day I drank in what my father had left behind.
And every day I pictured what he had warned me of; that I would end up here old and broken and alone. Then his work would pass to others and his message to me would be for naught.
I came back every day, my heart finally open to what my father had been saying.
Today is no different. Except, of course, I am a much older man. I am old. And I am physically broken.
I am old. But, I am not alone.
A little girl dashes past me and into the barn. Her blond hair flies out behind her.
“Grace, slow down Grace!” I hear her mother call. And I smile. A screaming batch of other kids stream after Grace.
A year after I moved back to my hometown, I met a young widow who had moved to the town from New York. We married, and had two children.
And, now, we have eight grandkids. Including Grace.
And, every year, we come back here, to my own father’s gallery. And we drink in his message.
As she enters the barn, Grace skids to a halt. And then she looks up at one of the sculptures. Her excited expression suddenly changes to one of awe.
I know the feeling; I had it when I was her age.
“Grandpa,” she says, looking at me. “What is this one?”
I follow her gaze. I look at the sculpture.
I’ve seen it a million times, but only now do I know what it is.
It is a sculpture of me, an old and stooped man.
And flying by me, pigtails hanging in the wind, is a little girl.
Flying by me, is Grace.
This story closely mirrors the Torah reading of Vayeilech. In this reading, Moshe is passing the baton on to future generations; but even as he does, he knows the coming generations will go astray. They will abandon the timeless values of Hashem. So, Moshe pushes his successor to be strong and of good courage. But his work does not stop there. He tells them to come, young and old, to hear the Hakel – the recitation of Torah. It is meant to be a reminder, like the annual visit to the barn, of the values that matter.
Moshe doesn’t leave it there though. He leaves a copy of the Torah itself next to the timeless ark. He leaves it as a timeless witness, like heaven and earth, to condemn the mistakes of his people. Ultimately, I believe, he leaves it as a reminder to us of why we exist and what is important.
Today, we still have that witness. It is waiting for us, left behind by our ancestors and meant to be shared with those yet to come.
Today, like the man in the story (or perhaps the little girl), we still come back to our barn. We still revisit the timeless. And we still see ourselves there. And we are rejuvenated by the vision of what has been and what is yet to be.
This story was written in honor of a co-worker’s father, Charles Phillip Swain, who died Thursday.
As my co-worker wrote to me:
My Dad was a great human, fallible, forgiving yet yearning for better of everyone. His dad died when he was in early twenties. I am certain he loved being dad to his son(s) and giving back in grown children what he didn’t have a chance to get.
His life was a life fulfilled, no matter the surprises along the journey.
May we know only joy.
Shana Tova and Shabbat Shalom,
p.s. If you enjoyed this story, please share it. It is much appreciated!
Image: From Dana, Skagit Valley Dairy Farm Barn, Flickr