A year’s worth of changes happened within the last two months. My family moved. My wife and I started a new business. My mother died on Thanksgiving Day. An old friend died a week later.
I now live in an old, historic building full of wonders from the past—a museum of sorts. The concrete underneath our living room floor slopes as it did when it was a silent theater in the early 1900’s. I’ve become the custodian of a 100-year-old staircase, 14-foot tin ceilings, a urinal from a 1930’s bus stop, and an antique beer can collection.
Before two months ago, I didn’t know that beer can collecting was a hobby. Tucked away in an upstairs corner of the building in which we now live, I found hundreds of cans. Some neatly tied in old boxes. Some thrown in bags. My first thought was to take them to the recycling center, but I realized they weren’t aluminum and decided they’d be worth next to nothing. But in the few calm moments between the chaos of the last few weeks, I’ve begun to go through them. At first, with mild curiosity. Now, with the wonder of a child.
An Iron City Beer can celebrating the 1975 Super Bowl champions with a photo of the Steelers. And then the same can from 76. Hundreds of pop-top cans. Several punch top cans from before pop-tops. Cans from all over the world. Beautiful cans, funny cans, cans that simply say “beer.” Cans from the sixties that have never been open. I looked it up—fifty-year-old beer is not safe to drink. At first, I thought I’d sell the cans to collectors. But instead, I’m afraid I may become a collector myself.
My wife and children were out of state for Thanksgiving, but I stayed back to work both at my real job and my new job. After a morning’s work, I drove to my parent’s home for Thanksgiving. My mama was not waiting in the living room for me as usual.
Friends told me that when the time grew near, she’d decline quickly. I had not realized that the “time grew near” during the previous week. She smiled and tried to talk when I entered her room that morning. My sister and dad and I said good-bye later that night, and I drove back to West Texas early in the morning to spend the day alone.
The days since have been strange. A new life in an old building. Endless work, and endless thoughts, and endless Carol King songs streaming through my mind. We played Way Over Yonder at the memorial service as my mother’s life was summarized in a slideshow of fifteen minutes. She was a baby and teenager and twenty-year-old mother and middle-aged grandmother and gone.
My dad stays with us often now. There’s plenty of room and work for us all, and he loves it. Together we clean the halls of brick that were built by men long gone. We sit and talk where a child watched a silent film before they were drafted and sent to die in World War II, or mop the same tiles that a café worker mopped in the twenties. We live our new lives in an old place, and when customers ask, “How was your Thanksgiving?” we don’t know how to respond and awkwardly say, “Fine.”
When it’s all too much, as it was last night with a house full of guests, I hide in the little shop upstairs and look at the old beer cans. They once belonged to a young boy; I’ve found his letters regarding them from years ago. I look through his collector’s guides from the 70’s and see the cans he’s circled in red. They’ve become more than cans to recycle. They are clues, or links, to the past. And they, along with everything else that surrounds me now, reminds me of how we are just here for a short time.