A Place to Remember

Finding memories in faces, colors, and a letter on the wall.

Illustration of a man in a cluttered shed by Marcos Chin

Dad is moving the chair and desk from his bedroom into his shed. Says he needs them for tying flies.

This unexpected text from my sister came with a photo. I enlarged the image of Dad in his shed and noticed two things that tugged on opposing heartstrings: Our father’s smile was bigger than I’d seen it in a long time. But the clutter surrounding him was, too.

A sagging 10-by-12-foot structure in my parents’ small backyard, Dad’s shed has, in recent years, become both a home away from home and a post-retirement job: the job being to organize the home away from home. It is a task he takes seriously. He’s built extra shelves from scrap wood and created a closet out of thin air. He’s rigged up lighting, a small fridge, a radio. He’s moved and sorted, piled and rearranged, with occasional breaks to light his pipe and look out at the forest behind the shack, always hoping for deer to appear.

Despite gnawing anxiety over his safety, my sisters and I have loved how purposeful and content our 80-year-old father feels in his shed. If only his daily hours of hard work and ingenuity weren’t continually undone by the cruelest of saboteurs: Alzheimer’s. For each item that finds a new home in there, something else is lost.

Staring at the photo on my phone, I shifted my attention from Dad’s joyful face to the stuff piled around him: towers of boxes and bags, stacks of papers and clipboards, rumpled clothes. I smiled at a row of colorful bungee cords hung on a paper towel holder, ready to contain more stuff. Then I noticed the gem I’d first seen last summer when visiting him: a Father’s Day letter from me, written on Penn State stationery the year I graduated, which he had carefully pre-served in a clear plastic protector and tacked to his beloved shed wall.

Dad’s blue and white pride has rivaled mine since the moment he and Mom moved me into East Halls in the fall of 1991. I was the first and only Nittany Lion in my upstate New York family, but in the three decades since, he has never missed an opportunity to yell a hearty “We Are!” in the direction of any Penn State banner, T-shirt, or ball cap. He’s flown a Penn State flag outside his home and covered his iPad in a giant Nittany Lion sticker. I’ve heard countless stories of my parents striking up conversations with strangers wearing Penn State gear.

I don’t know where he found that old letter, but I’ve a feeling half the reason he hung it up was for the big blue “PENN STATE UNIVERSITY” across the top. As I studied the picture of his happy face amid the chaos, it occurred to me that his memory of his Penn State affection might endure longest, beyond the fading of familiar faces and familial events. I hope it does.

When his work in the shed must be done, I will save the letter. I will wear my Penn State shirts to bond with him. And I will know “We Are.”

 

Robyn Rydzy is the Penn Stater’s managing editor.