The Little Things
The little things. The click of your wife's makeup bottles and brushes in the bathroom in the morning, the subsurface sound of them, a kind of music. The accompaniments: the older boy's bedroom door opening and shutting in haste, a faucet running, a gust of wind in the eucalyptus, the last rain on the window. The little things are what we remember, what we know, of family life. Of life.
The large events have their place, but even the large events of a family's passage are assembled from little things. The rush to the emergency room and the way the air feels there and the brave little chin thrust up beneath the mask, the small choked cry and the sound—especially this sound—of the thread being pulled through the wound, and the way the little hand holds tight to your finger. The little things.
Without realizing it, we can neglect the little things.
Though I have never divorced and my vow is for life, I have experienced a broken relationship or two. Grief does not attach itself so much to the empty space left by the other person, a loss often too abstract to grasp, but to the little things. The vertical space in the closet where familiar clothes once hung. The smell on the pillow or, on the street, a stranger's accent that conjures up a silenced voice.
When our parents and loved ones die, little things come back. Returning home after a death, you find a quilt that wrapped around you long ago, and you remember how the hands felt as they tucked you in. You find yourself startled by the way the dishes are arranged in your parent's kitchen cabinet; you are surprised because you know the arrangement, and you did not know it was so familiar until you looked at it within the context of loss.
The impression most remembered from my grandmother's death is not of the large fact of her body in the casket, but of coming into her cold kitchen a few days afterward and seeing the jar of mincemeat cookies, which she often made for me and my brother. In the jar, then, they were covered with mold.
Just as family grief is articulated by little things, so is joy. Here is an exercise: Go through your house when everyone is away and, in the silence, look for these little things.
In my house, I see the drawing of Wyoming with the owl in the tree singing, "Ho, ho, ho," and the little wooden toolbox, with the name Matt carved on the side, filled with crayons, some of them peeled. The smell of them connects you in time. The crumbs on top of the toaster, the empty cereal boxes left out, seem suddenly precious. So do the stacks of games—Candyland, Clue, Monopoly. Each family's Monopoly is stamped with its own unique patina of worn corners and stained Chance cards. Little things.
The fishing rods leaning against the corner of the garage, some from my own childhood, some bought for the boys. The rods stand tall together. Shelves filled with books; most of them old, neglected friends, each with a story to tell.
A balsa glider on the stairs. At the top of the landing, a small landscape, a stop-time mountain scene painted in oils by the boys' grandfather. Once, twice, the bullfrog in my older son's room harrumphs, because spring is coming; in a distant time, when my sons or my wife or I, alone or together, drive past some stream or pond surrounded by reeds shaking with redwing blackbirds, we will hear this particular booming sound and in it recognize these years of our family life.
In the largest bedroom, the smell of a comforter; and in the closet, my wife's clothing hangs neat and fresh. And all around the room the bottles of roses, which she has carefully dried over 17 years, all the roses I have given, not one missed. And beside the bathtub a thick, red, scented candle with lots of time left in it.
Here is the next part of this exercise: When your family is home again, listen to them, watch them, wait for the sounds and smells and tilted chins and the shouted competitions between the children and the sighs of the house as it slips into sleep. Hold these things. These little things are everything.
Richard Louv is chairman emeritus of The Children & Nature Network and author of eight books, including THE NATURE PRINCIPLE, LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS, and THE WEB OF LIFE (Conari Press, 1996), from which this essay is drawn.
The photo was taken during a visit to the shack where Aldo Leopold and his family lived for several summers, as they restored the land, and Leopold wrote portions of The Sand County Almanac.
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