This weeks tune to compliment the [field note] can be listened to HERE as you read, sing and jam out or do what you please. (Estimated read time: 5 minutes)
“Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.”
There’s one person who’s kept my family intact over the years. Known for his subtle wit and charm, he always had eyes that smile, even on the most serious of occasions. I believe each wrinkle on his face contained wisdom and most of all, I love and adore him so.
Three years ago, I sat with him in his home he’d once built on a street named after him surrounded by a development of other homes he’d also built over the years. We sipped on root beer floats at the dining room table that never got used by anything other than a place for health magazines that piled high and collected dust. It was a stillness I felt comfortable in and without wanting the moment to end, I took a photo of him with my 35mm film camera that I too, had a home for in hanging around my neck by a black strap that I’d been meaning to replace with one of color.
I said goodbye to him and departed from Wisconsin, flying back to the sunshine of my home in California. Once I had landed and got settled, we spoke again. This time on the phone, and after news of getting his license taken away, he stated he’d now be moving from his proud home too.
Vividly planted in my head was a conversation that changed in tone quite rapidly. He sternly stated it was the last thing he wanted to do. I could feel a swirl of emotion in the air that transitioned into a dead and long pause as I tried to imagine the feelings of saying goodbye to so much that had been built over a lifetime.
I could sense him nodding on the other line, where silence finally broke with a soft, calm and collected manor. He said, “I know the rest of the family thinks it is best.” He knew at that moment that he had to trust the process and so soon after, my grandfather moved into an assisted living facility for seniors.
I developed the 35mm film in a dark room, watching faded negatives transition in the light while my grandfather was across the country slowly fading too. He was no longer able to enjoy life’s simple pleasures like making telephone calls, taking special trips to the local diners to eat or finalizing plans for the city and attending every Midwest car show known to man. He and his dementia eventually graduated to a memory care unit and I simply couldn’t fathom walking into his “unit” without him being able to recognize me or my name.
After much deliberation and on a quest of my own, I took my developed black and white photographs in a suitcase and eventually made my way back to see him. He did remember his granddaughter Jordyn and throughout our new weekly visits, I’d be delighted to find him branching out from this unit of his, making company in the sunroom or dining hall, occasionally sporting sunglasses or a straw cowboy hat from God knows where. Through observance in his loving strength, I was beginning to feel ready to attempt building something of my own; a tiny house on wheels.
I would dream out loud to my grandfather about this 320 square-foot space, envisioning with my napkin blueprint for everything in and around it to find its own place with a sense of purpose and meaning. I’d come to share updated pictures with him along the way that encompassed all of me and the build, the nails and many bruises. Amongst it all were reclaimed materials that he’d once used throughout his career as an established house builder and now, I was able to breathe new life into them from the ground up.
The seasons were changing again throughout the colors of the leaves and as he began talking less, I began building more. I learned how to design and sew my own clothes while wearing his old jean jackets and even though the faded blue was a few sizes too big, I found it to be the perfect imperfection of a mess in attire for painting and building other things in. On the week I fed him his last supper, I began to construct an organic clay form.
Within the death of a domino effect, hospice announced that he was in his “eleventh hour” and the hours seemed like days as my extended family and I sat by his bedside. Filling the tiny room with stories, occasional threads of laughter and hidden tears, my unresponsive grandfather wasn’t moving. Listening to his shortness in breath, we’d whisper those three words that are said too much and yet not enough.
He was all that was on my mind and all I could do was roll red earthenware clay coils. Friday morning after 9AM, I molded the last coil of the ceramics piece in the shape of a long neck that seemingly connected everything together. In front of me was a completed form of what was to resemble the interpretation and rhythm of a gracefully sound ceramic white swan.
I have always, and many times unknowingly been connected to swans. Before I was born, my grandmother Judy gave me the gift of a white swan vase with a vined green plant inside. Although she left this world and my grandfather at a young and tender age, I had always felt connected to Judy, my unmet grandmother, and the 28-year-old plant that remarkably continues to grow under the aid of my father’s green thumb.
Along with the ceramic swan being completed on that Friday morning after 9AM was also the time that my grandfather peacefully let go to pass away, preceded in death by my grandmother. Crossing off a list was an obituary and contemplation of songs, scripture and flowers for the funeral. It was here that I remembered the 35mm, black and white portrait which had marked the last days of his shining independence.
I went through the old leathered suitcase in search of unveiling the stored photograph that had traveled with me thousands of miles. Inside was the same portrait I remembered with one side of his face in shadows and a distinctive blur that was present in the foreground and background. However, there was more than just that one photograph.
This took me to an immediate flashback of the day I said goodbye to the warmth of the chilled root beer float along with my grandfather, his home and the drive I decided to take thereafter. Without a destination in site, I passed through vast open space of farm fields, old houses he had once built, and around the lake bend where I glanced over my right shoulder. It was there, on that day and drive, that I saw something that would make me slow the breaks to a complete stop.
I got out of the car, put the lens on the camera with the unchanged black-strap, and walked in the direction of capturing the photo that proceeded the undeveloped portrait. In that magical moment, there were two white swans swimming in direction toward each other. As the roll of film came to an end, their necks extended, cascading into a heart that mirrored a reflection onto the glass-like water.
One by one, I unpacked the rest of this suitcase containing the photographs, memories and what included a white Los Angeles Vincent Price Art Museum label that read the exhibition year, my name and the described medium used. At the top of this typed museum sign was an enlivened title to the aging photographs. It read, “Judy.”
I don’t remember a day that went by where my Grandpa Tom didn’t ask when we were going to visit the tiny house on wheels. Although I longed for him to be the ultimate guest to step foot inside this mobile structure and onto the foundation I built, I do know he’s still with me and the tiny house that I refer to as Swan Studio. I continue the build as I write, construct, sew, mold and shoot and somehow, amongst the chaos of it all, this is what brings me peace.
For it is not a tiny house retreat out in nature, unfinished ceramics pieces or saying goodbye to all possessions that brings forth this content. In the deepest presence of expanding and contracting within these multifaceted human responses of grief just as much as joy, laughter and sorrow, I remember the natural beauty and balance of the white swans. From Swan Studio, I nod to you as I raise a half-melted root beer float and the door continues to open and close and close and open.
Thomas “Tom” Garis Moullette, 1934-2018