Loss is a crucible carefully laid with mortal things. Truthfully, we’re so very lucky to have things in our lives that will inevitably succumb to the furnaces of loss. Love, friendship, mentors, the beauty of new life, full motion in our joints, the gorgeousness of sunsets.
When I was twenty, my paternal grandfather died of cancer. Like my father, he went before his time. He was an excellent man. Like all of us, he was flawed, but I can say with certainty that in his later life, at least, he had things pretty sorted out. He spent a great deal of time loving on his grandchildren, of whom I am so very fortunate to be one. His dying came to me as a shock and I resolutely didn’t have the emotional tools to handle it.
When someone is dying, the world of the family gets very small. The family members in charge and those who, like I was, can only watch, do a kind of dance with doctors and nurses and hospice workers and pharmacists on the tiny dancefloor of what’s left of a life. It’s easy to get swept up in treatment options and medication tweeks. Around a month before he died, I was, by chance, with my dear Aunt Laurie. I remember talking with her about Grandpa and was rationally going on about the medication and treatment dance, when she gently stopped me, and pulled me close to her softness and said, “Jay, do you realize? Grandpa Bayliss is going to die.”
The little morsel of emotional reality she offered me was such a blessing. She pulled me into a hug I will remember my whole life and I just cried. Because what can you do? When the small dance fades and all that’s left is loss, what else can you do? I still didn’t have the emotional tools to navigate that loss, and I made a lot of bad choices in the ensuing years as a result, but when finally, it was time to heal, that moment was a lighthouse penetrating my heart’s melancholy.
If you’re a human, you’re dealing with loss. But you’re also dealing with joy and beauty and struggle and achievement and you’re watching season four of Stranger Things with your kids even though it’s just a little bit on the too-scary side. Loss might feel like a storm, but there are harbors. One of those harbors for me has always been building things.
I build all kinds of things, but the kind of things I love to build most are things that will likely last longer than the span of a human life.
It’s a compelling time span. It’s far, far shorter than, say, even the most recent of geological epochs. But, perhaps it’s as long, or longer, than the span of a civilization. Ruins count whether they’re the detritus of some ancient European civilization or found concrete structures built by unknowable human hands long since departed from this mortal coil, left to weather in the woods somewhere. Definitely longer than the lifespan of a car, but possibly as long as the lifespan of a car frame – all that’s left of an abandonment at the edge of a river from a time before when people used to do that kind of thing. Longer than a career. Shorter than the lifespan of the oldest of trees. Longer than the time it takes a baby to turn into an adult.
I love growing trees and garlic. I love writing a great story. I have a deep and abiding love for some of the T-shirts I’ve accumulated. But there’s something extra sweet when I have the opportunity to build something beautiful that lands in this long-term impermanence zone. I had that opportunity this summer.
If I were a better writer, I’d weave a long, entangled story from these disparate threads: The first bottles of wine my father purchased in the early seventies. The fortunes of the Conrad brothers as they built a banking empire in this part of the country. Various times in my life where I’ve taken laboring jobs out of necessity. The eternal optimism of builder and architect Ray Thon, the father of a dear friend to my family. The stout archaeological labor of my industrious children.
Here’s what I can tell you about Ray Thon (pronounced like ‘tone’). A month before he died from congenital heart disease I ran into him at the eye doctor. His face was red and flushed with the effort of walking in from the car. His face was animated by the light of someone who is beating the odds for how long a tenure in this world should be for someone with a ticker as flawed as his was. He was making everyone in the fluorescently lit office smile with his never-ending ebullience. He had been a bomber pilot in the war, flying dozens of missions over Europe, again, beating the odds of ever coming home from such an occupation. He spent his life building beautiful things as a builder and an architect. I’m told that in 1958 he collected a truckload of bricks from the old Conrad National Bank in Kalispell after it burned down. The Conrad National bank was founded in 1892, and I don’t really care about the Conrads or their history, but they did build a pretty nifty bank building where the First Interstate Bank now sits.
Ray also built a lovely lake cabin at Bitterroot lake. At some point between 1958 and now, he dumped this load of bricks out at the lake. I imagine that it started as a pile. Eventually, though, it became fill. By the time my kids and I got to it this summer, many of the bricks were buried in the rich pine-needle soil that surrounds the lake, and needed excavating.
Meanwhile, back in the 1960s, my father met Gary Thon, Ray’s son, and they became lifelong friends. One of the things they shared was an early passion for really good wine. There are still a few bottles of 1970 Bordeaux in the cellar, to be drunk as a celebration of my parents’ wedding anniversary. There are a few 1974s and 1978s from my brother and my births. When we open one of those, as long as the cork is intact, they smoke. It’s a real treat.
Ray was not the only brick collector around. In the 1980s, when the old Edgerton school came down, my father collected several pallets of those bricks. He methodically scraped mortar off each one. He scraped thousands clean – several pallets worth – at one minute per brick. A few years later, my folks built a house and had wainscoting made from this brick. With several pallets of the brick left, my dad and I hatched a scheme to build him a wine cellar clad with the very same bricks.
It’s a small room in the basement, not nearly big enough to contain his collection, but it’s a fun place to be. It smells of old bricks and old wood. We made the ceiling from some barn wood we found in a giant burn pile at my mom’s brother’s farm across the way. There’s an arched entryway into the crawlspace under the house. It’s rough. I was twenty with no masonry experience. There’s mortar all over the place. The joints are uneven and unfinished. There’s no trim. The arch is, well, recognizable as an arch. It’s still a fun place to be.
I think Gary was always a little jealous of my father’s bricked-in wine cellar. But he also learned a thing or two from my dad’s experience. A few years ago, he built himself a house at the Bitterroot lake property. There’s a large, high-ceilinged room in his basement intended to be a wine cellar big enough for his whole collection. He wanted bricks – his dad’s bricks. I needed work after spending a year working for actual masons. It seemed a perfect marriage. And so it was. There weren’t enough bricks or time to do the whole thing, but the accent wall is gorgeous and is something I’m very proud of. I hope it’s there, a testament to our families’ love for one another, reflecting Gary and his family’s passions and echoing his father’s legacy long after I’m gone.