When to Write It, When to Walk Away: On the Problem of Too Much Metaphor

I’m a writer and to the extent I understand the job, I try to work hard at it. I keep notebooks. I have several different projects going at once. I search for metaphors. But metaphors can be wild and shy—I’ve gone whole years without finding a really good one.

Thus my surprise this past summer when I was handed one unbidden. I was in my father’s workshop in the double-garage of the house my grandmother built in the Connecticut woods. He keeps this space as well-organized as his chemistry lab at the University of Michigan once was. The floor is always swept clean. He will smoke a cigar here, a habit he has mostly quit but indulges once in a while only in this space. He has an old table saw he bought used years ago and restored to pristine condition himself. He won’t throw something away if it might be useful, but everything is orderly, everything has its proper hook or shelf. In the corner are the steamer trunks my great-grandparents used when they traveled. We unpacked these last summer, pulling them out into the sun in the driveway. They were full of beautiful cloth and lace, but everything had mildewed.

On one side of the garage is the boat, trailered for the winter. It’s an eight-seater with an outboard motor, also bought used and lovingly restored, and now named Plank’s Constant because my father taught quantum mechanics at the university for years. (It’s a pun on Planck’s Constant, though we worry no one gets it.)

My brother, just then up in the boat, is the one who usually helps my father with all things boat-related. When the boat was purchased—with a surprise sum my mother inherited from a distant relative—he got a boating license. He drives the boat; I pack the lunches and watch the children. But the children, once underfoot and requiring so much attention, now mostly occupy themselves, so that times like these, of the adults coming together to do something in relative peace, are returning to us. I asked what I could to do.

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My father hesitated, unused to having me in the garage with them. Then he said, “I know. I always need extra rags.” He handed me a box filled with a jumble of fabrics. He began to pull at one that was thin and white and kept coming and coming out of the box. Eventually a full nightgown emerged, billowing between us in the breeze off the driveway.

“Can you cut this into rags? It was one of Mom’s.”

I paused. Sometimes my father uses “Mom” to refer to his mother, my beloved “Nannie,” long dead, and sometimes the word refers to my mother, who was upstairs in her room inside the house.

I asked him to clarify.

“Your mother. There are some scissors over there.”

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So here we are. The garage doors are open to the lovely August day. My brother is doing what is necessary to pull the boat out for another summer on the lake, my father is organizing his workspace, and I am standing at the threshold of the garage and driveway, the exact spot where I first tried to be a writer years ago by pulling a chair and a card table out to write on summer mornings before my grandmother and parents were awake.

In the sunlight beyond the garage doors are the children: my daughter reading in the hammock, my son and my brother’s son riding their mountain bikes up and down the rocky ledges of the property in front of my grandmother’s house.

And my mother? She is upstairs, in bed. She gets up once a day, usually around five o’clock for a cocktail and dinner. She is sick, quite sick now, but this being in bed and not with us does not date from the new illness, the one that will probably be the last. The beginning is so far back I can barely remember it. There are reasons why she withdrew from life, some good, some bad, some mysterious. Not one of them makes it easier to understand a mother who has been a recluse for 20 years.

I took the nightgown from my father. My eyes were hot but I didn’t cry. I tested a first small tear of the fabric and thought about how I was tearing material but not tearing up. The poetry of this seemed questionable. Then I turned back to my father and in a too-bright voice I said, “It’s not very hard to be a writer in this family.”

My father looked at me. He didn’t understand.

My brother stopped his work, looked at what I’d been asked to do, and sighed. He did understand.
“You’re handing me metaphors here!” I shook the nightgown for dramatic effect. It was so thin and white the sunlight went right through it.

And my father laughed. He did. It was brief and sad and not the right kind of laugh for a summer day surrounded by his children and grandchildren getting ready to go out on a lake in a boat, but it’s what we have. Sometimes, when we still tried to get my mother to come out with us, she would remind us it was her money that bought the boat. You have it because of me! Isn’t that enough? And she was right, and also wrong, and we have tried many ways of telling her that over the years.

My father and brother went back to their boat work; I started ripping up the nightgown. A commotion outside—a bit of rivalry between the cousins that needed attention—interrupted the flow of our work for a few minutes, but the dispute was easily settled and the children continued their day, unaware of the past. It really was a beautiful day.

Making the rags probably took me 20 minutes once I settled to the task, tearing meticulously along the seams so that a rag wouldn’t have an awkward arm hole edge, for example, or a bit of bodice lace weighting it badly in the hand. I used the scissors only to get a cut started, then lifted the nightgown to chest height and tore. I tore and tore. I liked very much the sound the fabric made as it was rent.

I don’t know how many rags I made. I wish I’d counted. It would be like me to count, but I didn’t. If I had to guess, I’d say between twelve and fifteen. I folded each one into quarters and left them next to my father’s table saw in a neat stack. My father commented on the good order. He was pleased with the way I’d done the job.

I carried that word rags around with me for the rest of the day, picnicking in the boat, swimming in the lake, going fast while the children went tubing. I couldn’t shake it. It reminded me of something:

Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

W.B. Yeats

My father will use the rags for a while, but when he’s gone, I don’t want them. I really don’t. I don’t want the metaphor either, that’s why I’ve given it away here. I love all these people and we did our best. Anyone interested in buying some used rags? I need to lie down.


Rules for Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane is out now.

Via The Morning News

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