Vacuuming around my father

I’ve been trying to teach my father how to use a laptop computer for about six years now. Maybe seven. Just simple things like creating documents, saving them and printing. He can’t retain the information – and not because he sustained a brain injury last year. It might as well be astrophysics, rocket science, alchemy. He can’t learn it. He won’t learn it. All I can do is try.

My father hates the modern world, modern comprising pretty much anything that’s taken place since 1965. He spends his time destroying things he’s collected all his life. Letters to and from relatives, paintings by his brother. Old sketchbooks of what he considers minor efforts. His own paintings too.

Dad is eighty, the last survivor of four siblings. Today when I went up to take him lunch and do a little bit of housework, he informed me he’d destroyed a box of his sister’s letters. I don’t want the burden to become yours, he explained. I told him letters were not a burden. I don’t know what to do with them right now, but someday someone might. Letters can be scanned to digital form. They’d take up hardly any space at all.

Because he can’t get his head around computers, he thinks everything to do with them is bad. People who use them don’t care about important things. Such people can’t be trusted with letters. I pointed out that I do all my writing on computers and that I care about important things. I told him how I’m having all my old negatives scanned to digital not because I want them now but to leave my options open for the future.

I eventually realized that what he was actually expressing was distress at the fact that a person’s achievements across a lifetime will inevitably be reduced to a pile of dusty boxes. A life of art and detailed observation about which no one really cares. People care if you’re Picasso, D H Lawrence or Greta Garbo but the rest of us might as well not have bothered.

I guess it all boils down to whether you think the destination is important or the journey. Or both. Or neither. Or something else I’ve yet to contemplate. I’ve been struggling with my own artistic journey (for want of a better term) this year, so much so that the destination part seems almost immaterial.

Perhaps the hardest thing for those of us cursed with a creativity is comprehension of the reality of our own insignificance. Some folks seem content to matter to their loved ones. Others seek the approval of the world. Am I a waste of space? Has all my effort been for nothing? These are the questions that churn over and over. How do you gauge the value of a life or, more specifically, a life’s individual marks?

As an archaeologist pal once explained to me, nothing matters. In 100,000 years the 21st century will be nothing more than a thin line of blue plastic in the rock strata.

Amen to that one, buddy.


  1. My niece has been scanning letters from my dad to his parents and letters back to him while he was in the army during WWII. There are dozens of them and they are a wealth of information. Even the everyday things (everyday for the 1940s) are fascinating. Comments he makes about his fiancée, my mother, to his parents and his plans for after the war, rumors that the war will be over soon, etc–and his impression of Japan shortly after the bombs when they sent his unit there. You should scan them if you can. And keep the originals, too. (I’m currently editing his and my mother’s autobiographies.)

    • I’ll do my damndest to get the rest of them off him. But my aunt’s letters are gone forever.

  2. In so much of history, it’s the lives of the everyday ‘unimportant’ people that are the mystery. There’s always something written down about the feats of the rich and powerful, but we have no idea what the carpenter did when he had a cold. It’s things like letters that tell us about the everyday.

    I feel that it’s more important that I am content with what I got out of life than whether I’m remembered. So long as I got stuck in and had a go, and enjoyed the process most of the time, I’ll die happy. If I’m remembered that’s a bonus. And since I won’t know if I am… what’s the point of thinking about it?

    • I agree. Dad’s been suffering depression since he got bashed. I’m sure this is all to do with that.

      • I’m not surprised – I think most people would be! And angry – it’s curious that he destroyed the letters, and didn’t just throw them away. Makes me think it’d be harder to persuade him that you’ll ‘get rid of’ stuff for him (so you can actually preserve it.

  3. The sooner we accept that we’re completely insignificant, the less we worry. It’s a harsh realisation, but it’s also a calming one after you get used to the idea.

    Bruce Lee said, “The secret to immortality is to first live a life worth remembering.” So we can try, but we are unlikely to succeed.

    My biggest regret is that we can’t raise an army and stride across the planet building an empire any more. Those dudes will be remembered for milennia.

  4. I swa an Andy Warhol exhibition a few years ago. It was a selection of thigns he had collected in boxes during his lifetime, he never threw anything out it would seem. The job was left to someone else to go through and catalogue everything. The boxes went all the way back to his childhood and included books, letters, ticket stubs, empty packets, *everything*. At the time of the exhibition they were still apparently cataloguing stuff, just because of the sheer volume. Some of the items I saw were real gems with that wow factor, but in amonst it was also a fair amount of crap. Even fifty years later, crap is still crap, and there was just so damn much of it. I guess the trick is in knowing what is crap and what will be of use, interest or value to future generations.

  5. We are born and we die, and we might as well enjoy the bits in between. Do the best you can to leave the place in reasonable shape for those that follow, and try not to trash the joint.

  6. I tried to write a story, once, about how everything we do is permanent, assuming that the past can’t be changed, and it’s only because we can’t see back in time that we believe lives lived and died are wasted.

    The story didn’t sell, but I stopped sending it out when I discovered the same idea was done (way better) in the Time Traveller’s Wife.

    Maybe don’t get it for him as an ebook, but in the Large Print edition 😉 Even philosophers and artistes can be comforted by a bestseller sometimes.


    • Thanks Thoraiya — I’ll give it a go. I’m interested in reading it even if he isn’t.

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