The Chair, the Blow-​Dryer and the Bombshelter

A story about being present
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The world, my father liked to say, is a dangerous place. “Just when you think you’re clear,” he’d say. “It sneaks up and bites you.” Which might explain how I ended up on the bathroom floor, my ankle twisted, my hairdryer whirring in the sink.

There’d been no warning, other than the one on the hairdryer that said in six languages: Do Not Use in Bathroom. Do Not Use While Sleeping. Do Not Use on Pets.

I was not sleeping, but I was tired, so I sat down.

In a chair that hadn’t been there for years.

Sometimes I forget things. This, I’ve found, is one of the dangers of living in the house I grew up in.

It had been a little vanity chair. My mother thought it was elegant because it was gold and had claws for feet. The claws were crooked, so the chair wobbled. It didn’t matter, since it was mostly for show and not for sitting. But just in case anyone actually did sit on it, my mother had covered the cushion with a bath towel. The towel had poodles on it. Poodles in tutus. The towel kept the cushion clean, something my mother, who covered our dining room chairs with plastic and had a collection of dishes she never used, found important.

I want it to last,” she’d say.

And it has, though not the way she’d imagined.

Memory is a tricky thing.

Sometimes the body remembers what the mind has lost. Sometimes it’s the other way around.

Be here now, the Buddhists say, which seems peaceful enough.

A few years ago, I found myself back where I started, in a little pink ranch house in a town 20 miles outside of Pittsburgh.

You Pittsburgh people,” a guy in a bar told me once. “You go away, then you go back. You’re goddamn homing pigeons. You’ll see.”

I’d moved to New York after graduate school and planned to never go home again. Five years later, the world snuck up on me.

My father got sick, and I came home. After he died, I thought I’d stay until my mother was OK. I met my husband. We had a son, then a daughter. My mother passed away. My temporary move was no longer temporary, and there were things to consider. Things like what to do with my childhood home.

Maybe we could wait a while,” I said to my husband.

We’d planned to sell the house and move to Pittsburgh, the North Side maybe, but I couldn’t go through with it. That was three years ago, and we’ve just settled deeper.

I never imagined I’d be here, though this is what my father had planned. He had overseen the building of this house, and was proud of it, how sturdy it was, how he’d invested everything he had.

This will all be yours,” he’d say with the flourish of a leading man from one of those old movies he loved.

But I don’t want it,” I’d say, and never realized how awful it sounded.

You’ll come around,” my father would say. Then he’d take me on a house tour. Since I was around 7 years old, he’d been pointing out the sturdy foundation, the triple layers of insulation, the heavy wood beams, and the plumbing.

Look at this pipe,” he’d say, whacking it with a wrench. “Copper. That goddamn pipe will last.”

Along with all the memories in this place.

Memories that are palpable — the way my body remembers a chair that’s not there, the way my hand reaches for the sugar in the place it hasn’t been since I was 12. Some nights, I can almost see my father, sitting in the kitchen in the dark.

Don’t worry, sweetheart,” he’d say. “I’m taking care of things.”

He was the one who worried. He would stay up for days in this house because he couldn’t sleep. Bills, probably. Work. My mother. He had his own ghosts — the Depression, World War II. But mostly, I think, he was afraid he couldn’t protect everything and everyone he loved.

Our town is quiet and safe. At night you can see the stars. Still, my father laced the doors and windows with locks. He’d buy odd things — a shortwave radio, gallon cans of peanuts, first aid kits with tourniquets and directions for treating snake and scorpion bites.

In the 1970s, he built a bomb shelter in the basement. My husband’s office is in that spot now. Back then, my father had stocked it with fruit cocktail, water, and Minutemen Survival Tabs. He ordered the tabs, which looked and smelled like dog food, from a militia newspaper. The newspaper was called The National Spotlight. Its editors predicted the world would end in 1980.

A life-​saving ration for any emergency,” the Survival Tabs’ label read. “Average consumption may be increased in times of complete starvation.”

Either this goes,” my mother said when another box filled with camouflage tarps and water purifying tablets came in the mail. “Or I do.”

So my father quit work on the bomb shelter and quit sleeping through the night.

Don’t worry, sweetheart,” he’d say when he’d tuck me in. “Nothing’s ever going to happen to you.”

But of course, things happen.

I know what my father would think about the world right now if he were alive.

Sometimes I worry that I’m too much like him.

Maybe it’s the house that makes it so obvious.

When I tuck my son and daughter in at night, I do my father’s old rounds. I check the door locks. I check the stove and the furnace. I unplug things. Sometimes I test the batteries on the smoke detectors lined up like little flying saucers on the ceiling. I stay up and watch the news. This makes me think about things like duct tape and plastic sheeting.

Maybe worrying is just what happens when we get older. Or maybe it’s what happens when we have more to lose.

Oh, about that chair. It was ugly and useless, though my mother wouldn’t give it up. She kept it until she died, even though the paint had nearly peeled off.

It’s a perfectly good chair,” she’d argue. “And besides. What else would you put there?”

She never liked empty spaces where something had once been.

A place for everything,” she liked to say. “And everything in its place.”

This house and everything in it.

My life in its place.

Everything and everyone I’ve ever loved.

Be here now.

Lori Jakiela

Lori Jakiela is the author of the memoir, Miss New York Has Everything. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Pittsburgh Post-​Gazette and elsewhere. She is a professor of English at The University of Pittsburgh’s Greensburg campus.

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