One day, not long after my father died, a neighbor of mine was throwing away an old steamer trunk he kept on his porch. It had been spray-painted black, and the leather handles had rotted away, but it felt solid. Thinking I might use it for storage, I took the trunk into the tiny shed behind my house to refinish it. This was in 1995. I was twenty-six and had been working at The Sun for about a year, and my wife and I had just bought our first house, a fixer-upper that we filled with yard-sale finds and cast-offs like this.
Though my father’s death had felt sudden to me, it wasn’t unexpected. He had Parkinson’s disease, and I’d watched his health decline for years. In photos from my wedding he remained seated while the rest of us stood around his chair. On visits home I’d helped him shave, because his hands were too shaky to hold a razor. He spent his days in a hospital bed in my former bedroom. But just because something is expected doesn’t mean we’re prepared for it. So I retreated into the shed to work on that trunk.
The paint clung stubbornly. I bought a steel-brush attachment for my drill and set to stripping the finish off bit by bit, working after dark by the light of a single bulb, turning the paint into a fine dust that I breathed in. When I blew my nose, the tissue was black. This was no fine antique and certainly not worth the effort (or the health risk), but I’ve always been the sort of person who hesitates to throw something away just because it’s old.
What I was really doing was taking something old, a relic of a previous age, and bringing it back to life.
When I was growing up, my father was older than all my friends’ dads. Born in 1917, he’d been fifty-two when he and my mother adopted me. His tales of life as a young man during the Depression and World War II were far removed from anything I knew: working as a New York Stock Exchange “runner,” when stock quotes were delivered by hand; bussing tables at a jazz club on 52nd Street; refitting captured Japanese warships for the U.S. Navy. He made jokes about being from another era: when he was unable to eat solid foods at the end, and a young nurse brought him his “lunch” in the form of an IV bag, he quipped, “You know, in my day if you told someone you had a liquid lunch, it meant a martini.”
All those evenings I spent in the shed, grinding away paint and wiping sweat out of my eyes, what I was really doing was taking something old, a relic of a previous age, and bringing it back to life. I was working through my grief.
If I’d been more in touch with my emotions, I might have found an outlet that didn’t involve inhaling paint dust. Perhaps I would have managed to get to the other side of that loss by sharing my experience with others. It might have been better that way.
Readers often tell us that something in The Sun helped them through a tough time. Maybe an essay about a divorce led them to forgive an ex, or a Readers Write piece about cancer caused them to feel less alone. Perhaps an interview let them view a relative’s addiction with more compassion, or a photo essay reminded them that life can be as beautiful as it sometimes is hard.
If reading The Sun has made the tough times a little easier for you, perhaps you’ll consider becoming A Friend of The Sun. Your donation will help us pay contributors well for the works that appear in our pages. You’ll make it possible for us to give the magazine away to people who are having a rough couple of years, or a rough life. And you’ll fund scholarships that allow people with limited resources to attend our writing retreats.
The Sun’s forty-five-year history hasn’t been without its hard times, too. Staying independent and ad-free is no simple matter, and your donations provide a financial safety net for unexpected challenges. On many occasions the generosity of our readers has been the difference between ending the year in the red or the black. In some instances it’s been the only reason we stayed in print. We could do what most publications do and sell ads to boost our bottom line, but The Sun hasn’t carried advertising since 1990, and we have no interest in going back. The absence of ads in our pages is more than just a principled stand against consumerism. It’s an essential part of what we offer readers every month: a chance to get away from the temptation to keep buying and focus instead on what keeps us going, in good times and bad.
My father died a few days after he made the joke about martinis. For years the refinished trunk sat in my living room, where it held blankets and children’s toys the way it had once held the loss I’d had no other place to put. When adversity or heartbreak comes along, there are many ways to make it through: refinishing a trunk, talking with a friend, reading a magazine like The Sun.
P.S. You can also donate online at thesunmagazine.org/donate. Your gift is tax-deductible, and we’ll send a receipt for your records.