The Shit that Matters

Kent Dahlgren
6 min readNov 17, 2022

Weird shit happens when people die, you know? Families rip themselves apart fighting over stuff, and it’s weird, of course I’m not much of a “stuff” person in the first place.

Same with money. Maybe this is why I don’t care much for it. I’ve learned that most people won’t gift it unless you opt into dehumanizing conditions, like it’s some sort of power play.

And if you have a lot of money, most people care more for the money than they do for you, and make for the door just as soon as it runs out, consistent with the values of our culture.

So when people die you get to see the absolute worst in people as they battle it out over a dead person’s stuff (and their money), and often they are battling it out over bullshit that ain’t worth it in the first place.

Case in point: when my paternal grandmother died my father and his brother revealed their true selves, and it was ugly, all the more so because my grandfather was forced to mediate a discussion between myself and my father, after losing his wife of 60+ years, regarding a number of easily-disproven falsehoods he and his brother claimed as part of some weird powerplay over … my grandma’s kitschy stuff.

And to put things in context: their mom had just died. People are weird.

In his wisdom, my paternal grandfather (and namesake Roy) ordained me co-executor of his estate when he died, a couple years later, side by side with my father, who seethed for years over the indignity of the experience, probably like he’s still seething about the time I threw a party at his house, in 1985.

Which is fine. By my reckoning, I’d been bequeathed the only thing I think matters: my grandma Val’s 40+ years of genealogy, which fills seven cases with her hand-written research.

And actually, I’d been through the loss of a “parent” a few years prior; I lost my maternal grandmother a decade or so before, and for me the loss of Ruth was the loss of a mother I never had.

What you’re looking at is an item that was overlooked by family that was grappling it out over stuff, gifted to me by my maternal grandfather, who had just lost his wife (Ruth).

He and I had actually discussed this when Ruth was still alive, as we’d discussed how much pressure he was to remain in the family home after her death, which we agreed was a bad idea, because he didn’t want to be committed to a museum of how things were when Ruth died, trapped in amber, so to speak.

My grandma had an old cookbook and for decades visitors to their home would sign their names, indicating that they’d paid a visit. One can trace the history of my family back a generation or two just by reading the names and notes of each visit, back 60 years or more.

My grandparents’ home was a few blocks above the Goonies house, in Astoria, Oregon, and the view of the river was picturesque, the home itself was iconic, the front yard host to the largest monkey puzzle tree west of the Mississippi River. The thing was enormous.

Visitors to my grandparents’ home were treated consistent with the ancient tradition of hospitality, and my grandma and grandpa considered it an honor to be OF SERVICE to their guests, which is different than being servants; a lesson missed by most.

My grandma Ruth was born just south of Lubbock, Texas, during the Great Depression, and her father died when she was a few months old.

The extended family in those days invested years to make sure that my great-grandmother Vaughn did not lose her family and her farm, and by degrees the family relocated in Oregon, which is how my line came to come to the Pacific Northwest.

My grandma was mostly self-taught, committed to reading every book in Astoria’s library, and she savored each experience to learn new things from each new visitor to her home.

She was a person of rare quality, and as her first grandson, she invested considerable time teaching me or simply listening to me, whenever she could.

I cannot emphasize enough how much I needed that focus and attention at that phase in my life.

Each visit she’d reach for the cookbook I now hold, asking that I sign my name, and I would, carefully fit between evidence of visits made by many others.

You’re looking at the final passages in the cookbook, leading up to the weeks prior to my grandma Ruth’s death, at 69.

She died in the fall of 1997, just a few months before the birth of my first son, Ezra. I was still married to his mother at the time, and we paid a visit, with her parents.

My grandma Ruth waited on them, consistent with her values, serving them fresh crab, and told none of us that she was in a state of agony, due to stomach cancer. We were shocked to learn of her advanced state soon afterwards.

It’s years later, and in the end I have just a few possessions, such as this cookbook, and an old wooden bowl that my grandma Ruth used to sit in as a child when they’d play in the snow. Family story goes that it was a wedding gift. Plus my grandma Val’s 40+ years of genealogy.

That’s it, but that’s all that I want, because while I’ve experienced divorce and loss, I’ve been able to hold onto the only thing that matters most to me: my kids, and the values that my family once held as unique, which distinguished them from the rest.

This is the why of the story:

Five years ago I was sleeping in my 90's-era SUV because I’d been ejected from my home, and locked out of my finances.

I was not afraid of the homeless; many of them are veterans, and I remain friends with many I met when I was sleeping outdoors; I was mostly afraid of some meddling person calling 911 or complaining about me to Next Door.

I wasn’t mentally ill, as claimed, but I WAS in a state of distress, because I’d come to realize that my marriage was failing at the same time my eldest son was moving out of the house, and insult to injury: I was callously ejected, because it was deemed “just as well.”

Calls went unanswered, five years later are STILL unanswered, and yet due to the charity of a single person I found a place to sleep indoors (thanks Mike!).

I’d love it if you’d hold onto that: the charity of a single person.

We only barely reconciled, but were forced to move to Texas in a state of economic duress as we found ourselves priced out of Portland, and not nine months later the girls mom left, filed divorce, and again: if not for the charity of a single person (Trudy) I would have again been homeless.

Again, calls went unanswered. Calls remain unanswered.

What came THIS CLOSE to being lost forever? My grandma Ruth’s wooden bowl and her cookbook, and Val’s 40+ years of genealogy.

My eldest daughter in the “treen” bowl that was gifted to an ancestor as a wedding gift, so goes the family story. Same treen bowl my grandma Ruth sat in as a child.

Think about this for a minute when you cheer the sweep of yet another homeless camp, ok? There’s a better way than simply dumping everything into a Dumpster and arresting the campers.

Better yet, walk some of these camps, and you’ll find clutches of children’s photos. When I do, I squat and ask them to tell me about the kids, and nine times out of ten, the people cry.

Shit ain’t what it seems, and for some folks all they need is the charity of one person to make a difference.

Look closely and you’ll see the signature of my uncle Curt, who died alone, date unknown and therefore approximated, because a neighbor complained of the smell of his decomposing body.

Curt was my Grandma Ruth’s youngest son, and I liked Curt a great deal. Vietnam vet, wrestled in high school, order of the arrow in the Boy Scouts.

Curt’s flag being handed to his father, my grandpa Henry
My uncle Curt in my grandma Ruth’s house, in 1970. A friend to all.

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Kent Dahlgren

Product management fix-it guy. World-famous people skills. Extremely small hands. (edit) marketing lady says I’m also supposed to say “CEO of software company”