Thursday, January 16, 2014

Goodbye, House

I watched an elderly gentleman say goodbye to his house this morning. He sat in his chair while his friend scurried around, packing him for a trip across the country to live in a facility near relatives. He made jokes about leaving his nutrition supplements for the new owners to gobble down or throw away, whichever they choose. He smoked one last cigarette, rose from his chair, walked out the door, and stopped one more time to say goodbye to the place that has been home for the past 25 years. In his confused mental state, he seemed fine. I, on the other hand, struggled not to cry.

My mother was a child of the depression. Born in 1924, most of her childhood was spent moving from house to house and, at times, town to town, as work and money necessitated. Then she married my father, a Navy pilot, just after WWII and their life took her around the country, like a sampler platter of regional living. Pensacola, Key West, Corpus Christi, New Orleans, Monterey, Boston, Quansett Point, Lakehurst, Norfolk. It was the life of a Navy wife, after all.

In 1954 my father left active duty and they moved back to her hometown. Her parents had just built a this newfangled house called a rancher in a new neighborhood set down in what had been a cornfield, less than a mile from the Tennessee River. They gave my parents the lot next door to their house and on that lot my parents build their own rancher and my childhood home.

My father moved out in 1977. My parents divorced. But my mother stayed on. By 2009 my mother was 85 and having some difficulty living alone but moving to a more manageable place or an assisted living facility was out of the question. This was her home.

When she walked out the door in March of that year, for what she thought was a possibly unnecessary trip to the ER, she didn't know she would never return. I'm glad that she didn't.

There are no words to describe what is like to sift through the contents of a life. Everywhere I looked, everything I touched was a reminder of my mother and of my childhood. As a child of the depression, my mother didn't get rid of much. Oh, she was plenty tidy and exceedingly clean (even a bit of a germophobe), but crammed into every closet and every drawer and in boxes and bins and giant, giant garbage cans were things she just might need one day.

Such was the work cut out for my sister and me. Every item we picked up required a decision. Is this trash or not? If not, do we keep it or give it away? If we keep it, who gets it (there are four of us sibling)? If we give it away, where do we take it? Who will give the best receipts for tax purposes for the settlement of the estate? Is there anything that nobody wants that might be valuable that we should try and sell? The decisions were endless and the work exhausting, physically, but even more so, emotionally.

I never dreamed letting go would be so hard. For so many years that house meant to me nothing but pain and heartache, with a good bit of a creep factor thrown in for good measure. (There were enough mystery noises to keep my overactive imagination in good form and the spiral stairway to the basement was enough to give even the toughest guy the willies.) But somehow, sitting there and piece by piece carting away my childhood, the pain and the fear were gone (well, not totally gone, I got creeped out at night) and in their place was just a wistful longing and a hesitation to let go.

For a while you could go to Google Street View, plug in the address and see, not only the house, but my mother standing in the driveway, her little dog Maggie by her side. When we first noticed this, about a year before she died, we complained to Google, concerned that this photo might compromise her security (little old lady living alone in nice rancher in good neighborhood), but they did nothing. After she died, we were thankful. For a while we could still go visit her at home, if only via cyberspace.

Google has updated their photos. The house is in new hands. The bits and pieces, the earthen vessels of memories, have been scattered to those of us who are left. It has been four years since I let go and yet there are times when there isn't anything I wouldn't give to go back just one more time.

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