not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
The weekend before last, I went up to Flagstaff to visit my mom and celebrate my birthday (a few weeks late, but I was busy). With all four kids out of the house, she’s downsizing, moving to a nearby neighborhood that’s closer to her parents and isn’t filled with empty bedrooms. When I arrived, she was almost done, though she said it didn’t feel that way. I suppose you never feel that close to the finish line when you still have to move a piano, but most of the rooms were cleared out by the time I arrived, the carpets ready for steam-cleaning and the rooms blocked off so the dogs couldn’t try to pee in them.
We moved into that house in 2000, and the twelve years my mom has lived there is the longest space of time I’ve considered any particular place “home.” Today I realized I would probably never see the inside of that house again.
It’s strange how places you’ve lived in for a long time can seem charged with significance even after everything that made them yours has been stripped away. By the time I left, the only thing left in my room was a spheroid candle that I think I got as a Christmas present around 2004. It had never been lit once, because I’m absent minded enough that if I had ever lit candles as a child, I would have forgotten about them and burned the house down. I can’t even remember why anyone would have given it to me. The rest of the room was completely bare, and for the first time I could see the entirety of the Mercator-projection map that completely covered one of my walls. So now I know what Australia looks like. Everything else that could have brought up any memories of the room was gone, but I still felt like the air was somehow different there than anyplace else in the world, that the specific yellowish off-white color of the overhead light was utterly unique. I remembered retreating here when I felt defeated by the world, listening to albums on my six-CD stereo (so very awesome), reading countless books under the light of my bedside lamp, including Stephen King’s On Writing, the book that made me realize I wanted to be a writer, and made me think it was possible. When I recall those days, it seemed as though possibility was a tangible thing, something you could just barely taste in the air, or feel playing along the surface of your skin. I remembered my first attempts at keeping a journal in this room, typing on an eight-year-old former family computer until my interest in the journal petered out after 5-7 entries (this would become a pattern).
I found the journal entries, too. Fortunately, they’re stored on 3.5″ floppy disks, so my natural instinct for choosing the exact wrong technology spared me the embarrassment of finding out what I was actually like in high school. With any luck, this instinct hasn’t failed me, and wordpress.com will go out of business the day after I finish my 100th entry.
The concept of “home” has always been somewhat dilute for me. The first twelve years of my life, I lived in eight different locations spread across five different cities. Even though I’ve considered this last house my home longer than any other, I lived there permanently for only one year, and always had at least one other place I called home. When my parents divorced around 2001, us kids changed houses weekly, and when I moved to college “home” became more like a drop-off station for everything that couldn’t fit in the dorm. To this day, nothing feels like home quite like stepping through the front door with a duffel bag, walking it straight to my room, and falling on the bed for about five minutes before wandering back towards the kitchen. Now that both my mom and dad have moved out of my childhood homes, nothing’s ever going to feel quite that way again.
Not that it’s a sensation I’m unfamiliar with; I always seem to get emotional when I’m leaving a place, even if I haven’t been there for that long, even if the whole nature of my stay was temporary. I still remember crying when we left a rental house in Steamboat Springs, Colorado… to move into another house about 2 miles away. I tend to stay in one place when given the choice; even though I’ve supposedly been trying to get out of Arizona since 2005, the fact that I’m still here says something about how active those efforts have been. Should I have been traveling this whole time? Will I still be here a year from now? I don’t know. I’m not sure where exactly I would want to go.
These are always the most vivid memories I have of houses, entering and leaving. That’s probably true for most people. You don’t tend to think of all the times you were just existing, bothered by a dozen things and trying to focus on six others, just a little more noise coming down the hall that you want to hear, trying not to think about how late you were going to have to stay up to get all your homework done. Location means less when it’s static. Just as you start to take the beauty of the Grand Canyon for granted after camping there for a week, you don’t really think about the things around you unless there’s some awareness you won’t be seeing them for a while, or possibly ever again. The last time I visited my dad, his dog (who’d been around a little bit longer than the house) was really sick. When I said goodbye to her, I thought about all the times I’d spent with her in the same house, the same room, and had ignored her or not even seen her. And now I was saying goodbye, and I had to go, and there was time give her one last hug and kiss, rub her belly (avoiding the tumor), tell her she was a good dog. And then it was time to go. I could have stayed, but how long can you take to say goodbye to your dog, knowing it’s the last time you’re going to see her? Would any amount of time be long enough? So I kissed her goodbye, patted her, told her she was a good dog. Two weeks later she died.
There are the truly terrible memories associated with any house as well, but not too many of them, and they don’t come up often: despite what Shirley Jackson, Peter Straub, and plenty of other horror writers have told us, houses swallow their ghosts quite easily. I can pass by the basement a few dozen times without thinking of my dad milling around down there playing pool, waiting for us to go to sleep so he could start setting up his bed on the couch without us seeing it. And that’s so long ago now that it’s not even a bad memory, just curious- remember when there were six people living in this house? Most of the bad ones just don’t come back.
When I came by two weekends ago, my mom spent most of her time sorting through a vast collection of papers and files that had piled up in her room over the last twelve years. Most of them had little recognizable purpose, many had been important at one point but were no longer necessary, and a few were perfect little instances of nostalgia. There was one note from the oldest of my three younger sisters to my mom: Dear Mom, I’m not mad at you. Let’s talk when you get off the phone. Love, Kiki. Even though I couldn’t remember the exact provenance of this note, I instantly knew the context: during the first onset of her teenage rebellion, my sister would have long drawn-out shouting matches with my mom that would end with my sister storming to her room and my mom having loud phone conversations with her friends and family about how unreasonable my sister was being. If my sister overheard my mom’s version of events, she would inevitably get mad and start handing notes to my mom “correcting” the story, until my mom would tell the person on the phone “I have to call you back” and the two of them would resume yelling.
It was sad, funny, and oddly touching, thinking about how this piece of passive-aggressive baiting survived God knows how many years in the same room. While the memories it brought back weren’t exactly pleasant, getting to think of them again somehow was. It makes you realize how small most conflicts are at their core, how yesterday’s Serious Business is tomorrow’s piece of paper that you’re trying not to laugh at too hard in front of your mom. “This is why it’s so hard to pack everything up,” she said, sounding almost wistful. But that’s also what makes the packing up worthwhile: it unearths everything that made this place belong to us, and it leaves some of that everything behind it, as though suffused throughout the air. No matter how much we take with us, the rooms we leave behind will never be the same.