She and her sisters are selling their parents' home in Pennsylvania, where they moved when my friend was ten. I spoke with her this morning and she told me that, as much as she wants to come home to Texas, she cannot bring herself to make the actual travel arrangements to return. The problem is that when she leaves, she will be leaving the house for the last time, never to return. "I didn't think it would be so hard leaving this old, empty house for the last time after fifty-three years of it being home." She is sleeping in the old home each night rather than going to one of her sisters' houses. "It's as if Mom, Dad and I are alone in the house and I am absorbing memories. I relive events with every item I pack in every box."
My friend is a strong woman and will be able to take those memories and weave them into something beautiful for her children and grandchildren. As difficult as it may be, I believe she is experiencing a wonderful opportunity that not all of us get to have. Too often when our parents die, the "old home" has already been sold or other arrangements have been made for a quick transition. We don't get to say "goodbye" to the house and firmly plant its memories in our minds. But even absent that experience, those childhood home memories can be exceptionally strong.
Sometimes when my head is full and my thoughts will not turn off so I can sleep, I push them all away by staging a walk-through of my childhood home. I go through the house, room by room, recalling every detail that I can: the pattern of the kitchen flooring, the fabric on the furniture, the paintings and pictures on the walls. Much of our house was wall-papered, so I try to recall not only prints, but stains and tears on the well-worn coverings. I go through all the rooms downstairs and then venture up, stepping on each stair, knowing which ones creaked. My bedroom was there, just at the top of the stairs on the right and I see it decorated in my "hippy phase" when I was in the ninth grade -- beaded curtains, fuzzy "hang ten" foot-shaped rugs in hot pink and purple. Further down the hall I see my sisters' rooms and the bathroom we shared. I see the linen cabinet that we had to make sure was always closed because our little brother had a peep hole in the back, accessed from the closet in the adjoining room. It never worked just to plug the hole, he always found a way to open it again. This exercise works surprisingly well and soon I am asleep, usually before I make it all the way through the house.
Several years ago my oldest sister and I went on a fall foliage tour in Door County, Wisconsin. Door county is a beautiful penninsula that juts out into Lake Michigan whose rocky coastline and scenery is very much like New England. In a gallery one day, I came across the works of a watercolor artist named Charles L. Peterson. He had a series of paintings named "Memories." They featured colorful scenes of old homes, churches, schools, train stations, etc. with translucent images of the people who once lived and worked in them. It is as if they are ghosts of the past, bidding us to remember. Here is a scan of one of his works, entitled "Family Reunion." I hope you can see the "ghosts" of the children playing in the yard and the adults sitting on the porch or going in and out of the house.
|"Family Reunion" by Charles L. Peterson, copyright 1997|
So this is how I see my friend, taking in all those familiar and compelling images that are whispering to her. Listen and remember and, when you are ready, come back home. We miss you.