September 13, 2007
I spent last week down in Texas packing up my childhood house. My parents built the place when I was 12 and ever since it’s been home for me. When we moved there the roads were dirt and the nearest neighbor was over a mile away. 28 years later the woods behind the house are still wild full of coyotes and snake and deer, but the city has moved closer, other mailboxes dot the road, and the nights are less dark. It is hard to pack up a house you have lived in so long. What do do with the junk drawer by the kitchen not so much full of junk, but of small memories?
And this house had another burden. It was where my mother and brother died. With them much of the life of the house was frozen. My mother was constantly reinventing the place, in fact she had planned to build a new house and sell this one, but my dad, after the deaths, perhaps out of comfort or perhaps out of a need to hold on, changed very little. So for the last 17 years the house has been almost a museum piece. My room was exactly as I left it when I drove away to college. My brother Christopher’s room remained full of his unfinished model planes, a kite ready to fly, and stacks of astronomy magazines none dated later than 1989. What do do with all this stuff, so sentiment-laden and yet inert?
I received the call that the house was sold and I was needed to pack it up at the worst possible time. We’re moving here too (just a few blocks away but of course we still have to pack everything), so instead of the normal amount of time we would give ourselves to do such a job, we only had 3 days. I was dreading the flight, dreading the 2 hour drive from Houston, dreading the drive into the dark pines. We flew into thunderstorm-the type of pounding rain and violent thunder you only see in Texas. The drive was long, but of course familiar and pulling into the driveway I was, as always, shocked by the size of the trees. The house is surrounded by forest but the trees close to the house were planted by us. I remember the magnolia as a sapling. Now it towers some 30 feet. The dogwoods have canopies. The holly tree is so big some limbs have fallen. The heat at this time of year in Texas was oppressive and lends a heavy quiet to things. The dirt dobbers were busy building their mud tubes. Hummingbirds were buzzing everywhere. There have always been hummingbirds.
Opening the door, the slight cedar smell overwhelmed. I was home. I looked down at my childhood handprint in one of the tiles on the floor. My 2 1/2 year old ran into the house, "Daddy’s old house", going from room to room, pulling toys and books from the shelves, and mixing things up that had been so carefully kept apart for years. Within minutes he had set up a fort of sorts and was happily engrossed. And seeing him playing in rooms that have not been enjoyed in so long suddenly made the whole task easier. We would be clearing the way for another family to live there—to fill the place with their stories as we once did before the house became immobilized in memory. With that thought, it became easier to give away what needed to be given away, to pack what needed to be packed, and to finally say goodbye.