Our family lovingly call the house I grew up in just by its address, 1203.
A few years ago, I, like many people, had to say goodbye to a home I’d loved.
I’d done it before. I’d departed several homes, either due to moves or divorces. I’m a “nester” like many people, and am just damn sentimental. But this house I’d grown up in.
It felt different somehow.
This home held fifty-eight years of memories for my family, fifty-three of which I’d been part of creating. My parents had moved into it days after my oldest brother Adam was born, and they lived there until they died in 2007.
That’s lots of memories.
I drove over to 1203 alone. The huge oaks that used to encircle the house were mostly gone, leaving the yard looking vacant as I still expected to see their draping branches. Memories of that lawn come flooding back as I walked around: watching my brothers play football (they would only let me be “cheerleader”); furiously peddling my tricycle away from a mean dog while screaming at the top of my lungs; swinging on a bag swing tied up in the tree, aiming of course to get as high as I could; clearing a huge pile of branches after an ice storm with my then three year-old son. I walked around, remembering imaginary forts, drop-the-handkerchief birthday games, tears shed on the front porch.
I didn’t know what to expect when I put the key in the lock. It had been years since I’d opened the back door. The alarm blared incessantly when I entered, until I got my brother Adam on the phone. I’d, once again, forgotten the code. He, for probably the hundredth time, patiently gave it to me.
1203 was dark and quiet, with soft light filtering in through shuttered windows that still wore the drapes that my mother had chosen. I took pictures as I moved from room to room. Of course I cried; I had always loved this house.
I walked into the big kitchen where, as a child, I sat shelling (probably only a few) peas as I watched and learned how to fix proper Southern food from the black women I loved, and who worked for my parents, Pauline and Ernestine and Marie. The pantry door was open, and as I closed it, reflexively my hand knew the “trick” to get it to stay shut. Turn the knob to the left as you close the door and jiggle it a little.
Even my body remembered this place.
The breakfast room. Gosh. We actually sat down and ate dinner together, every night, in this separate room designated specifically for families to gather just as we did. Dad read his paper and chatted about the day. I sat across from my brothers, probably trying to kick them under the table, or they, me. My mother, always the one for manners, watching us carefully.
My bedroom seemed smaller. And the long center hall? Just how many times had I yelled out, “Mom, I’m home!” and expected to see her sitting in her chair at the end of that hall. You could tell that Dad was there as well if you could hear the strains of Beethoven or Stravinsky coming from the stereo.
So many memories — in every room.
Elegant dinner parties where we’d be ordered to stay upstairs so we’d put our ears to the bare floor to try to hear the adults talk. Smooching in the den with a boyfriend, cautiously listening for Mother’s step coming down the hall. Dad marching in his boxers to John Philip Sousa in their bedroom, me giggling hysterically. My mom slapping me for cussing when we were both standing in my closet. Arguments. Serious talks. The night Dad had a heart attack and he walked, grey-faced, down that center hall — by himself thank you — to go to the hospital.
Both parents grew more frail as they aged, fighting their separate battles — using their own brands of courage. Both died in their own bedroom, just as they desired.
When there were no more rooms to walk through, and my heart was full, I realized that those memories — good, hurtful or indifferent — didn’t belong to this physical space, or this house. They were, and are, mine. When you say goodbye to anyone, any place or anything, whether through death, distance, or design, whatever shaped you from that experience, remains yours.
One of the most chilling moments of Forrest Gump was the scene in which the character Jenny threw rocks at her family’s old house — a house where horrible abuse had occurred, a house that had never been a safe home.
We all make choices about what we carry with us — whether or not you truly say goodbye, or carry pain around with us. It’s not, at times, easy. Far from it. As Forrest said, “Sometimes I guess there are just aren’t enough rocks.”
Yet it’s a choice. You can stay connected to the good, grieve the hurtful and let go of the indifferent. Or you can never say goodbye, and stay kidnapped by the past.
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