Travel tip #108…Know when to say goodbye

It’s my last night in my childhood home.

I’m getting ready to sleep in the basement bedroom that my dad built for my brother in the 1970s when he needed teenage privacy. The rest of the basement is unfinished, and as a child I would run up those stairs at a sprint to avoid the monstrous hands I imagined grabbing for my feet through the open treads. Every time I made it to the safe refuge of the ground floor, it felt like victory.

My own room was upstairs. It was pumpkin orange and I remember waiting to fall asleep as my parents listened to the 10 o’clock news in the living room down the hall. My young mind heard reports of guerilla warfare and I imagined giant militant apes jacking up my bedroom in the dark of night and hauling me back to their jungle camps.

There was the thrill of staying up late enough to see my digital clock turn to 12:34…those magical, sequential numbers. The clock wasn’t actually LED, but a rolodex of painted panels that would flip every 60 seconds to record the passing minutes. In time, I grew older and so did the clock. Individual panels fell out and 12:34 no longer existed on that clock…nor did the thrill of staying up to that hour.

My parents bought this 900 square foot rambler before it was finished for about $12,000. My dad was in grad school and the down payment was his agreement to paint the house…somehow…in the midst of defending his thesis.

There was a tornado when I was in middle school that damaged homes two doors down but ours was ok. There was a weeping willow in the front yard that I used to swing on like Tarzan. It became diseased and was replaced by a Crimson King Maple and later by an Autumn Blaze.

There was a winter with snow so deep we carved out forts in the snow banks. The work itself was fun but once the forts were complete, we sat inside, damp and cold, wondering what to do next.

There was the day I broke a living room lamp and ran to my room afraid of what would happen next, but the punishment never came.

I remember standing on a stool in the bathroom beside my dad, face lathered with Gillette shaving cream. I tried to mimmic his facial contortions as I scraped away the foam with an empty safety razor. “You want to shave now,” he said. “But there will be a day when you wish you didn’t have to.”

Somewhere in the pile of boxes, there is a photograph of my 4-year-old self wearing a pink cowboy suit with silver fringe, standing self-consciously in the front yard. It was taken just before my first (and last) tap dance recital. I didn’t look very hard for it.

I began each morning sitting cross-legged on the living room floor, watching Fury and Lassie on the TV while my mom delivered Lucky Charms and Tang on a tray so I didn’t have to miss a thing. My cat, Hot Rod, waited until I had finished the last marshmallows (I saved those for the end) and she was rewarded with the sweet milk left in my bowl.

My mom’s been gone for almost a decade but my dad stayed in the house. It’s been his home for 50 years, but now it’s time to say goodbye. Tomorrow, he’ll move into assisted living. His goal had been to stay in the house as long as it made sense, and it no longer makes sense.

He knew that. He saw it coming and made the decision himself.

A child never wants to tell their parent it’s time to leave. A host never wants to tell a guest the party’s over. It’s good to know when to say goodbye.

I’m glad that my dad is ready, but I’m not sure that I am.

I’ll stay a few more nights as we get the house ready for sale. It won’t be the same because Dad will be moved out. Already the walls are bare and the cribbage board that has delivered me more humility than pride is packed in a cardboard box.

Nothing lasts forever. Leave them wanting more…that’s what they always say.

If memories took up physical space, we’d need more boxes for this move.

5 thoughts

  1. Very timely. We closed on my dad’s house yesterday. I had to firmly resist the urge to drive over before the closing and use the key I still had to take “one last peek.” I had said my goodbyes a few weeks ago, so I just kept driving. I also had to hold back the tears when I met the young woman who was buying the house–I wanted to tell her how much it meant to us and that I hoped she and her children would love it like we did. But I knew the floodgates would open so again I resisted. When all was signed, and the keys were finally handed over I saw a big relief in my dad’s eyes. Tears too, but not for long. I’ll keep sending good thoughts your way until that key of your dad’s is handed over to the next lucky family.

  2. So many thoughts about this flood of memories in your childhood home. Yes, it’s good to know when to say goodbye and I can only hope that I will know the time for myself so that my daughter does not have to make the decision for me. On my 70th birthday my daughter took me to my childhood home, gone to me since 1965, and we toured it. It was fun to tell her about the house and what had changed and remarkably what hadn’t which was the wallpaper in my parent’s closet! Memories take up the space of our hearts. Sometimes even that is too full. Sending you good energy as you give over this part of your life to history.

    • Thanks Catherine. What a gift to return to your childhood home after so many years! When we sold my grandparents home 20 years ago, I found a dried out, rolled up piece of ham I had tucked into the basement rafters at their 50th anniversary party 18 years before (I was 9). S’pose it was a good sign that they never had mice in the basement.

  3. When my wife and I bought our first (and current) house many years ago from an elderly couple, we sensed their melancholy and pain at leaving their longtime home for a nearby assisted living center.

    Weeks later, as I was poking around in the basement of our new home, I spied a scrap of cardboard tucked among the ceiling joists. Scribed in careful letters with a Sharpie marker, it read: “This house has provided me with memories that I will cherish for the rest of my life. Please give this home every opportunity to allow you the same pleasures. Signed, Bill.” It was dated the day after the mortgage closing.

    I left the note where I found it, though I look at it again from time to time. And I sometimes recall it when I’m struggling with a broken pipe or light switch, and when enjoying a drink on the shady deck that Bill built …

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