My parents are moving out of the house I grew up in.
I lived there for 20 years. They’ve been there even longer, so it should be harder for them, but I feel like my very identity is sewn into those walls. (Resisting the urge to burst into song, here: Written in these walls are the stories that I can’t explain…)
Last week I visited for the last time. We walked around and chose things to keep. They’re downsizing to a condo, so a lot is going to be sold, but there are… things. That deserve to stay in the family. I took pictures of most of them.
This is The Fish. It is a stuffed and lacquered striped bass that my dad caught when I was around four years old. It’s fucking huge. It became the mascot of the house, in a way, always sporting a decoration of the season (Santa, cobwebs, flag, party hat). We’re not selling The Fish—it’ll probably end up at our Michigan vacation cabin, as it should.
This is the kitchen shrine to fish. My dad’s been obsessed with fishing for as long as I can remember, and he relayed the obsession onto his daughters. Two of those pictures are me. There are also fish salt and pepper shakers, a fish bottle opener, a fish teapot, and various other things. Even the cabinet knobs in our kitchen had fish on them. We were serious about this shit.
This is our ash tree, featuring the cow-painted swing. Before the swing there was just a rope, and my dad actually dug a fucking hole in the back yard and filled it with water so we could swing from the rope into the water. We had the best birthday parties ever. Everyone wanted to be us.
This dogwood tree was vital to our games of “Don’t touch the lava”. The frogs weren’t there back then, but if they had been they would have made the whole task of crossing the lava a whole lot easier.
This is the no-man’s-land between our house and the neighbors’. Used to be much more overgrown, and a great space for playing “lost”, although every time the air conditioning unit broke we blamed the machine and not the fact that we often sat on top of it.
The dining room cabinet where we kept our china was always filled with bizarre objects like kokopelli statues and lacquered dead puffer fish. On the second shelf is a Native American hogan I crafted out of sticks and leaves when I was in second grade.
We hardly ever used the fireplace growing up, but it was nice to have it anyway because it meant there was a mantle, and everyone should have a mantle, if only to display bizarre objects and playfully blasphemous recreations of the Nativity scene.
The grand piano that eventually got so out of tune it became a receptacle for photos and lamps that had nowhere else to go. All my sisters and I attempted piano at one point. It was sort of the thing to do. I gave up after five years.
My mom got really into the 50s one year and made us all poodle skirts. Then she bought a vintage jukebox that played actual 7-inch records, and all our birthday parties became sock-hops. Chuck Berry, The Beatles, and Dan Fogelberg records were slowly replaced (as we grew up) by things like Nelson (“I can’t live without your looooove”) and the Young Cannibals. We really should have stuck with Fogelberg.
The hall coat closet, perfectly built for Sardines. We played Sardines a lot—it’s like Hide and Seek, except everyone hides in the spot with the first person (crushed in like a can of sardines, natch). This closet was big enough for all of us and almost always ended up being the hiding place. Let me tell you, Sardines is a fucking terrifying game, especially when you’re the last one standing and there are ghostly calls of “Sardiiiiines” coming from the end of the hallway.
The room with the angled roof—my very first bedroom and the reason for so many headaches and forehead bruises. (It’s now called “The Groovy Doods Room”, thus christened because my sisters and I built a clubhouse in the small forest in our backyard and insisted that the sign read THE GROOVY DOODS. Our password was “tropicana punchbird”.) The ceiling followed the top of our Tudor-style roof almost exactly, so there were corners and sharp angles in all the wrong places. It’s a cool fucking room, but very inconvenient, as my dad discovered many times.
S’my mom pointing out the leftovers from when Dad hit his head on the ceiling and proceeded to punch his fist right through the plaster. “FUCK THIS FUCKING CEILING!” It was a traumatic experience for many, but I think I was too caught up in a book to care.
The master bedroom and my mother’s gigantic wooden desk where she kept her bills and letters. I was convinced that desk represented my future. I would grow up and get a giant wooden desk with letter slots, and being an adult wouldn’t be so bad as long as I kept organized and sat at my giant wooden desk. (Adult’s note: it doesn’t work like that.)
The true pride and joy of the master bedroom was this closet, seemingly demure and often stuffed full of my father’s suit jackets, with a little door in the side of it. That, ladies and gentlemen, was our attic. I can’t tell you how awesome and secure it made me feel to know that even if a werewolf or axe murderer chased me up the stairs, I could go into the attic and move the coats to cover the door and disappear completely, safe and sound.
We got our first real computer when I was 16, and it stayed in the master bedroom with my parents. This meant long, long hours sitting at this desk checking email and message boards—sometimes IMing so enthusiastically I would still be there when my parents tried to go to sleep at 10pm. They had to kick me out. I was on dial-up. Those were the days, man.
The screened-in porch, where my professional photographer mother would set up countless posed shots of me and my sisters—naked, half-naked, clothed, contemplative, ridiculous—sitting in that very swing chair. It became a kind of photo studio to the point where I was reluctant to go onto the porch for fear she would corner me and snap a pose or blind me with a flash. She always insisted I would be grateful for the photos when I got older. Don’t tell her, but I really am.
The basement stairs. Dude. The number of times my teenage friends went up and down these stairs to grab beers from the downstairs fridge is only matched by how many terrified exits I made in haste from what I was sure was something monstrous and unnamable chasing me— perhaps a specter grown from the graffiti-laden walls—as I grabbed the bannister like a life vest and came careening out of the dark.
When we moved in there was neon paint all over the walls and a very small and dirty toilet in this corner surrounded by a curtain. My parents explained it away by saying whoever lived here before had been “hippies”. I just thought it was awesome that there was a toilet in the basement.
For years and years my family made crazy Halloween displays in the front yard, which often entailed carving wooden characters. The year we did the Trojan wall we painted heroes as designed from a children’s book from the 1960s, like this Menelaus. I still have that book, though it’s falling apart. It shaped my understanding of Greek mythology, and shaped my parents’ basement.
The Alice in Wonderland laundry room, thus conceived and built because the old “fossil lab” was lost in the horrible Nashville floods of 2005. That lab was home to not only fossils, but all my childhood pets (hamster after subsituted hamster), vintage original Return of the Jedi toys, and a horribly vibrant red carpet that housed much rabbit poop and fossil shavings. Why is it always the color of the carpet that stands out in so many of my memories?
Before we all moved out and my dad moved his woodworking projects in, the basement was our exercise circle. Dad poured concrete ramps onto the steps in both spots where the lower half connected to the top half, and my sisters and I rode our vehicles around in circles until we wanted to vomit. Sometimes Cindi Lauper was blasting from a boom box. Sometimes we put our bikes and trikes aside and cut musical instruments out of styrofoam. But I love that the basement was always in a circle, round and round the staircase down, giving it the kind of centrifugal force that led me, later on, to have vivid dreams about escaping my enemies by standing in the center and blending in.
i feel particularly close to these guys, even covered up by wood carvings, because I helped cut and paint them. Achilles and Hector, my childhood idols. Made life-size for Halloween and relegated to the mythological underworld of a basement.
I’m not sure what’s going to happen to our giant painted Greek and Trojan heroes. My mom mentioned putting them into storage. But I like to think that Achilles and Hector are still there, running around the same track we made for our plastic three-wheelers, passing through the old stone like familiar shapes on a shadow screen.
Of course, there are so many things I can’t depict in photos. I peeled locust shells off of the cross-hatched back porch as if I could rescue them from their already-shedded future. I hit my head on the ceiling every time I crossed the threshold to my bed. I loved the front landing at the bottom of the stairs because it became a stage—ready-made for exits, perfect for speeches and race rewards and cardboard displays, the focal point for games of tag, the entryway for plays and musicals my sisters and I composed by ourselves for fun.
It’s like the vivid past is being suctioned out of my chest with a hoover. Is this how books feel when they’re rifled through and sold to a used store? Is this the culmination of what has formed me? Just a house on the market.
Running after you is like chasing the clouds…