My friend and fraternity brother David Whitlock (that’s DR. Whitlock to you…) wrote a blog post/newspaper article that really hit home to me. He had to go “home” to help his brother and sister-in-law clear out the family home. He called his “Empty Rooms and Memories” (note my shameless ripoff of his title). His post is really excellent; you can read it here.
I’ve lived in Houston for 4 years now. August 6, 2007. My Mother’s birthday, August 6. She always loved her birthday, she celebrated hers for a week and did the same for ours. We always tried (with varying degrees of success---mostly failure---) to find a present that she would like. As I said---with mixed results at best.
The house at 939 E. Sullenberger was bought new by my grandparents in 1948. It was an emergency stop-gap, really; he had accepted a job in Texas and they sold their house on McBee St. and were preparing to move---and his old boss came to see him, begged him to stay, promised him the sun, moon, and stars---and he accepted. So suddenly they had to have a place to stay and these little houses had just been completed. They bought one, intending to live there a year or two and keep looking for something they wanted.
They never left.
In 1979, my Grandfather died (Granny died in ‘72) and Dad inherited his parents’ place. He and Mother had been warring for several years over where to move when they retired---she wanted to move back to Dallas and he wanted a small fishing village somewhere on the Texas coast. So when the family homeplace came up, they decided to retire, move into it, stay there a couple of years and continue their years-long discussion over where to move.
They almost never left.
When I moved back to Houston, they couldn’t stay there alone—she had already had a stroke, he was taking care of her, and the house (1 acre of yard) required a lot of upkeep that he frankly was tired of doing. So we moved them into a rental in San Antonio, and sold the house.
The last walk-through was very bittersweet, and David’s article brought that all back. I walked through that empty house, my footsteps echoing on the long-grain pine floors, looking at the unfaded places on the walls where the pictures had hung all those years, listening for the screeching sound the old oven door would make as Granny, then my folks, would pull something delicious out of it. All the meals we had around that Chromecraft table in the kitchen, all those nights by the fire or in the screen room or days raking leaves or seeing the first robin of spring on the back porch---all of it came back in a rush.
Just a few months ago, I had occasion to go back to Malvern (hometown) to see Mom's grave; drove by the house. The people who bought it have trashed it completely. I wish I hadn't gone--and I'll never go again--but a couple of things that trip pointed out: the house is just...a house...and it lives on as I remember it, all of us there for Christmas, me napping in a chair (now in my own living room) with head on one arm and legs draped over the other...and more modern things like Mother’s “Baby Blue Lincoln” in the carport, and the Seth Thomas clock on the mantle ringing out Westminster…
I think of Mom at the oddest times--I was browning hamburger meat the other day. She was very particular about hamburger meat; it had to be browned just a certain way, almost burnt, kind of scraped off the pan; gives it more flavor. She taught me how and that's how I like it too. So I was standing there at the cooktop the other day, browning hamburger meat---and it dawned on me: not only was I doing it “her way”, I was using HER spatula to stir it with and preparing to pour it in one of HER bowls.
…and I missed her so badly I had to stop for a minute and just cry.
But she’ll live on in my memory. The rooms aren’t empty, at least not while I’m alive to remember them.