Not a Christmas story exactly, but a story of the place where many Christmases happened…
A few years ago I authorized the sale of my childhood home. Mom had moved into a nursing home, so first I hired a company to auction furniture and other saleable items, and other good people to discard the rest of the house’s contents. The process went very well, and I’m grateful to my realtor and the workers and auctioneers. When I first wrote the following recollections a couple years ago, I felt very positive about the house, for the sales had helped my mom. Now I’m back to “processing” the house; I’m sad that I’ve no childhood home to return to. Every so often, I’ve a dream wherein I’m back at the house, letting ready for work as if I lived there, or talking to my father (who is deceased), or some other odd mixture of past and present.
My mom and dad and I moved into their house in 1960, when I was three. Dad was a truck driver; Mom had worked in retail until she became pregnant with me, their only child. Our house was brand new, and so was our car: a ’60 gold Cadillac, complete with fins! What a typical, post-war, middle-class image.
For many of us, our earliest memories are the clearest and strongest. Too young to be a Sixties hippy, I spent the decade journeying through childhood days centered around our home, while strange, often scary things were meanwhile happening in the world. Mom shuttled me around town; I enjoyed elementary school; I read library books; with neighborhood kids, I played in the backyard and in the parks. Our house was just a few hundred feet from an outstanding park that connected to other parks. Busy through long, summer days, my friends and I bravely addressed a series of crises that affected our hometown at that moment in time: rampaging dinosaurs and alien invaders.
Thanks to Boomer nostalgia and our blond-wood, black and white TV, some of my household memories lounge around the living room, where I watched cartoons and kids’ shows. I’ve no clear memories of the Howdy Doody Show, which ended when I was three, but I liked Captain Kangaroo, Romper Room, and St. Louis programs like Corky’s Colorama and The World of Mr. Zoom. The new Hanna-Barbera productions kept me endlessly entertained: Huckleberry Hound, The Flintstones, Quick Draw McGraw, Top Cat, Ruff and Reddy, and others. I went to sleep with a Huck Hound doll rather than a teddy bear. I enjoyed other shows: Three Stooges shorts, Looney Tunes, Popeye, Tom Terrific, 8th Man, and Fireball XL-5. Later, I loved the nail-biting adventures of Jonny Quest, infinitely preferring that show to softball.
Naturally my childhood memories can be linked to other aspects of concurrent history. I don’t remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, which happened when I was five, but I remember being afraid of some impending disaster. I remember a nightmare that I had; in the dream, I was watching television at one end of the living room-dining room, and at the other end a creepy monster with all his friends started running toward me in a dusty stampede! Remembering this dream now, I realize that the monster was the character Flubadub from the Howdy Doody Show: the creature with a duck pill, Cocker Spaniel ears, and a giraffe neck. How creepy! Since I’ve no memories of the show, I must’ve been spooked by the character during my very earliest years. A few years later, when In Cold Blood appeared, I became as afraid of intruders as of the Soviets and Flubadubs.
Our house was strewn with the toys that my folks loved to buy me. I even had a toy gold 1960 Cadillac, which I crashed around the living room with aplomb. Not surprisingly, several of my toys had tie-ins with television shows or with kids’ products advertised on TV. I had a Popeye watercolor set and a spy decoder gizmo from Keds Shoes. Santa brought me a Western-style BB gun, but unlike Jean Shepherd’s Ralphie, I liked but didn’t crave it. I liked model airplanes and science-fiction toys the best. One toy became a source of reminiscence between Mom and me. It was Fred Flintstone atop a “dino-crane,” and the thing ran along on battery-powered wheels. Dad bought it in 1961, I believe, when The Flintstones was in its second season. It was either a Christmas present for 1961, or perhaps a birthday present for my upcoming birthday in January 1962. For some reason the toy made me cry. I just didn’t like the dinosaur. So the toy went, box and all, into the attic. Dad’s feelings were hurt; he thought I’d love the gift. The attic became the place where, eventually, Dad stored nearly every toy I’d outgrown.
Comic books! I had quite a few: Donald Duck (surely several by Carl Barks), Uncle Scrooge, Dennis the Menace, Top Cat, Ruff and Ready, and the like. For a while, my mother kept my comics in my old wicker bassinet. Eventually my tastes ran to Superman, Bat Man, and various adventures of costumed heroes, and jungle dwellers. The last series I remember enjoying was Enemy Ace, the adventures of a German World War I pilot who flew a red Fokker triplane and, while regretting the horrors of war, caused even his comrades to recoil from his cold-blooded missions.
I had a series of household pets over the years: a horned toad, a salamander, a hamster, at least one gold fish, all eventually buried in the backyard. We had outdoor cats at different times, but we lived on a busy street … enough said. (We could’ve had our own small cemetery, like that of Natalie Portman’s character in the movie Garden State.) Our two main pets were a sad old cocker spaniel, Lady (1954-1967), who lived in the backyard and, in wintertime, the garage; and an incontinent, loveable dachshund named Baron (1968-1979). For his eleven years, Baron barked at every moving object that he happened to notice outside our picture window; he’d nearly have a stroke if someone came to the door. Barking was a leitmotif in the soundtrack of our home, but love accepts a lot. When she died, Lady was just old and tired; we buried her at my grandmother’s farm. Baron had a bad heart, presumably from eating too many skins from Dad’s tasty fried chicken. Baron is buried in the backyard, though my parents eventually lost track of the exact spot.
As a little kid, I didn’t think too deeply about the plan of our house, which is typical of the era. The one-story house has a low, rectangular design, a pitched roof with deep eaves, brick siding, large picture windows, and an attached one-car garage, plus a full, unfinished basement. Inside, a minimum of interior walls divide the rooms. If so inclined, a person could run laps through the living-dining room, the kitchen, the den (my parents’ office), down the hallway past the full bathroom, past the two bedrooms, and then back into the living room.
The basement had an informal bedroom corner where my grandmother slept during her visits, a work bench for Dad, a sewing area for Mom, plus shelves for books, and other shelves for Dad’s various canning projects: jelly, green beans, tomatoes, and the like. A great place, but at first I feared the basement. (Do you get the impression from these recollections that I was a nervous little kid?) Sure, I felt brave as I addressed the dinosaurs and Martians in the yard; they were out in the open. The monsters in our basement had places to hide! Eventually I toughed up and considered the basement a cozy, cluttered place for personal and social time and a cool refuge on hot summer days. An old recliner went to the basement, along with other replaced furniture from the living room. A portable TV, once in the kitchen, also went to the basement.
I won‘t talk too much about Mom and Dad‘s life together besides the few things I write here, and the fact that they were married 58 years. I had a lovely childhood, no traumas that would make compelling reminiscence. My biggest “issue” was the fact that, because I was an only child, I grew up with considerable pressure to fulfill my parents’ dreams, to fill an emotional space in their often melancholy marriage. When I became older, one of my first orders of business was to begin addressing the insecurities that arose from those dynamics: to become comfortable “being my own person,” as the cliché goes. I’ve spoken to other only children who’ve had a similar experience of growing up feeling deeply responsible for the family’s well being.
A dear friend loves a certain memory of mine: one day in the late 60s, during a family trip to the St. Louis Zoo, I found someone’s transistor radio beside our car. It didn’t look as if it had been dropped; it was directly behind one of the car’s rear tires. I wonder if someone wanted the thing smashed, the way I used to put pennies on the Illinois Central tracks in order to return and find them flattened. In any case, I took the radio home and played it while I was outdoors. I also remember using it in the very early morning hours, whenever I awakened too soon. In retrospect, I think I must’ve had childhood depression, the way I worried about things during the day then couldn’t sleep after 3 AM. While awake, though, I’d turn the radio on and listen to the white noise until the local radio station came on the air.
Our house and its contents are symbols of memories, and memories themselves. Maybe that’s why I’ve so many memories of the place, for over these years, Mom and Dad accumulated a lot of “stuff.” Before they traded the Cadillac for a more modest, 1966 Chevy Impala, our one-car garage had become an extra family room, though never decorated as such. Mom and Dad began to place their “overflow” belongings into the garage. With stuff in the garage, well . . . why not put some chairs out there? And also the old black and white television! Mom and Dad purchased an upright piano and set it in the garage. I could practice for piano lessons and also watch Lost in Space.
Eighteen in 1975, I was too young for Vietnam. Dad, a wounded artillery-division veteran of Leyte and Okinawa, discouraged any thoughts I might’ve had about military service. I think his exact words, when I was quite young, were, “Like Hell are you going to join the Army!” So the 1970s—my second decade at our house—rolled along through the miasmas of adolescence and the uncertainties of early adulthood. Junior high school was terrible for all three years, but I found refuge in rock music. My bedroom became an adolescent sanctuary of late-Sixties-early-Seventies music and black-light posters, a place to manage anxiety attacks. High school was much better; I actually fit in! I became a Seventies hippy, long-haired and bell-bottomed. My first car, parked outside the house, was a 1963 Chevrolet, a seen-better-days source of freedom. In the late 1970s, I commuted to a nearby college, which was cheaper and quieter than dorm-living, but more challenging for a good social life.
Our house became full with belongings as the years went on. Beginning in the late 1960s, Mom and Dad collected antiques. Many of our Sunday afternoons were spent shopping local antique stores or in shops in nearly small towns. My folks loved antique clocks, and their living room and bedroom walls became decorated with gorgeous clocks: twenty-nine in all. Mom and Dad enjoyed antique furniture, too, though they needed a vaster house to hold their treasures.
The clocks resonate in connection to another memory: the time when I discovered my life’s vocation. During my freshman year of college, I purchased a required course text called A Layman’s Guide to Protestant Theology by William E. Hordern (Macmillan 1955, 1968). The book opened my eyes to the joys of religious studies, giving me an idea for a career in religious work and writing. I even rose at 4 AM to finish the book. For some reason I sat in the den for that early-morning project. It was a pleasant room in which to watch the sun rise, and so I read the book, overjoyed, near five of the old clocks. The clocks seemed to say to me . . . “Why are you up so early?”
Mom and Dad were formed by the Great Depression. Be saving; everything (an empty box, an old towel, out of style clothing) might have an eventual use. Toys came be played with by grandchildren. Food should never be wasted. Money should be watched carefully. Dad loved to drive among our small town’s groceries to find the best buys. Neither of my folks could part with things easily. My old toys resided in the attic and the basement, while cast-off items became stored away. I told my folks that, if they ever wanted to have a big garage sale, I’d come home and help with it. They thought that was a good idea for extra money. But they never wanted to take the first steps; each looked to the other to take the initiative.
By the 1980s, after all, my folks were growing older. Mom had had health problems for years, and Dad had entered his seventies. In time, they didn’t want to depart with any of their plenteous “stuff.”
My memories of the house seem to fast-forward through the Eighties. I lived in Connecticut for my master’s degree, then back to Illinois for two years. A long-time friend and I reconnected, fell in love, became engaged, and married. Beth and I moved to the east coast for our doctorates for three years, and we moved then to Arizona for four years teaching positions. Our daughter was born in Arizona. We saw my folks on comparatively fewer occasions, usually when we made the trip at holidays. Mom and Dad promised to travel to see us between holidays, for Dad had by then retired from trucking, but like the forever-postponed garage sale, my folks each looked to the other to make the plans and so they visited us seldom. Eventually they became too infirm for easy travel. The single time they visited us in the Southwest, Mom became ill.
We moved again in 1991, to northern Kentucky, and so throughout the Nineties, Beth, our daughter Emily, and I lived about 250 miles from my folks. During those years, I visited my parents every two months, on average, and did chores for them. Beth, Emily and I drove over together a couple times a year. During that time my folks became quite frail. Mom required a wheelchair because of her arthritis and other health problems. Dad needed his walker and struggled with heart trouble and type-2 diabetes.
I worried about their well-being, and about balancing my job—at the time fraught with stressful challenges —with my own household responsibilities and also with my parents’ increasingly pressing needs. My folks wanted me to do more for them, but they also resisted my efforts and ideas. One time I enrolled them in Meals-on-Wheels to help Dad, who could only cook one-handed, by holding his walker. That lasted a day. Their food is no damn good, Dad said. Even finding a kid to mow their lawn each week for $10 met with parental resistance; couldn’t I make the five-hour round trip each week and do the job, and save my folks that money?
Meanwhile, Emily loved to visit my folks and their cluttered home. Quite little at the time, she loved to watch television at Grandma and Grandpa’s. I knew, of course, that the TV was in the same place in the living room as all its predecessors back to 1960. She loved to play in the backyard and especially in the parks just a few hundred feet from the house—the same areas I’d enjoyed years before. Sometimes she slept in my old bedroom. Time with my parents was special to her. In the last years of my parents’ lives, my life with their house made a lovely circle.
I speculated what to do, someday, with the house. At that point the issue was theoretical, but since I’m an only child, I knew that the house would become my responsibility. Mom and Dad always wanted me to have a nice inheritance, including their belongings. I was very grateful for their love for me and treasured their many gifts, but I couldn’t keep and cherish all of their possessions. To paraphrase a popular mid-Sixties song, “cherish” is not the word I use to describe old newspapers and broken appliances. The house, and also a small and a large shed in the back yard, became filled with stuff, good and useless. By the late 1990s the basement had scarcely a one-person path through the empty boxes and cast-off belongings. Talking to them about this subject was a minefield.
Dad used to pull Beth and me aside in the house. As early as 1984, the year we were married, he confided that Mom’s health was failing; we should be ready. He wasn’t sure how much longer Mom would be with us, and he was deeply worried about her. His concern for her well being, I’m sure, amplified qualities such as his sometimes impractical stubbornness.
But he died first, in September 1999, when he was 87. He was doing what he loved best, messing around in the kitchen. Mom (80 that year) was in the bathroom when she heard him fall. With great difficulty she got herself back in the wheelchair and went to him. According to her, someone had rung the front door bell and then went around to the back door and knocked. In attempting to answer the knock, Dad nearly made it to the back door when he died instantly of a cardiac aneurysm. We never knew who was at the door. There’s a good explanation of some kind, but part of me thinks of all those Touched by an Angel episodes that my parents enjoyed.
Later on, I found forty-four hundred-dollar bills hidden in Dad’s diary of his blood sugar readings. Mom and I had a sad chuckle about that; how he worried about money!
The Nineties ended, and the new century began. My family and I moved to Ohio for better jobs. Dad had done all the basic household chores, and Mom scarcely could become suddenly independent, especially as her health continued to deteriorate. But she wanted to stay at her own house, so we hired excellent live-in help. Soon after Dad’s death, Mom volunteered to me to take some of their antiques and to locate the family pictures to keep. I took care of Mom’s financial affairs, grateful for the chance to help her more effectively than I could before. I wished she would’ve moved closer to me; yet I understood, cognitively, the desire to remain in a beloved house. The challenges of the house and its contents were naturally postponed amid Mom’s very intense grief and worries. I tried to think of the kinds of considerations that I’d want if I were in her situation. All Mom’s mail was forwarded to me for processing. During the next several years Mom’s time took on a sad yet contended sameness, and as before, I traveled to see her as often as possible.
In time, Mom had to go a nursing home. I gave her plenty of warning when the time approached: several months, in fact. When the day to move her came, I thought my heart would break as her nurse and I helped her to the car. She was leaving the house in which she lived for forty-six years. Thankfully the transition went fairly smoothly; the nurses commented, compassionately, that I seemed more distressed than Mom. I made numerous trips back home to help her acclimate. She’s lonely in the nursing home but she tells me, “As long as you’re handling things, I’m alright.”
As I wrote before, I readied Mom’s house for eventual sale by hiring an auctioneer to handle her better belongings and also good people to dispose of unsellable things and to clean. My realtor was a gem. During that process, I rediscovered my childhood toys, so much a part of my memories of home. The attic was accessible only by ladder through the ceiling of the garage, and so anything stored there seemed far beyond the ken of man. But I hired a team of fellows to empty the attic’s contents into the garage. There were other things besides my toys—old chairs and stools and the like—but the resulting pile filled nearly a whole side of the garage, nearly over my head. “Paul never lacked for toys!” commented a friend whom I’d hired.
I decided the now-vintage toys should be sold at auction, for they’d bring an excellent price for Mom’s finances. I felt fortunate to have the chance to retrieve at least a few representative items: many people have already lost their toys to the trash, long-ago garage sales, and the like. I knew a few items would never be located, like the transistor radio, for which I‘d searched over the years. I didn’t bother to look for my old Huck Hound doll; if it existed, it would’ve been moth-eaten and musty.
On several occasions I visited the house alone, in order to carry away financial records (some from the 1960s) that I didn’t want to leave in the house. While searching, I found a stack of my old comic books in a forgotten drawer: Quick Draw McGraw, Huckleberry Hound, Donald Duck … and surprisingly also some Western comics like Have Gun, Will Travel. I’d completely forgotten about those.
Thank goodness the 40-year-old Fred and dino-crane, still in the box (and with the D battery), made it to the top of the pile of toys that had been removed from the attic. It was the first toy for which I searched. I’ve displayed the box and toy atop my bookshelves. Hey, Dad, now I’m not afraid of the toy! It’s cute! Thank you. Providentially, the Cadillac, too wasn’t difficult to locate. I was glad to find it, although the toy, with its smashed roof and loose tires, has “condition issues,” as they say on Antiques Roadshow.
But don’t we all? I’m a Christian but I deeply appreciate a central teaching of Buddhism: attachment brings suffering. We attach ourselves to certain things—whether possessions, family, a image of ourselves, a love, a dream, a notion about the way things ought to be—out of many motives, good and bad. But nothing to which we attach ourselves is permanent; thus the pain of living, the human condition.
But amid the pain of living come divine surprises. To paraphrase a saying, sometimes answered prayer comes at you sideways. For one thing, I’m happy that Mom and I could work together so she could continue to have good care. For another, I hadn’t realized how many people have dealt with similar situations with their older parents or grandparents. I found terrific friends who shared their own family experiences and were “there” when I felt glum. I also realized that those years of worry about my folks had a positive outcome. I found that I’d already worked through some of the grieving process concerning my parents and the eventual sale of their home. Thus, when the time came to handle the hard responsibilities of Mom’s care, I felt stronger and more clearheaded to do so. These days, however, I’m back to the grieving process; how sad I feel, some days and in dreams, that I don’t have a childhood home to return to any longer. This essay represents emotions-in-progress.
When I walked through the house for the last time, it was completely cleaned out and looked big and spacious. I’d no desire to live there; the years of concern about my parents’ well-being had eliminated that need, somehow. In fact, I dearly hoped the next family, whoever they may be, will love the place. Will they live here over forty years? Probably not. Will they be able to choose the memories they have? No more than I can. As a dear friend says, memories choose us, not the other way around.
A case in point is that Flintstone toy, which at the moment is in storage again, pending an upcoming move. (The poor thing has spent most of its existence in darkness.) In A Christmas Story, Ralphie poignantly calls his Red Ryder gun the best Christmas present he would ever receive. Needless to say, I didn’t initially feel the same about Fred and the dino-crane! But now, it represents something dear about our loving, imperfect family.
At that same Christmas, Santa also brought me a little drawing board. For some reason I decided to practice writing dates on it, so I started with that year, 1961, and continued through the decade till I got to 1969 and “19610.” Dad explained to four-year-old me that after “nineteen sixty-nine” we’d come to “nineteen seventy,” not “nineteen sixty-ten”. So I learned about counting, about dates, and in a very childish way, about the passing of time.
Now, from the vantage point of what I would’ve called “Nineteen Sixty Forty-Nine,” I feel a little better about the house, for even though I don’t return to it physically, in my memories my parents are still there, and the house with its familiar contents is still open to me, and never far away.