“All that had been used to make it a dwelling place, by my folks on back, by Grover and me… all the memories of all the lives that had made it and held it together, all would come apart and be gone as if it never was.”
from Sold, a short story by Wendell Berry
The rooms were empty by the time I arrived. Except for a few heaps of trash here and there, and some stuff no one wanted, it was finished, done. The auction for the contents of my parents’ house was over. And there I stood with my sister-in-law, Joy, and my brother, Mark, who had witnessed the whole thing. Now they were exhausted, the auction (it was 107 degrees the day of the sale, forcing one of the auctioneers to the emergency room with heat exhaustion), had taken its toll on them, physically and emotionally. Moving slowly, almost painfully ambling from room to room, their eyes darting over every square foot of floor space, they searched as if still expecting to find something beautiful and worthy, something cherished that had been somehow overlooked.
But it was all gone. All that was left was empty rooms.
They looked at me with tears in their eyes like I had arrived at the ER a few moments too late and had just missed the passing of a loved one. Glancing out the back window where I used to chat with Mom on the porch swing about life, and dreams, and why mosquitoes like me so much, my eyes blurred as I choked out the words, “It looks so sad when it’s so empty.”
I then walked through each room alone, just the empty space and me. It was my way of bidding adieu to the home place. And in each room I took a mental picture. I could almost hear my imaginary camera clicking as I paused in each room. I stood in the informal dining area, and click, I captured a picture of our family gathered around the table laden with steak, baked potatoes, fried okra, and corn on the cob. We were singing “happy birthday” to one of us.
I glanced across the room and, click, I was taking a Sunday afternoon snooze over there on the couch, the Sunday newspaper draped across my chest.
Then I was in the kitchen and, click, there was Dad watching TV while Mom was brewing hot tea.
I walked through the den when, click, I got a great shot of all of us at Christmas, exchanging gifts, laughing, and then, click, I got one last picture of my annual reading of the Christmas story. My brother is smiling as I read. He always did.
I tip-toed down the hallway and, click, I caught a glimpse of Mom putting on make-up in her bathroom, then click again, and I was in my old room sleeping in my bed, back home for a visit.
In the dining room reserved for special occasions I clicked and saw us at Thanksgiving dinner, turkey and dressing piled high on our plates as we stand around the table, pausing to give thanks.
And so it was, I clicked my way through the house until I arrived back at the place I had left my brother and sister-in-law.
Tears again clouded my eyes, but not for empty rooms; I had just filled them with memories of what they always truly were: spaces where people gathered to be family. And I could carry the moments, the pictures, with me, tucked inside the canyons of my soul, waiting to be explored again for the first time — a new time.
“I think I may come back tomorrow for one more look,” I said to my brother as we left. But I knew I wouldn’t, for there was no longer a need to return to the old place when I could always draw on the freshness of what it was and is in my heart.
E-mail David B.Whitlock, Ph.D., at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website, www.Davidbwhitlock.com