…no matter how much time passes, no matter what takes place in the interim, there are some things we can never assign to oblivion, memories we can never rub away. They remain with us forever, like a touchstone.” – Haruki Murakami
It’s the emptiest and yet the fullest of all human messages: ‘Good-bye’. – Kurt Vonnegut
I didn’t grow up in the big ranch-style house on Launchris Drive.
My parents bought it in 1994, when they were heading into their golden years. My brother and I grew up in a small house in a working class neighborhood in Winchester VA. It was our parents’ first house, the one they built right before I was born, and they lived in it for over 30 years.
When I say that their first house was small, I am not kidding. Two bedrooms and 1 1/2 baths on the first floor, with an eat-in kitchen and a little carport. My brother and I shared a room when we were little, until my father was able to finish the basement.
You could pretty much put the entire first floor of our childhood home into the game room of the house on Launchris Drive – 3200 square feet, 1 acre lot surrounded by trees, huge rooms, a big garage, and a beautiful in-ground pool. My brother almost cried when he saw it for the first time, thinking about the parties he could have had in this house when he was in high school. The house is located close to town, but just a little bit out in the country. On the road in, you pass by rolling fields where cows peacefully graze. The old Civil War hospital sits up on the hill, surrounded by several new McMansions owned by doctors who want to be five minutes away from the regional medical center.
My parents were not wealthy. They were born during the great depression and lived through World War II. They worked hard at the same jobs for over thirty years and were big savers. They bought the house on Launchris Drive for cash.
It was their dream house. My father was a bit of a hermit, and liked nothing better than to putter in his big workshop or sit by the pool in the quiet and read.
My boys and my nieces loved to come to Grandma’s house. This was the house where I brought my boys when I had to go on extended business trips. It was the one place where I could leave my young children and never worry for a minute.
There was pool time and popsicles and visits to see the puppies next door. There were trips in Grandma’s big Lincoln to the golf course for lessons and lunch. And there was Grandma’s rocking chair and her lap to sit in at night.
The five Jack grandchildren in the pool at Launchris Drive
My mother died in April 2010. My father left six months later to live near my brother in North Carolina, because his Parkinson’s disease was progressing and he could not care for himself in the big house alone. We never broached the prospect of selling it while he was alive, because he always hoped he would go back there. We both knew that would never happen – and he probably did too – but we rarely discussed it with him. It was just too painful.
My father died last year, and we put the house on the market in June. We got a contract for the sale in September, and last week, made the final trip to clean it out and sign the papers for the sale.
After we signed the papers, we left to make the long drive home. My route to Charlotte takes me all the way down the beautiful Shenandoah Valley on Interstate 81.
I had a lump in my throat all the way to Roanoke.
My parents haven’t lived in that house for almost six years, and Winchester and the Shenandoah valley haven’t been my home for over 40 years. So why was it so damn hard to leave it?
While I do have great memories of our life in the little house where we grew up, it was a long, long time ago. I left that house when I was eighteen, over 40 years ago, and never looked back. I was off to make my life.
But when I enter the house on Launchris Drive, my memories of my parents in their best years, and then in their last years, are fresh. So very fresh.
For a long time after her death, when I entered my mother’s bedroom, I could smell her perfume. When I sat at her dressing table, I saw her face looking back at me through the make-up mirror.
When I walked through the garage, I saw my father at the workbench amongst his tools – every drawer and wall switch neatly labeled, in his distinctive hand-written script. His Eddie Bower work jacket, size 2XL, still hung on the hook next to the door to go upstairs.
When I sat on the patio, I saw a lazy summer afternoon and my father playing with my boys in the pool. I saw my mother coming back from a round of golf, flushed and sun-burned, ready for her 5 o’clock cocktail.
Those are the good memories. The really great memories.
But I when I enter that house, I also see them in their last years, when their health was failing.
When I go into my mother’s bathroom, I see her sprawled on the floor after a fall. I see my son Jake and I trying to get her up and back into her jazzy chair, but failing at the task. We had to call the rescue squad that day to assist.
I see the marks on the walls from the jazzy chair, where she ran into the walls. I see the lengths of oxygen tube leading down the hall. I see the travel wheel chair and rolling oxygen tank in the trunk of her Lincoln in the garage.
I see the table in the kitchen where we sat and tried, in vain, to encourage them to move into an assisted-living community before it was too late.
I see the chair in the den where my father sat on a quiet April afternoon, the day my brother and I walked in to tell him his wife of 54 years had passed away.
Closure is a funny thing. It doesn’t have a timetable.
We started cleaning that house out over nine months ago; you’d think I’d be over the nostalgia and pain by now. In fact, by Sunday of last weekend, we were tossing stuff with abandon into the trash bin. The last things we wanted to keep were loaded into a U-Haul. We were tired, sweaty, and seriously DONE with the tedious task of sifting through the accumulation of 80 years of stuff.
But here’s the thing. While we owned that house in my home town, my parents were still somewhat alive to me. Everything we did to maintain it in these last years was done with the specific intent and spirit of what my father would have wanted.
Their spirits permeated that place, and selling it was the final goodbye.
Now, nothing tangible of my personal history is left there, except for their graves, and the graves of my ancestors, in Mt. Hebron cemetery.
Mt. Hebron Cemetery, Winchester VA. Resting place of my parents as well as my maternal grandparents and great-grandparents.
But that’s not really true. That valley and that town will always feel like home to me.
Once I fought through the lump in my throat, I was filled with tremendous gratitude while driving down the valley. Gratitude for both the good and the painful memories. Gratitude for the legacy of love and strength left to me by my parents and my extended family.
I have a history, and it is there, in that small town in the Shenandoah Valley.
Macedonia United Methodist Church, White Post VA. Resting place of a good portion of the Ritter clan.
The poet David Whyte, in his gem of a little book, Consolations, says that a memory is not just a then that you recall in the now, it is a powerful living pulse that in many ways informs and creates your now. Memories are an “invitation to the source of our life”, and they can create and influence what is about to happen.
We actually inhabit memory as a living threshold, as a place of choice and volition and imagination, a cross-roads where our future diverges according to how we interpret, or perhaps more accurately, how we live the story we have inherited.
I love the idea of Memory as a pulsing life force, winding its way through our past, present and future; an inheritance of connection with a continuous outward radiating effect. Our future path can depend on “how we live the story we have inherited.”
On Sunday, the couple who were buying the house came by for a visit. He works at the hospital, and she is a social worker providing therapeutic treatment services for youths in need in the school system. They brought their little girl, Ruby, along – a bouncy blond two-year old, wearing a saucy pink bow in her hair, who can’t wait to swim in the pool. They have two dogs – one, an older New Foundland who needs a big back yard in which to roam.
My mother spent over 30 years dedicated to the Winchester school system as a visiting teacher helping families and children in need. She taught swimming lessons for the local parks and recreation system for many years when we were young. One of her life-long best friends was named Ruby. And she loved dogs almost as much as she loved us.
Who knows if the treasure trove of happy memories, generated in that house during my parents’ golden years, somehow wound their way into the consciousness of this young couple and influenced their decision to purchase it?
I don’t know, but I like to think so. Regardless, I think it’s my job now to continue to live the marvelous story that I inherited.
Saying goodbye for the final time is hard.
But I couldn’t have scripted a more fitting ending to this chapter of my life.
I’m pretty sure my mother would have been pleased as well.