The first time I visited the house on Rosewood Drive, I was lucky to escape without brain damage. That was back in 1981, and my mom and stepdad were taking a final look around before signing the closing papers. I was seven years old, bouncing off the walls, and, in my spastic exertions, I smacked my forehead against one of the moldings in the living room. I lay on the carpet and cried, and, a few weeks later, we moved in.
That was twenty years ago. I haven’t lived in the house on Rosewood Drive since leaving for college, and a lot has changed since I left. There was my stepdad moving out, followed by the divorce, followed by my mom’s deciding to sell the house and move back to her childhood stamping grounds in Mississippi.
Still, the house on Rosewood Drive was where I’d grown up. And the place I’d return to a couple times a year for holidays. And last week I headed back one last time to sort through all my things. To figure out what to donate and what to throw away. So a new family could move in and start the cycle all over again.
As a lover of sad dramas, I was looking forward to it all. I had even brought the video camera I’d borrowed from my mom a year earlier so I could make a bittersweet documentary about the whole thing.
I ended up getting all the pathos I wanted and then some. On the first day of working, I found a post-breakup letter I’d written to a seventh-grade girlfriend. Attached to the letter were the lyrics to a song I claimed to have written about her. (The song was Bob Dylan’s “All I Really Want to Do” with the girl’s name substituted for “baby.”) I also found sad, written evidence of my attempts to pursue an obviously uninterested cheerleader, and lots of old mix tapes. About two hundred of them. Documenting my sentimental attachments for Kenny G’s “Songbird,” Boston’s “More than a Feeling,” and the Hooters’ classic “Day by Day.”
Confronting my teenage self was far, far worse than I’d ever imagined. The gore leaking out of those notes and tapes made me realize how much of my adolescence I’d misremembered. It made sorting through those tapes like handling little bombs — dangerous time-triggered things primed to destroy the revisionist histories I’d spent ten years building.
I tried to keep the more dismally embarrassing parts of my past out of the video shoot. Instead, I got footage of my mom talking about moving. My last day in the house was spent meticulously cataloguing all the downstairs rooms before the camera’s battery went dead.
In a break from filming, my mom and I drove my childhood books over to the library’s donation center and store. There, in a beat-up collection of $2 CDs, I found a treasure: Iris DeMent’s Infamous Angel. DeMent is from Kansas City, a warbler with this old-time country voice and plainspoken lyrics. Like Gillian Welch, but better.
Infamous Angel was playing on my mom’s stereo when she announced that she was going to pull in the plants from the patio to get them ready for the movers. It seemed like a great closing scene for the documentary. So, with all the eagerness of a young Michael Moore, I grabbed the camera, leaped downstairs, and promptly brained myself on the living room’s doorframe.
My mom found me a few seconds later. I was rolling on the floor, holding my head, blood slicking the tips of my fingers. The doorframe had ripped a mustache’s worth of scalp from the top of my head. After getting bandaged in the upstairs bathroom, I went downstairs to inspect the impact crater. It looked like a beaver-toothed child had made a meal of the doorframe, pieces of battered skin dangling from the splintered gouge.
The injury put a cap on the filming. I got packed and put my bags in the minivan. And in the last five minutes before leaving, my mom and I just stood in the living room, looking out into the backyard. Iris DeMent was singing “Our Town.” The late-afternoon sun slanted soft and orangy off the roof. And there we were, watching the rabbits and squirrels playing in the gardens it had taken my mom twenty years to build. I didn’t know what to do with the conflicting feelings of sadness and good-riddance.
When my mom finally broke the silence by saying “We’ve had a lot of good times in this house,” I could tell it was more of a question than a statement. And I knew the answer, but it’s hard to say the obvious things sometimes. So I just put my arm around her. My head hurt and my heart hurt, and there we were: Listening to Iris DeMent as the sun slowly disappeared from our backyard.