Memories as Strong as Bricks and Mortar


Of course the house can wake me. Its memories and rhythms are my own, and its silence holds far more wisdom than my words.

Our time together is short now; my parents will move, perhaps within the year, and strangers will arrive. This is how a house grows ghosts--not when its people die but after it gradually swells with experiences and images and memories, then loses those who made the memories. The house is eventually left, haunted, to overflow in the presence of strangers.

Soon, but not just yet.

I still claim this space for a bit longer, still reserve the right to my silent 3 a.m. recollections. In noise’s absence, you can feel when a house is full, when hearts beat behind doors. My parents, smaller and grayer now, still sleep in the master bedroom. Life’s trinkets still jam drawers. Pictures and paintings and sculptures are still arranged, food still fills pantries, and cars still rest in the cinder-block garage--everything in its meticulous, Mom-arranged place.


She knew the house’s darkness frightened me when I was small, and she produced a solution. She took a toy--an orange, doughnut-shaped piece of Fisher-Price plastic--and attached it to a long string that dangled from my closet light almost to the floor. When I awoke in the dark and was afraid, I needed only to pad from bed to closet, pull the doughnut with my little hand and create illumination and safety. “Now,” she told me, “you control the light.”

As I grew, the end of the string migrated upward, scissors cut by scissors cut. Now I am 31 and 6-foot-1, and it hangs near my chin when holidays call me home.

When I am an old man, I will dream of this house. I will struggle to summon details that, at this moment, are clear and abundant and fingertip-accessible.

Tonight each creak of hardwood floor, each squeak of each door is at my command, as it has been for three decades. I know how the stairs groan under the feet of both a 70-pound boy and a 200-pound man. I know which of the front wall’s five switches turns on the stairwell light, something my father has never learned. The square, brown pattern on the cold basement floor is the desktop wallpaper of my imagination. I greet as a familiar friend the rockslide rumble of the ice maker when it drops a freshly frozen load. I know just how to tilt my head so it won’t bang against the downstairs ceiling, which the builders accidentally constructed one brick too low. Instinct, all of it.


How will I say goodbye? Will it be on an upbeat moving day full of packing tape and cartons and minutiae? Or upon my parents’ bittersweet relocation to a retirement community? Perhaps it will even be after a funeral, or a second funeral.

I look at the quiet rooms and hallways today, and I see scenes from home movies we never made, grainy tableaux of a world where even fights and yelling, however rare, become, from the present’s vantage, part of the context of a loving childhood. I have not “lived” here for 13 years; friends are gone, high school memories stale. But this house is still my skin. It knows me as I know it.

Up the road a mile or so, even farther north of Pittsburgh, they’ve built more big suburban living places and are planning others--scores of them, fresh and in rows like Grade-A eggs in a carton. Each awaits its own life cycle of milestones both momentous and prosaic--move-in day, children born and growing, kitchen-table conversations, high-school graduates headed off to college and, finally, “For Sale” signs and the cycle beginning again. And each awaits the chance to cultivate its own 3 a.m. floor creaks.

They are all irrelevant duplicates to me. And mine will become something different soon, never entirely a stranger but no longer a close friend. A new family will build new memories. The plastic doughnut will retreat to my mind, hanging by a string behind my eye, forever awaiting a tug to illuminate memory’s hallways and bring me back to the safety of a here that, for me, will cease to be.


For now, though, the real, physical doughnut still exists. I can still walk the 9 1/2 steps through the darkness from the living room to what was once my room, open the closet door and see the silhouette of orange plastic.

Tonight I still control the light. All I have to do is pull.