CHICAGO — On an otherwise perfect afternoon, someone ganks her knee while stepping from boat to dock. Fortunately, she is in good hands. In attendance is a dentist who knows everything. And another guy who knows everything. I’m taken by these heartlanders who seem to know everything about everything, without ever having left the heartland.
That’s where I am now, back in the Middle West, cleaning out my late mother’s suburban home, sifting through a half century of family treasures.
Mom wasn’t a hoarder. It was worse than that. She was a sentimentalist — the things she kept all really meant something.
Me, I have no time for the present much less the past. Ironically, I am left to clean out this house of rich memories. A mom’s last laugh on her too-busy son.
There goes a life — decorative plates pulled from walls, old French coins plucked from drawers, along with the canteen I carried around as a kid.
This is our last trip to Grandma’s house, back in the heartland where I grew up and visited almost every summer. To the clovered suburbs of northern Illinois, where the state flag is a pair of chinos (42 waist), and diversity means some kids are a little blonder than others.
I have either outgrown the Midwest or resent that it seems to go on just fine without me. Or maybe I’m jealous that for 300 grand, you can still buy a four-bedroom split level on a tiny lake. In L.A., you can’t buy dinner for that.
The little guy ends one phone conversation back home to California with: “I have to go catch fireflies now.”
Indeed, this is a bittersweet trip, and I am determined to make it more sweet than bitter. In March, I wrote that without Mom, my boyhood home had lost its hum.
“It’s just stuff,” one reader wrote in response. “Sell the stuff, keep the memories.”
That sounded sensible, so that’s what we’re doing. My sisters and I divvy up the nice furniture, then toss the rest of the items in boxes and stand around wondering what to do with it. Estate sale? Goodwill? Bonfire?
On a lark, we decide to stage a spur-of-the-moment yard sale, which turns out to be a blast. On the steamiest day in Illinois history, we haul in almost $120, then spend $140 on beer and pizza to celebrate. One neighbor, Paul, shows up on his lawn tractor. Skip, from up the block, showed up twice, both times with beer.
There goes a life — the paneled den where I watched a thousand Cubs games, the patio where we all played Clue.
Between chores, we have time for a few indulgences. The little guy and I spend one morning fishing for the mighty bullhead, the finest sports fish God ever half-finished, before getting bored and moving on to the stapler.
The little guy and I sit in the shade of a willow tree, burying our toes in grass so long and lush that it feels like warm bread.
“Dad, I got one!” cries the boy.
After a tough 20 seconds, he manages to work this trophy fish to shore. Thing easily weighs 3 or 4 ounces. The little catfish is so happy to be out of the algae that it leans over and kisses the little guy on the lips.
He turns into, well, a 9-year-old version of me.
Between indulgences, we catch up with friends. “Does Emily still have braces?” I ask of a cheerleader I haven’t seen since 1974.
Emily had a mouth like the spokes of a Corvette. Perfect, right?
After we tidy up the past, some of us go off for that day of boating, where Aunt Joanne ganked her leg on the dock. (Turns out it was broken after all, in spite of what the Guys Who Knew Everything thought.)
Then the little guy and I catch a plane back to L.A., leaving my little Mayberry behind for good.
So long, little house, the one constant in 50 years of change.
“I’m gonna miss that house,” the little guy says.
“And the fireflies,” I say.
By the way, a note to the new owners:
“Sure, the house needs a little work, but the neighbors are perfect. In fact, they are the best things you (and your bank) just bought.
“Almost a lost art, neighborliness. So whatever you do to the house, please don’t screw up this leafy little street.”
There goes a life.