How it started:
How it's going:
Author's note: Forgive this blog if it runs a bit long. It was 28 years in the making.
Before anything else, know that the Thorntons are a sedentary people. I recognize that some people sell their houses and move to new ones all the time, but not us. My extended family is like four generations removed from the first of us to step off the boat, and we’re still mostly about a half hour from the docks they stepped their drunken Irish asses on and went off in search of a pint. My sister lives on the property where we grew up. Two of my brothers have lived in the same house since the late 80s. Even our brother who lives in Juneau, AK has moved like twice. We're a species whose roots run deep.
But the apples who fell off my particular tree decided to roll. One son went through the military and then school, and is working. The other is a semester away from graduation and already taking job interviews. And both live out of state and have made it clear they have no intention of coming back to Massachusetts, except for visits. In fact, they used almost the identical words as they said so, which is a bittersweet thing to hear. On the one hand, you're confronted with the reality that they're grown ups now and no longer dependent on you. On the other, you consider the alternative of them moving home, taking their 45 minute showers, carpeting their bedrooms in dirty laundry and drinking all your premium beers, and try to realize it's for the best. You raised them to be independent and go find their way in the world, which is sort of what you were shooting for from the beginning. Still, when that day comes, I defy any parent to be ready for it.
And so the Irish Rose and I decided we were officially in that next phase of life they talk about in the commercials they run old people TV. The ads for financial planning, life insurance, and boner pills. The reality hit us that the plans we used to make about someday downsizing and maybe moving close to the ocean were no longer long term. The reality hit us that we'd lived that long term. No matter how much it felt like we'd just started talking about them. Life had happened to us while we were busy with other things.
In 1994 we were newlyweds, standing in the driveway of the house we had just bought, without the first clue what the future would bring. Two days ago, we went in for our last visit, to drop off the keys, garage door openers and assorted information before the new owners moved in. And no sooner did I lock the door behind us that I had a mother's tears on my shoulder. Which I consider a good thing, because it saved me from being the one to have to do it. I try to save my crying jags for manly things like National Anthem flyovers and the fight scene in Rocky. But if she hadn't done if for both of us, I'd have made a spectacle of myself.
Here's the thing about being in your house for the final time. There's a concept called "liminal space," from the Latin word for "threshold." It refers to that unsettling feeling you get when you're in a place that was once filled, but is now empty. Think of an abandoned industrial site or some mall where the modern economy has put all the stores out of business. Now imagine that liminal space is where your family created a lifetime of memories. The place that was once your childrens' entire world. Now empty. Where the walls used to echo with babies' cries and toddlers' happy screams. Now replaced with the echoes of your footsteps on the hardwood floor. I remember like it was yesterday going off to the maternity wing of the hospital to pick up a new mother and her first born, pausing for a moment to look around the quiet house and realize it would never be the same. And it wasn't. Until this day, when it came full circle.
Anyone who owns even a studio apartment's worth of stuff can confirm that moving sucks. You have to account for every, single thing you own, decide whether to keep it, how to pack it, how to get it to the truck. With a house, it's exponentially harder. Make that house a family home, and it's harder by an order of magnitude. Moving your stuff only takes physical strength. Moving the treasured things you saved from your kids' childhood requires strength of spirit. The task requires your soul to be jacked like a 1990s cleanup hitter, just to get your bat around on the emotional fastball of it.
If I had a time machine, I'd obviously kill Baby Hitler. Let's make that Teenage Hitler. No, 21 Year Old Hitler. I'd wait for him to blow out the candles on his cake, put a bullet in his mustache and say, "Circle gets the square. That's for my father-in-law's Purple Heart, Schicklegruber," or something. The other thing I'd do is go visit early 2000's Jerry and tell him not to put that stuff in the attic. LEGO sets. Star Wars toys. LEGO Star Wars toys. Bins of plastic dinosaurs. And above all else, kids' furniture. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but that crib that not only has sentimental value, you think someday will be handed down to grandkids, belongs in a landfill. It might have been the cutting edge of safety for a '90s infant, but is basically Reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl for 2020s baby. And 20-something years later, it's just scrap lumber.
You find out the hard way wading through all these cherished treasures that they have no value except sentimental value. Which is not legal tender for all debts, public and private. Take for instance, the Irish Rose's grandmother's china. It might have been worth 1990s cleanup hitter's salary when it was purchased, but today you can't even donate it because no one wants it. Society developed the coffee cup specifically because it's practical, and because you can't print "Let Me Drop Everything and Work on Your Problem" on the side of a teacup and saucer. So they end up in the trash with the rest of the junk. I saved unopened box of Topps cards from the year our first son was born, thinking it would be worth a fortune someday. It turns out the most expensive card in the box is the Derek Jeter rookie, and it's worth about $3.97. So it went into the recycle with the rest of the cardboard.
But your family keepsakes are another thing entirely. Or supposed to be. But you positively cannot get through the process by cherishing them. You have to unplug feelings from your emotional router and work offline in order to get anything done. I helped a stranger from Facebook Marketplace load a bed into the back of his truck. A bed where a child was read to. Housed stuffed animals. Had sleepovers. But if you allow yourself to feel those feelings, you'll be paralyzed. People end up on My 600 Lb. Life first by getting to 590 lbs. Before that, it's 580, and so on. The ones who end up on Hoarders first hang onto a child's plaything because it has special meaning. And before they know it, they can't throw away the supermarket flyer or the empty tomato soup can. The journey to your emotional health begins with a single Batman action figure going into a contractor bag.
Besides, it's not like these treasures you hang onto are Harry Potter portkeys that you touch and they transport you to some magical place where your children are five years old again, all filled with joy and wonder. If these object had that power, I'd have them teleport me to Monica Bellucci's bedspread in Italy, where I'd be waiting for her covered in rose petals. You have to cherish the memories without the tangible things you associate with them. It's part Zen Buddhist belief the things you own really own you, part DeNiro in Heat saying, "Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner."
That goes not just for furniture, toys, or that "FBI: Federal Bikini Inspector" hat you refuse to throw out, but everything. Even photos, believe it or not. One thing that guided us through this mission was the fact my mother-in-law passed away last year. My beguiling lass had to help clean out her house and realized the hard way that those photo albums you would run into a burning house to save, mean nothing to those you leave behind. You might as well just chuck them on your own and save them the trouble.
I'll issue a spoiler alert for an 80 year old movie that has the most famous ending in the history of cinema, but your inspiration should be Citizen Kane. The whole movie is an investigation into what was the meaning of the dying word of the richest, most famous and powerful man in the world. And the big reveal at the end is that it was his most beloved plaything from his innocent youth. As it's being tossed into a furnace with the rest of his crap. Personally, I came to grips with my own mortality as I looked into the eyes of a brokenhearted 38 year old mother telling her 9-year-old the only man she ever loved died during the night. I'd prefer my sons hang onto my Ted Williams autographed ball, but I'm under no illusion the things that are precious to me will matter once I'm gone. (Except them.) It's a healthy attitude to realize the things you treasure will just be something someone is going to have to toss into a furnace with the rest of your crap. That'll keep you off the Hoarders cast list.
And all this about not attaching too much meaning to things, goes for the house itself. Hard as that may be. You have to be an AI robot or Mr. Spock to divorce yourself from the emotional attachment, but there's no other way. Once you sign that Purchase & Sale, the whole place just becomes a flood of memories. That you have to control. There's the window the thunder would come through, and I was never so needed by another human being in my life. That's the hallway where a 1st grader helped his toddler brother take his first steps. The back yard where we played catch all afternoon and it felt like the whole world went away. The front yard where they got the hang of riding bikes. The end of the driveway where we'd wait for the bus every morning, talking about sports or cartoons or whatever, precious time that belonged to us and us alone. The same end of the driveway their mom and I would later stand and watch them drive their cars out of on their last day of high school. The wood stove in the basement that we huddled around when the power was out, playing board games by candlelight and I sort of wished to myself the lights wouldn't kick back on.
For the better part of 28 years, that house was bright and noisy and mostly messy. And always filled with the love of a mother and her children. Walking into it after a day of work or coaching youth sports or whatever I was doing, felt like walking into a hug. I just have to master the art of reminding myself it's no less real just because it's over. And because the things that were there are now someplace else. Some of the toys donated so other kids can play with them, Toy Story 3 style.. A precious few saved. (Like the baseball gloves I can't bring myself to drop off at sports consignment shop, but I'm working on it.) But mainly relying on memories instead of stuff. Including a house.
Anyway, I appreciate you reading this long. It's an important part of my therapy. Seriously, just remember that when I go, someone ask them to think of me well and hang onto my Teddy Ballgame ball. It's all I ask. Thanks.