October, 2009: I’ve looked up my childhood home on Zillow, the real estate website, after a friend tells me it is for sale. The 1950s traditional tract house has been remodeled. The picture gallery shows a sparsely furnished house, staged for market. There are 42 pictures here. Most of the home where I spent the first 19 years of my life is unrecognizable. My mother’s country kitchen is gone, the used brick fireplace is gone, the paneling that my dad carefully stained is gone - all replaced by sleek, smooth, and understated floors, walls and ceilings.
My family did not leave that home, nor the suburb of Lakewood, California, happily. My parents faced a huge financial loss in my senior year of high school, declared bankruptcy, and lost our home after I graduated. They had lived there for 25 years, but in two weeks’ time we packed up everything and silently drove away to start life in an apartment in San Diego, over 100 miles south. Every person in my family felt their own version of shame, but we never talked about it. We never visited that neighborhood again, drove by again, went in that house again. It isn’t until both my parents are dead, decades later, that I reach out to former neighbors, and learn the house is for sale.
I inspect these pictures, unable to even figure out which of the four bedrooms was mine. I scroll through the shots, questions popping into my head: Where are the steps where Daddy took the picture of me in my prom dress? The hearth where Mark and I opened our Christmas stockings? The back porch sink where we scrubbed Princess’ muddy feet? The wall between our rooms where we tapped out messages, or where he would whisper to me in the night, “Patti, why are you crying?”
I had always pictured this house living on without me, looking and feeling just the same. But in my absence, it has taken on a new life. And oddly, its old life is somewhere hidden in me.
Sometimes, we pack our memories tidily away and let them lie dormant to face and make meaning of one day. They wait for us like little rooms, perfectly appointed and still, frozen, arranged as they were in the past.
October, 2019: I recently read Ted Kooser’s essay, "Small Rooms in Time," for a Master of Fine Arts class. In this essay he suggests that "the rooms we inhabit, if only for a time, become unchanging places within us, complete in detail."
His is a fascinating idea: that rooms of memory are inside of us, instead of rooms that we visit in our memory. As I read through that essay I held that idea in my head, strangely comparing it to other images: A jar filled with thoughts: are we in the jar, or is the filled jar within us? A box of secrets: are we in that box, or is the box within us?
Kooser’s straightforward voice lays out the story of life in that house with his wife and small son. But of course it isn’t just a simple story. It is the story of high and low times, which were then tucked away until he read of a murder that took place in that house many years later. He points to places in his memory and places in the house, tying the two together along with his imagined view of the violence that happened there: "Our son was born," he writes, "and when we brought him home from the hospital we carried him in through the same side door where the murder took place." He goes on the imagine the matted shag carpet, the corner where he read as a university student, the care that was taken of the flowers along the front walk, and the side door where the murder took place, in the same spot where he let the dog out every snowy morning.
I can imagine things that happened in my house, too. A father and son arguing about the Vietnam war. A grandmother selling Avon from the kitchen table to try to help ends meet. A cigar box of secret writings nailed to the limbs of a backyard tree. School years beginning and closing. Jobs starting, jobs stopping.
As I stared at those pictures of my unrecognizable house, every piece of our furniture, every conversation of our lives. tried to take its own place in those rooms. These are tours of not only houses, but memories. Just like Kooser, I peered into those little rooms where things were good for our family at some times, and bad at other times. A miniature house and a family, coming and going, carrying belongings in and out, happy and sad.
What makes memories? What makes us pack them away, or bring them out again?
I had arranged these images behind me for decades into a perfect diorama: rooms full of memories, waiting in the corner of my heart. As I gazed at those pristine real estate pictures of my childhood home ten years ago, I brought everything out.
Perhaps it takes a catalyst of some kind, like a picture or a newspaper article, to awaken us to these rooms only when we are ready to return.
Kooser, Ted. “Small Rooms in Time.” The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction. Ed. Dinty W. Moore, Rose Metal Press, Inc, 2012, pp. 275-9.
Patricia Floren is a writer and teacher living in San Diego CA. She is a candidate for an MFA in Writing at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, MO. A 20-year survivor/thriver of breast cancer, Patricia trains with the San Diego Team Survivor Sea Dragons, a dragon boat racing team of female cancer survivors that compete throughout the west coast. She encourages you to learn more about the sport of dragon boating and the Sea Dragons at www.teamsurvivorsd.org.