I’ve spent the last couple of months in someone else’s space, dealing with someone else’s stuff.
My parents’ house was never my own. They moved shortly after I left South Carolina, where “Play Freebird” was a sincere request, to California, where Lynyrd Skynyrd was only invoked ironically. Yes, and speaking of Skynyrd my folks left South Carolina, too, choosing Alabama as the last of their sweet homes.
With a little effort I could probably list each of my visits to their new home over the ensuing three decades. There was the Christmas where we were all required to wear matching Rudolph sweatshirts for a family photo; the Thanksgiving after my father’s first heart surgery where I plasticized the turkey by basting it with I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter; the Fourth of July when I bought my kids a box of fireworks taller than they were; the inevitable “this will likely be the last visit” trips that accompany aging relatives. My guess is that if I converted to 24 hour days the hours I spent in my parents’ last home over 30 years, I couldn’t cobble together a full week.
During those three decades I slept at their house once. My father was hospitalized with complications from diverticulitis. My mother called me crying–exhausted, frightened, and overwhelmed–and begged me to fly out. I like to believe that she didn’t need to beg, but she probably did. I was not the best of sons.
My weary mother picked me up from the local airport and drove me to their house, a ride that resembled a Mr. Magoo cartoon. I assumed her crazy driving was a result of her exhaustion, but we learned soon after that visit that a neurological disease was eating away at her motor skills. Inside it was all too apparent that my mother hadn’t been home for days: dishes molded in the sink, cat hair covered the floors like morning frost, and the litter box overflowed. She left me at her home’s stinky threshold and Magoo-ed her way back to my father’s bedside.
Their guest room was off limits to me, its current occupant a grandson who was attending school nearby. He wasn’t there during my stay, but no matter: For the time being that was his room, and I understood that. Instead, I slept on a twin bed in what was once the grandkids’ playroom but now served both as a sort of junk room and a home to my mother’s piles of ironing. The bed’s mattress was 40 years old and not exactly well made in the first place. When I laid down its tired springs realized that they no longer remembered what to do. If not for the wall I would’ve rolled off of the bed; well, maybe not. The sheets were of the same vintage, and given that they were cheap and threadbare they were down to a thread count of….oh, let’s say two. It was a bit like sleeping on Velcro.
(Quick aside: I’m writing this from a diner that shall remain nameless due to COVID mandates. My waitress just interrupted me to tell me that she is both psychic and a witch. “People don’t understand that ghosts don’t communicate like living people,” she told me. “For example, they might turn the radio to a certain song to answer your question, or they might send a living person to tell you what they want to say.” And later: “I used to be afraid to tell people that I’m a witch, but as you get older you realize you just have to live for yourself.” Hold those thoughts.)
That visit marked the first time that I was alone in my parents’ final home. When I woke up the next morning I cleaned their house, vowed to buy them some new sheets, and made my way downstairs to my father’s workshop. I’m not sure why I wanted to be in his shop, but probably because the prognosis was that he’d likely die and without a ride to the hospital the only way to be near him was to surround myself with his stuff.
His shop was the physical manifestation of decades of enthusiasms. The joint was fully equipped to turn a hunk of tree into a finished piece of furniture; in fact, thousands of feet of rough boards dried in curing racks mounted to one wall, a pair of humidifiers humming day and night as the lumber surrendered its fluids. Another area of his shop was configured for automobile restoration. I don’t mean oil changes, but rather total restoration: bodywork, mechanicals, electrical, suspension, paint, and upholstery. The only thing he couldn’t do was chrome, and he was looking into ways to accomplish that on a small scale.
Over here were all of the tools required to fix a freezer or an air conditioner, over there rested everything he needed to fix an old television or radio. Cabinets strained under the weight of bearings, fixtures, car parts, airplane parts, tools, vacuum tubes, brand new parts for obsolete appliances, testing equipment, gauges, and unidentified odds and ends salvaged from unfixable things. My father believed in using every part of the mechanical buffalo. Why throw away a perfectly good broken toaster? You never know when you might need a heating element or a power cord.
I stood there surrounded by his enormous hoard, my batshit crazy brain panicking at the thought of dealing with all of this stuff should he die. The hoard didn’t stop at the workshop doors, either: Two outbuildings overflowed with stuff, and upstairs every closet was packed beyond capacity. The entire property bulged like a cartoon character on the brink of exploding.
Fortunately he didn’t die, though it was a close call. By that afternoon he turned a corner, and within a couple of days he was back home, surrounded by his stuff. I flew home to my own stuff: records; books; guitars; bicycles; pop culture jetsam like magazines, lunch boxes, promotional posters, and toys. Like my father I kept plenty of remnants from past enthusiasms, my childhood comic book collection equivalent in mass to his rows of overstuffed cabinets. What does one do with 8,000 “valuable” comics that nobody wants?
And like my father I found my stuff comforting, but now my broken brain panicked at the sight of it. All of that stuff was a tether. More importantly, someday it would be a burden to my grieving children.
My kids, of course, were my strongest tether. The day my son was born I entered into a contract to set my life aside in favor of his, or at the very least try to do so. Over the next two decades I failed miserably now and then, but the contract remained my magnetic north. Making sure that his little sister and he were provided for and that they had a dad available to them day and night guided life’s big decisions.
There were other obligations, too. I never got over my childhood fear of disappointing my parents, which was strange given that I’d felt like a disappointment to my father since I was a small boy. Back then I was a wimp, a sissy, a mama’s boy. Later I was an underachiever who pissed away his potential. As an adult I was, in his estimation, the son who didn’t like him.
As my mother lay dying a few years later he confessed to me his jealousy. “I’ve always thought that you were smarter than me,” he said, a painful admission from the man accustomed to being the smartest person in the room. I suspect that he also was jealous of my mother’s affection for me, though we never discussed that.
All of these obligations: father, son, employee, tax payer, citizen, future retiree, role model. Each required its own mask, its own persona, its own list of responsibilities. Sometimes those personae overlapped, sometimes they didn’t. More importantly, sometimes they aligned with who I thought of as “me,” but often they did not. I know that it’s no different for you. It’s no wonder that so many Americans are on psych meds.
After my mother died the obligation to be a good son doubled rather than halved. My father had seen the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, and he feared that wraith-like visage. He wanted badly to heal old wounds, so I did my best to help him given the distance between us. I called regularly. I sent gifts. We attended the Reno Air Races together and road tripped from Alabama to Pennsylvania for an automobile swap meet. I tried to get to his bedside before he died, and from what I understand he tried to stay alive until I got there. We missed each other by maybe two hours, which isn’t much given that we were separated by a continent.
My last acts as a son were to write his obituary and to help my sister clean out the Augean stables that were my parents’ house and more specifically my father’s workshop. In the years since that first panic attack while surveying his shop, the stuff had multiplied exponentially. The hoard was as tall as me now, and it sprawled over every available surface with exception to a few narrow pathways.
For the next 2 1/2 months my sister, nephew, and I ate that greasy elephant bite by bite. We started by identifying as much literal garbage as we could, filling a 22 foot long, 7.5 foot wide dumpster to its six foot height in two short weeks. We sold some big things much cheaper than we should have just to free up some room, and then we began to identify, clean, sort, and price stuff.
Word of mouth spread, and people began showing up with cash in hand. Inevitably they marveled at the scope of my father’s skills and knowledge as represented by his stuff. “This man must’ve been some kind of genius” was uttered more than once. “Was there anything he couldn’t do?” Many wished they had met the man who owned the stuff, convinced that they would’ve been fast friends. This in particular amused me, as I knew my father as the king of the misanthropes.
Over that 2.5 months every routine that I have broke down. I didn’t read much, nor did I write at all. Three hundred pushups per day became a quick 75 whenever I could find time. I shopped, ate, and did laundry as time permitted rather than according to my strict schedule. I didn’t even listen to much music, just worked, worked, worked. Routines weren’t the only thing that fell away: so did many of those ill-fitting masks. I began to wonder if maybe I’d be happier living in the small Alabama town my parents once called home.
We didn’t get all of the stuff liquidated but we managed to get it into a state where it no longer seemed overwhelming for my sister and nephew who live nearby, so I packed up the car and headed home. Rather than head straight home, though, I decided to drive up to South Carolina and visit friends and places I hadn’t seen in 35 years.
This is where I need you to remember The Good Witch of the Local Diner. I approached South Carolina after dark, and just as I crossed the state line the opening chord of “Freebird” rang from the car’s speakers–the unofficial anthem of my southern childhood, that bright invocation that over time turned into a judgemental punchline. An opiate calm washed over me, a feeling that everything was okay, an overwhelming sense of James-ness, as if all of the masks fell away and for the first time in decades it was okay to be myself.
No, that’s not quite right. This was a feeling of Jim-ness, the young man who 32 years ago pointed the car westward at dawn and headed toward a limitless future where anything was possible, my little bit of stuff packed in the trunk. Would I be a writer? A painter? A bum? Would I wake up tomorrow at 5 a.m. or noon? My whole life was ahead of me, a blank page awaiting its first tentative pen strokes. But upon returning to South Carolina three decades later, Ronnie Van Zant wailed and for whatever reason for a brief moment I was Siddhartha, the disillusioned rug merchant, returning to the river.
My childhood hometown changed dramatically over those three decades. I could no longer navigate by landmarks, as many of the places that I once knew were gone. Not all of them, though. I ate at a handful of witch-free diners that remained right where I left them in 1988. Some of the buildings I knew as this or that remained but now stood empty. They were concrete corpses, still there but stripped of their souls.
More importantly, gone were the prevalent attitudes that I attributed to the region but were more likely products of their time: intolerance, racism, fear of change. The downtown that I remembered as neglected and dangerous was now peppered with bars, restaurants, and microbreweries. People walked the streets well into the evening without concern. I watched a trans woman be treated with the combination of courtesy and indifference ascribed to my California home rather than small town South Carolina.
The Piedmont grew, but the region retained its beauty. I did some ugly growing up in that very beautiful place. The same can be said for childhood friends who may be a little grayer and broader, but whose rough edges have long been worn away with time. These were very decent people with whom I shared a long history. I had no idea how important that is, but now and then someone would tell me something about myself that I never knew or long ago forgot, and that little part of me would wake up and take notice. The longer I stayed the more I felt like myself.
The experience was like a lucid dream, or one of those moments that those who meditate occasionally luck into, as if time ripped open for a moment and allowed me to feel what could be rather than what is. I caught a fleeting glimpse out of the corner of my eye, and I’m no longer content being comfortably numb.
I am not an old man, nor am I a man with infinite time remaining. If I’m lucky I might have 30 years left before my grieving children wonder what the hell to do with my record collection. On the other hand, you may be reading the last words of a dead man. Tomorrow never knows, after all. I may be dead and not even know it.
I want to hold onto that feeling of Jim-ness. I want to return to the river, pay the ferryman to take me back to a life without illusions. I don’t think that’s too much to ask for a lifetime of wearing ill-fitting masks.
I just hope that I can figure out how to get there.