Next weekend, for the first time in my entire life, I will go home to see my mom and stay in a motel. My parents’ house sold in May. The last time I was in Independence, in December, I spent three weeks going through closets and drawers and boxes, deciding the fate of the contents from a lifetime of memories. My mom lives just down the street at an assisted living facility where she once worked. Her space there is enlivened (but hopefully not cluttered) by her favorite objects from our old house on Russell Road. We put some stuff in storage, gave items to friends and family. I brought tchotchkes and photographs and some of my grandmother’s artwork back to LA. Everything else was left to be sold in an estate sale.
In the last few years, I’ve spent extended periods in my hometown. First with my dad’s illness and death, and then to help with some of my mom’s health challenges. I can’t lie, these chapters were a gift. I was the boy who ran as far and as fast away from Kansas as he could, but in my adulthood, I learned there was a peace I needed (and wanted) to make with my imperfect Independence.
In December, it was just me and the dogs staying in a quiet house without even a television. Fourteen year old me could not have fathomed three weeks without a television, but we are not always aware of our strength until it’s called of us. I’d visit my mom at her new place and drive around town and through the park, getting food from my favorite places. I’d attack each room, each closet, each drawer, putting a piece of tape on whatever was “estate sale” ready.
It was all so nostalgic, spending weeks scouring the archives of our family’s museum. Christmas and birthday cards from long dead relatives. Pictures of my dad and mom, young and beautiful and innocent. Aged newspaper articles about family reunions in my mom’s hometown of La Junta, Colorado. My baby clothes, my baby books, my favorite stuffed animals. I was buried in memories, overwhelmed by personal objects with loaded significance.
When I drove into town, I’d drive the same loop I used to “cruise” when I was in high school. Penn to Main, then left, left at 6th, then left onto Myrtle and right on Penn. Then I’d drive to the park, maybe on Penn but maybe take Park. It’s such a time warp, breaking down a childhood home and part of you being sure it was only about 15 minutes ago you were 16. This time, just like 35 years earlier, I had that one song that I played on repeat. Over and over. Loudly. Windows down. Singing far louder than a person of my age/talent would be advised to do.
This time, it wasn’t Amy Grant. Or Chicago. Or Pat Benatar. To be honest, it was cringily age inappropriate but, hey, #jesuisarresteddevelopment. This time, my song was All Too Well by Taylor Swift. (Taylor’s Version, of course.) Just like we did it high school, it was the only song I wanted to hear, the only song that made me FEEL the feelings I wanted to feel.
For those who don’t know, All Too Well is a memory song. It’s about a young woman looking back on a former relationship where, how do I say this? She was more innocent at the beginning of the relationship than she was at the end. Taylor Swift originally recorded it in 2012 not too long after the written about relationship ended. When she re-recorded and rereleased it in 2021, there was added gravity and beauty. (IMHO.) When Taylor sang about the little town street, I was on MY little town street. It wasn’t just JAKE who was a little kid with glasses in a twin sized bed, I had been a little kid with glasses in a twin size bed. My mom tells stories about when I was on the tee ball team. As the days wore on, I understood that if I wanted to dance around the kitchen in the refrigerator light, the time was nigh. Soon, there would be no kitchen, no refrigerator, certainly no refrigerator light.
A few times, I brought my mom to the house and she would go through pictures or her jewelry. She’d tell a story and somehow get necklaces tangled up with each other. It’s easy to do. They are like memories in that regard. Part of the story of our house, or the house that was our house, is that my mom bought the house while my dad was out of town. The people who built it were transferred less than a year after it’s completion. She loved it and knew someone else would buy it before my dad returned so she made the down payment. It worked out. He loved the house. We all did. But no one loved the house more than my mom. In sentimental moments, I think of that house like Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree, a generous protector who in turn, loved my mother most of all too.
I took pictures of every room before I left the house on that last morning on my way out of town. A friend who had gone through the same thing advised it and I am glad to have the photographic evidence. A family lived here. They weren’t perfect, they weren’t rich, they weren’t happy every moment. There was pain, there was death. Loss. Tears. But there was good. There were laughs. Hugs. Joy. And of course, love.
Are all stories love stories? Most are. From my house, our house, I drove to say goodbye to my mom. She sat on a bench outside so she could tell her grand pups how much she loved them. She and I hugged goodbye. “Don’t cry,” I said. Foolish, because certainly, everyone knows we feel better after we cry a little. “I love you,” we told each other.
And then I drove out of town. It felt necessary to play my anthem one last time as I pulled onto Highway 75. Not unlike young me, I couldn’t wait to leave. Again.
And maybe we got lost in translation
Maybe I asked for too much
But maybe this thing was a masterpiece ’til you tore it all up
Running scared, I was there
I remember it all too well.
Wind in my hair, you were there, you remember it all
Down the stairs, you were there, you remember it all
It was rare, I was there, I remember it all too well.