Thursday, November 17, 2011

The House of My Dreams -- and Nightmares

Last night, I dreamed I'd moved back into the house where I grew up. It's a dream I've had before, but this time it so unsettled me, I couldn't get back to sleep.

It's not that my memories of the house are unpleasant. My childhood home is a lovely two-story red brick house, built in the late 1930s. It sits at the crest of a gentle hill on East Avondale Drive, a pleasant leafy street in Greensboro, N.C., a pleasant leafy city.

In some ways, this house was all about me, or at least, that's how I saw it as a boy. My family moved there because of me. I was the fifth child born, the only son, and the house my family lived in at the time was too small to accommodate another member. So the Martins moved into the four-bedroom home in the Starmount Forest neighborhood. And because I had four older sisters, I was the only family member with a room to myself.

Over time, and especially once all us kids had moved out, my mother's collecting took over the house like a slow-growing vine. While most husbands would probably have objected, my father seemed to enjoy her obsessions. She filled every room (except the basement) with whatever she was collecting at the time, then never got rid of anything.

As I recall, her serious collecting began when she won $1,000 in the mid 60s at the Colonial Grocery Store in Friendly Shopping Center. When she came home and told my father, he was so excited he threw the money into the air in celebration. Needless to say, that $1,000 didn't last long, as my mother bought an antique Seth Thomas grandfather clock with most of it.

My childhood home, painted by my mother (Ruth Martin)
My mother started collecting dolls of all shapes and sizes. I once counted 111 Raggedy Ann dolls in the house; 111 was, coincidentally, the address of our house. One day, she brought home a store mannequin. My father looked up from his newspaper, saw the mannequin, rolled his eyes, and said, "Just don't expect me to put her through college, too."

The house remained in my family for nearly 50 years. In late 2006, we had to move my mother into a retirement home because of her advancing dementia. A year later, we sold the house to a 'flipper,' who has in turn sold it to a family.

So why was the dream of moving back to my childhood home so unsettling? Anxiety is the source of the dream, I believe. Like many people today, worries about making enough money to keep a roof over my head sometimes come out to play when I'm asleep. Moving back into my childhood home is not actually comforting in my dreams; it means I've failed to be self-sufficient.

There's something else going on in this dream, too.

Last weekend, an auctioneer held the first of what will probably be three auctions to sell many of the items my mother collected through the years. My sisters and I have kept this huge amount of stuff in storage for several years now, and we finally decided it was time to let them go, stop the storage facility checks, and try to get some money for our mother's ongoing care in an Alzheimer's facility.

In an e-mail, my sister Nancy reported on the success of the first auction. The grandfather clock, the item that started my mother on her path as a collector, sold for $1,500. Her clown shoes and clown suit sold for $300 (I told you she had obsessions). A telephone table with a fold-up seat went for $270.

And so, bit by bit over the years, my family is having to let go. Of the physical objects that delighted and defined our mother, of the home we spent many happy years in, of the father who provided and protected. In my dream, I long to do what I know is impossible when I awake--to reclaim what is forever lost.

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  1. So poignant, James. I think perhaps we all have those moments (some recurring, others not) where we are able to see so clearly the past, the present, and the future. I wish you such closure as you and your family continue to move forward.

  2. This is heartbreaking. But you have to keep in mind, too, that these are only material things. Your memories and the love your family shares will always be the most important thing of all... and you can't sell that at an auction.

  3. Jim, I know that lovely street well. You have wonderful memories that you have written about so well. They are priceless.

  4. What a touching post. Your family and childhood are clearly treasures and those memories and shared experiences are yours forever. I love e.e. Cummings "I carry your heart" and I believe that we carry people and memories in our hearts daily and throughout our lives.

  5. Whenever I dream of the loved ones I've lost, it seems we are always at my grandparent's house. It is so comforting to be together with everyone again. The house never changes, and we are together again, even if it's just my subconscious.
    I think your mind and your heart are taking you to a wonderful place that shaped the wonderful man you are. Enjoy those visits!

  6. all I could say after it was all given to the auctioneer was - it's gone. it's all gone.

  7. My sister makes fun of me a lot because I love to collect things. Things that make no sense, a hummingbird suspended in air, a golden pear, a frame with a quote in it that I like. My sister says the day I die my kids are just going to have strangers come into my house and buy all my junk. I tell her that I know those people that come to estate sales or yard sales are treasure seekers just like me, and that I know that they will get the same intense joy out of buying my little treasures and taking them to their new homes as I got in collecting those treasures for myself. So I tell her PLEASE...PLEASE do have those treasure seekers traipse through my home and take those beloved items to new homes where they will be cherished, displayed and someday sold to go off and give yet another person joy.

    I'm sure all those collections brought joy to your mother and now they will go off to give someone else joy.

    And nothing is lost as long as you cherish the memory...

  8. I vowed as a child that when I grew up I'd buy the two houses we stayed in and put them back just the way I remembered. A few years back I went back to the first house. I hardly recognised it! It was so small - not at all the vast open place I recall as a child! I realized the houses I'd wanted never existed. The houses I wanted were no longer real and were special places of grandure in my memory.

  9. Such a beautiful post. It reminds me of a quote from the BBC series North and South "Try as we might, happy as we were, we can't go back". We never really let go in our hearts or our memories though. All the best for you and your family.