You Can’t Always Keep What You Love

When my grandmother passed away on a night in early September, it was only a matter of time before my family would say farewell to something else important to us — her house, my childhood home.

The blueish-gray house, which sits on a busy corner of a block in the LA suburb Gardena, has been in the family for decades. My mother and her sister were raised there, as were their first children. In the case of my mother, her next two children, my younger sister and I, grew up in between those same walls, too.

Almost all of my childhood memories take place here. In fact, the earliest, clearest memory I have is the day I saw my sister for the first time, after she was brought home from the hospital. I still remember it vividly — there she was in a carrier seat, in the center of the brown-carpeted living room, being fawned over by my family. I wasn’t in a rush to see what the fuss was about, so, I sat at the kitchen table and played with a toy. Jealousy. My aunt, being the only person paying any sliver of thought to the other kid in the room, turned to me and waved, “come here and meet your sister.” I did, and became an older brother. What a title to have.

It’s in this house where I stayed awake long after I was supposed to on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus (I got close once), carve pumpkins that would stay out far past their expiration date into late November, and lose myself in reading comics and R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps. It’s here where I waited years for my sister to grow out of her crib and finally get a bed of her own in the bedroom we shared, where we’d talk about creeping out for the night to run across Rosecrans Park and reach the railroad tracks far on its opposite side to find the source of the loud, Godzilla-like screeching noises that echoed from that direction every night. (The noises came from factories, which were knocked down a few years ago — Jesus, everything has changed here.) We never did venture out across the dark expanse that was nighttime Rosecrans, but the fun came from dreaming up what went on over there in the hours before sunrise.

Back then, I loved being up early. I’d wake up hours before dawn just to stare out of the window in our kitchen at the empty streets bathed in the orange glow of the lamps overhead, and press my cheek to the glass to feel the chill from outside. I felt powerful — I was the only person awake in the entire world. RUN!Run through the middle of the streets! Scream! Shout! No one would know! The fools are still asleep! Yep, there was a raving lunatic waiting to come out in my head when I was alone, but I never did let him out. I would instead watch the sky fade from purple to blue on these mornings, and watch as a lonely car or bus sailing down Vermont Avenue was joined by many as the weekday rush hour picked up before school.

As the years passed, and we aged, the house aged with us. Paint peeled, wood crumbled, and things broke that were never replaced. My family wanted to fix things — but my grandmother wouldn’t let us. As loving as the stubborn lady was, she could be extraordinarily protective when it came to her possessions. In her later years, when she had the house to herself, she simply wanted more time alone than not. And why not? She raised a hoard of kids off and on for half a century. Aside from my mother’s daily stops there and my weekly visits when I was in town, she could only handle so much before she’d let you know she was tired and it was time to hit the hay. Fortunately, this often didn’t happen until we were both washed in the deep orange hues of the setting sun emanating through the same kitchen window I peered out of so many mornings as a child.

By the time she passed away, there was a lot of work to be done on the house — far exceeding the money and time my family could put into fixing it. The area wasn’t any better, either. Gang graffiti tagged all over the white garage door, or someone parked in front of our driveway and blocking the entrance was commonplace. As important as it is, my mother and aunt (the heirs to the house) couldn’t hold on to it just for nostalgia’s sake. If there was ever a time to let go, this was it.

I lived with my mother as an infant before she handed me to my grandmother, and, of course, I don’t remember any of it. The story of my life, in my eyes, begins at this corner house in Gardena. But my final years will be lived out elsewhere. We’re masters of uprooting our lives and traveling great distances to set up shop, and I’m willing to bet that many of us don’t end up living out our lives in our childhood homes — even if it might be poetic to do so. My grandmother moved to Gardena from a farm in Iowa when she was just a girl, and though she liked to talk about milking cows and raising chickens, I never got an impression that she wanted to be anywhere else than her home in Southern California.

Today the buyers officially become the owners, and last night — the final night the house was in our possession — I walked through every inch of the place, outside and in, soaking in the yellowing walls, the ripped carpets, the clacking of the metal gate, my handprint and signature imprinted in the backyard cement the year my sister was born, all for one last time. These smells — the trees in the front yard, the stale rain water collected in coffee cans outside, the thousands of unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes that still hang in the air, which my grandmother burned through for so many years that the smoke alone might be the only thing holding the creaking house together — I appreciate today more than ever before.

While most of the house is empty, there were some leftover mattresses in my old room. I took one and dragged it to my grandmother’s bedroom, and slept there for the first time. This old house still had something new to give.

I don’t plan to ever visit or pass by here again. The house is bound to be painted, remodeled, and transformed into something unrecognizable. I can’t bare to see it change so drastically.

So, here’s a final picture of the house and I, in the state I plan to remember it in for the rest of my life. Regardless of what may happen to it after today, it will survive as it is in my mind and heart.

Sometimes the memory of a place or time in our lives is all we’ll have left to carry with us. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, it’ll be all we’ll need.

At least, until it isn’t.