Thursday, May 03, 2007
The Memory Mill
(This is the text of my solo performance. I can't say how much I enjoyed this class and how glad I am that I finally decided to take it.
Reading the words is not quite the same as watching a performance, but I hope you get an idea of what I was trying to do.)
My house is so empty there should be an echo.
Oh, there’s plenty of stuff: furniture, closets bursting with clothes, rows of bookshelves.
It’s a two-family house, with three bedrooms, dining room, porch; it’s huge, a relic from a time when they really knew how to build houses.
The only thing the place doesn’t have is people; no people at all. Except me.
My family bought this house in Brooklyn in 1948. My grandparents passed the place on to my mom and dad, and now it belongs to their four children. It’s gone through many hands over the last 60 years, but it hasn’t moved an inch.
My mother died five years ago and my father followed her in January. My sister and brothers all moved out years ago, and the last bunch of tenants took off for parts unknown.
I’m the only one here, the master of the house—until we sell it.
I lived most of my life in this place; even when I was living somewhere else. Whether it was Connecticut or Pennsylvania, I was always close enough to dash home whenever I wanted to.
Now I have full run of the place. Every morning I get up, make breakfast, and get ready for work with only the voice of the radio news to keep me company.
At night I come home, eat supper and make sure all the doors are locked and the lights are turned off.
I feel like a sentry at a distant outpost, or one of those Japanese soldiers found hiding in the jungle long after the war ended.
I’m still on duty, bowing to the emperor’s tattered portrait. For years I complained about not having any privacy. Now I don’t have much else.
But you should have seen this place when I was growing up. This house used to rumble with activity: people, dogs, cats, kids running in all directions, tenants upstairs walking over our heads.
You could hear my mother singing as she cooked in the kitchen, ship ahoy, ship ahoy, who wants to marry a sailor boy? You could hear the kids fighting, my father yelling at the kids to stop fighting.
The whole place roared like some industrial age factory, though instead of making steam engines or auto parts, the house churned out memories—by the ton.
Now the factory has shut down, a victim of time; the workers are scattered in all directions. And the emptiness here reminds me of my own failure to move out, to move on, and start my own family and create the next generation of memories.
When I was a kid, every Christmas Eve my Italian grandmother would set a place at the dinner table for the souls of the dead. She’d put out food and wine as if wandering spirits might actually stop by and help themselves.
While I was eagerly waiting for Santa Claus, grandma prepared to welcome her late husband, Paul, her daughter, Mary, and the others who had gone before her.
That single plate and glass sat at the dining room table in such sharp contrast to the bedlam that would roll through the house in just a few hours, when we tore open our presents, argued with each other, and dove into huge helpings of grandma’s lasagna.
On Christmas Eve, the dead were the guests of honor.
Normally I was frightened by ghost stories, but this one didn’t bother me. I liked grandma’s tradition of keeping in touch with the spirit world. None of my friends’ families did this, so I thought it was kind of cool.
Today I could hold a banquet for all my deceased loved ones, fill every chair at the dining room table for a feast that would rival any holiday.
The day my father died, I got this crazy idea of keeping this empty house, of buying out my siblings and getting my sister to move into the upstairs apartment in a desperate attempt to keep some semblance of my family within these four walls.
It’s like I wanted to dip the entire house in bronze, like an enormous baby shoe.
But that notion wore off like a fading dream. My sister’s happy where she is now and I know I don’t want to be a landlord any more.
So we’ll have to clean the place out, all that stuff in all those rooms, and then the basement, oh God, the basement, a horror story in its own right, filled with boxes, toys, old clothes, ancient refrigerators, and even my grandfather’s wine press.
It’s all down there like a museum’s forgotten wing.
I used to be frightened of being in the basement when I was a kid, but I don’t know why. Any zombie or werewolf, vampire, that might have been chasing me would have tripped over all that crap down there and broken his neck before ever got his claws into my hide.
I’m thinking now maybe we should just fill the basement with cement and tell everyone the house has a really solid foundation.
We’ll get it done, though. I’ll sort through my possessions and my memories, keep the ones I need and toss the rest. But I’ve been known to over pack.
I dread that last day in my family’s house, when, relived of duty, I’ll walk through those empty rooms making sure nothing’s been forgotten and all the windows have been closed. The echoes will be real on that day, loud as gunshots, and almost as painful.
I try to picture what the next family to move in here will be like, but my eyes well up at the thought of other people cooking in my mother’s kitchen, or watching TV in our living room, and sleeping in my bedroom.
Who are these intruders, running down the hall like I used to do when I was a boy—wiping over my family’s history like a bricklayer covering over a crumbling wall?
I want to hate them for what they’ll be doing, but all they’ll be doing is making memories of their own.
And sometimes I can accept the change, wish the new residents well, and hope they have half as many good times in this house as I did.
I wonder if they’ll have pets or will they be the kind of people who worry about getting fur on the upholstery. Will they dye Easter eggs at the kitchen table and dress up in homemade costumes on Halloween like we did?
Will they host huge dinners, and put up a real Christmas tree, or will they decorate one of those God awful artificial things?
And on Christmas Eve, will their grandmother set a place for the dead?
Whoever they are, I hope they appreciate those good times they’ll have here sooner than I did--when everyone is alive and healthy, because that won’t last forever. Even though you think it will.
And some day, many years from now, if they do put a plate out on Christmas Eve, maybe I’ll come back to my old house and pull up a chair.
I don’t know what the afterlife is like, but wherever I am, I’ll never say no to a good meal.