When I was little, I lay awake at night worrying about the fact that I would die some day.
Similarly, as a sentimental young man, I dreaded the day when we’d say goodbye to the home I grew up in. And now the time has come: My mother is vacating the residence that has been our family home-base since the mid-1960s and making the move from Ohio to an assisted living apartment in Louisville.
We drove home yesterday for one last Christmas in the house. The Christmas tree is now of the table-top variety instead of one that stands from floor to ceiling, but the rest of the house was bedecked with familiar decorations and knick-knacks accrued over the years. They are beginning, like many things, to show their age.
There’s been no smell of cooking or baking in the house for several years as those skills declined, so the silver three-tiered Christmas cookie tray gathers dust in the basement. It was my job as a child to assemble that tray, to oversee its starring role on the dining room table by keeping it stocked (which worked out well, since I was mostly the one raiding it).
The faded walls of this modest ranch-style house echo with high school rock bands, family meals, holiday gatherings, and ordinary pre-air-conditioning summer nights rocking on the glider and listening to Joe Nuxhall on the AM dial describing the action 50 miles south as the Cincinnati Reds took on some enemy team.
But Dad is gone, as is Billy, my brother, whose disability made him a permanent fixture in that house. Or so we thought. Permanent isn’t so permanent anymore.
To the surprise of all of us, Mom announced last month that she was calling it quits and moving to Louisville. So we find ourselves this Christmas season preparing to disassemble the trappings of a system that has guided and grounded us most of our lives.
I removed the redwood plaque given to my parents by a friend many years ago. “The Phelps Family,” it reads in cursive wood-burning, announcing our name and staking our claim for decades as it hung over the garage door on Willowdale Avenue. My parents’ own little piece of the American Dream. But the Phelps family has morphed and scattered, so the sign came down. I placed it in a bag with other items of little or no value to a non-Phelps, but too meaningful to leave behind.
You take little pieces, mementos, things that have no significance to others but can propel you back to childhood quicker than the DeLorean in “Back to the Future.” A metal toy. A worn and worthless tool. An old rocking chair. A note whose importance has long been forgotten but whose familiar penmanship resurrects the dead in our minds.
But surprisingly, gratefully, the anticipated finality of this passage is not as hard as once envisioned. While I cherish the life lived on Willowdale Avenue, now it’s time to turn the page in order to see what is to come. To refuse the change is to reveal a disability akin to Billy’s — the limits and arrested development of one unable to ever leave home.
Soon a new family will move in, change things (please, someone remodel that bathroom!), make it their home, and, we pray, raise a family that loves life and each other.
And we will move on. We’ll reframe what we mean by “home,” what it means for us to be a family without a home base, what it means for us to be “home for Christmas.”
Perhaps that’s what is going on with my mom, who seems genuinely happy for her children and grandchildren to scavenge through her life’s accumulations in order to take away some piece, whether practical or sentimental or even comical. Mom is liberated from the notion that she must retain her things to define her life. She’s reached the stage in life where even clinging to life itself no longer feels like a top priority.
I hope I can reach that stage before I’m 91. What liberation to let go of things, physical or positional, and be open and ready for what’s next.
Christmas is about inviting something new to be born into the world. New Year’s Day follows quickly on its heals. They pose a similar question: What might I need to let go of for something new to be born?
Joe Phelps is pastor of Highland Baptist Church, www.hbclouisville.org.