Paul Andersen: Digging up bones at my childhood home
April 8, 2002
My father, an architect, designed his home after World War II and my grandfather, a master carpenter from Denmark, built that home in 1947. The lot was surrounded by farm fields and had a grove of trees in the backyard.
That grove blossoms today with wildflowers planted decades ago by my late mother, but the farm fields have long ago been converted into subdivisions. The rural character of the neighborhood has been lost, but the house remains the same as the one I knew as a child. The memories it holds are potent in the wake of my father’s recent death.
My old bedroom is much the way it was when I was nursed there as a baby and about the same as when I packed a steamer trunk for college in 1969 and left for Colorado, where I have lived for over 30 years.
Soon this familiar old home will be listed by a realtor; an estate sale will liquidate the furnishings, clothing, tools, utensils, artwork and all the trappings of a home that has stood for 55 years as a one-family household. There are a lot of goodbyes to be said here.
I ponder these goodbyes one morning while sipping coffee at my father’s kitchen table, staring out the window onto sun-dappled trees where cardinals alight in flashes of red. I begin with the familiar things in yellowed photo albums and in boxes from the attic. There are emotional tremors in each item and image.
One photo album shows the very beginning of this home, this family. There are pictures of a weed-grown vacant lot, of a new foundation with my grandfather standing next to it wearing denim overalls, a brimmed hat and wire-rimmed glasses.
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The pictures that follow show the house rising from the ground in brick and mortar. Then my mother and father are there, standing before the fireplace looking tired but happy. Their home is finished!
Next, my parents are pictured with a baby in their arms – my sister. The year is 1949. In 1951, a birth announcement signals my beginning with a picture of me as a newborn. Then comes my brother in 1953.
The home grew with two additions, as the family grew. When it was completed in the late ’50s, the Andersens became part of mainstream suburbia. We joined the baby boom and contributed to the demographics that epitomized the growth of modern, post-war America.
In a dusty box titled “Paul’s Letters” I page through handwritten notes of congratulations on my birth, written to my parents by friends and relatives, and saved all these years. In other boxes I find old toys, my first flannel sleeping bag, vinyl record albums, rock collections and other treasures.
I’m digging up bones, exhuming a personal archaeological survey of a childhood and the life that has followed. Through keepsakes and photographs, I see myself as a toddler, a teenager, a high school and college graduate, a husband, a father.
The family home is more than images of my evolution. It is the manifestation of my parents and of a close-knit, loving family. Every room is a conduit to the strands of a rich family life. And now it’s all going to be liquidated and dispersed.
My siblings and I agree to compile lists of the things we want, so my last act in the house, before returning to Colorado, is surveying the contents. It’s an odd feeling to glance at household icons with a sense of acquisition. I feel awkward and mercenary.
I focus on the books: a philosophical treatise by Will Durant, a Jack London collection and one by Somerset Maugham, volumes of French literature, art history, science and poetry. Hundreds of other titles round out a diverse collection that reflects the intellectual journey of my parents.
I make a stack of these books, but my heart is not in it. The grieving is too fresh. Instead, I gaze at the rooms and the things in them as if for the last time, ending an era of my life, severing a connection that has been forever.
Paul Andersen is a contributing editor to The Aspen Times.
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