Last Friday my first-born child left home.
Even though Christopher has only moved to Vienna, even though Vienna is only temporary, the point is that his parents’ home is no longer where he lives. He will come back of course, but when he comes back now, it will only be a visit, a transitional stop at the most. And of course the “goal” of parenting is to eventually let go, to trust this young person to take control of his own life. Nevertheless, after we packed up the car and I stood downstairs watching Christopher and Peter drive off together, I went back upstairs, looked around at the oddly empty spaces left and just sat down to cry for a bit. Letting go is easier said than done.
Watching (more than helping) Christopher pack, I was amused and touched to see what mattered most to him, what he wanted to have around him in the setting of his new life on his own, what he imagined he would need. Most importantly, he decided he needs his books. In recent years, especially during his last year of school, I sometimes complained that his books were costing me a fortune, especially when he came up with long lists of highly obscure (and accordingly expensive) leftist political history books that he absolutely, desperately, urgently needed. But Christopher is my son, my father’s grandson, Juanita Shanahan’s great-grand-nephew – and he loves books. It has always given me great pleasure to see how excited he can be about not only the contents of his books, but also the books as objects, beautiful, tangible objects in their own right. Unfortunately, in the end it wasn’t possible to fit the last box of books into our car along with Christopher’s mattress. Either the mattress or one box of books had to be left behind for the next trip to Vienna, presumably some time in the near future. Hard choice.
Fittingly, perhaps, Christopher packed all his clothes in the large suitcase that Amy bought for her first trip to Europe with her then two-year-old son when Christopher was born. I can’t remember now when or why that suitcase ended up in Austria, but the pink shoelaces that Amy tied around the handle are still attached, and I was happy to see Christopher take it with him. Christopher also packed up some smaller odds and ends of recording equipment and cables in a child-size suitcase with Star Wars pictures on it. I remembered that Amy found that one for me somewhere to transport some of the things I took home with me after Dad died. It was somehow comforting to see Christopher take that one too. And seeing him pack up his collection of Kachina dolls, I felt – superstitiously, whimsically – reassured that he will be protected with the Kachinas to watch over him.
There are so many things that Christopher doesn’t remember. We have looked at pictures, books, various objects together, and I have told him stories again and again about his childhood, and at some level I think he has made connections, but mental images of his own of having lived his own past seem to have been dimmed, if not entirely lost, from anything before meningitis. So as he packed, I had the impression that he associated emotional ties with certain objects, but not the specific memories that could explain those emotional ties. As is probably usually the case with mothers and children, even where memories have not been obscured by a period of pain, when I look at Christopher, I see all the twenty years of his life at once. I have very clear mental images of memories of him as a baby, as a toddler, as a kindergarten child, a young school child, a pre-adolescent, a young teenager, a 15-year-old delirious with pain, a 16-year-old recovering, a secondary school student struggling, an idealistic young leftist intellectual just beginning to spread his wings … As all of these unshared memories came flooding into my mind, I found myself feeling very lonely. I suspect that memories can only really be real, if they are shared. Perhaps that is another good reason why a greater number of people need to share in the life of a child.
When Peter returned from Vienna and found me among the empty spaces, I suggested that I would be happy to help Paddy rearrange the room for himself over the weekend. Peter firmly stated his opinion that Paddy would certainly not want to spend his last free weekend before starting his “service to society” on Monday rearranging furniture. I believe the technical term for that is “projection”.
When Paddy came in on Saturday, he could hardly wait to get started, and we had the bunk beds that the boys have shared for seventeen years disassembled and removed to the basement within about an hour. Moving things around and cleaning kept us busy for the rest of the day. Although I was a bit startled that Paddy and Susi suddenly announced that they were taking a break to go to the cinema, I was relieved that they brought Sascha home with them afterwards. Over the years, I’ve done my share of lifting and moving furniture, so I was happy to leave that to the younger generation, even though it left us with an absolutely classic situation: Susi in the kitchen making soup for the hard-working young men, Peter trapped somewhere in the back making helpful suggestions that were largely being ignored, me helplessly flapping my hands somewhere on the side, and Paddy and Sascha alternately yelping and swearing as they struggled to move the large black couch from the computer room into what is now Paddy’s room. That too unleashed so many memories – of similar situations all the way back to my childhood, watching my father and his brothers and friends move our furniture again.
On Sunday when Paddy and Susi went out for lunch and didn’t come back, because it was a beautiful autumn day and their last free day together, I found myself at home alone again, packing up the few things that Christopher had left behind. In the end, they fit into a shoe box. So that Paddy could turn what had been “the boys’ room” for eighteen years into what is now Paddy’s room, a young person’s room that could be anywhere, in any shared flat, in any city, I started cleaning the dust and traces that Christopher had left behind.
Most of the houses we moved into when I was a child were newly built, where we were the first occupants. The few times that we moved into a house that had previously been inhabited by someone else, I always searched carefully for traces of the previous occupants, some sign that might tell me at least some small story about the people who had lived there before. Conversely, every time we moved out, I always purposely left small traces hidden somewhere inconspicuous, hoping that someone would be curious enough to find them and wonder about me. Perhaps something of that memory was in the back of my mind as we packed up Amy’s things and cleaned her apartment for future residents. I liked Amy’s apartment, when I visited her there in early 2008, before we went to visit Mother “one last time” together. Amy seemed to be in a good place, and I was pleased for her. Cleaning her apartment, I felt that it was important to remove all traces – not a streak on the mirror nor even a fingerprint on the faucet should be left to move the future residents to wonder about who had lived there before them. It was a good space, and I wanted them to be happy there, whoever they might be.
As I cleaned Christopher’s desk, cleaned the window, washed the curtains, vacuumed the corners where the shelves had been, repressing the memory of cleaning Amy’s apartment felt like hard work, but I didn’t want to allow that association to form in my mind. Christopher doesn’t live here anymore, but he is not out of reach. Now Paddy lives here in this room – not so much with his parents, the people with whom he happens to share a kitchen and a bathroom and a television.
With all these memories, it is time for me to remember now what it was that I might have liked to do all those years when I felt there was no time at all left for me. I have that time now. As children grow up and move on, their parents become their past. Being someone else’s past is not enough, though. Now I need to be my own present as well – not only because I want to have something to say for myself, when my sons come to visit.