Why the American Dream Sometimes Makes You Wake Up in Tears

Thoughtless people confuse being sentimental with wearing your heart on your sleeve.  If that association of ideas were true, I’d be the least sentimental person in any group.  But two days before I departed my home of twenty years forever, as my wife and I ate supper in the designated “breakfast nook” while a mid-July Texas sun drifted far west behind the hickories in a rhythm grown hauntingly familiar, I found myself sniveling into my napkin.  It shocked me, that surge of emotion.  I couldn’t explain why I should feel such sudden attachment to a place I’d made extraordinary efforts to leave.  I had raised my boy here, true enough, and we had staged many a contest of many a kind (he and I) in the back yard that now stared at me rather shaggily.  (Why mow it one last time when the buyers would soon be paying some “lawn care professional” to raze everything while riding on a rig the size of my truck?)  My son had himself left the old nest for good some four—almost five—years earlier, however.  No, it didn’t seem as though this was transferred grief for the lapsed golden age of fatherhood.

I’ve wanted to write a few lines about that sentimental moment for weeks now, but I find that the flurry of activity in the intervening weeks is quickly dulling my resolution.  I’d better say my farewells to the old place while I retain enough “sentimentality” to get to the source of my grief.  I think I know, at last, what it is.

Goodbye, old house.  You were an odd structure.  Your slit-like windows looked ultra-modern when they were built in the late Sixties, but when we knew you they had long acquired that insipid irony of things gone very much out of style by bidding too feverishly for stylishness earlier.  Maybe your interior cabinets wrapping the den were also “the bee’s knees” once upon a time.  We could never figure out what to put in them; and the bookcases that imitated their wide meanders from above were quite convenient for someone like me… yet, like the cabinets, were too deep, as if their makers didn’t really know the size of a book (or as if the imagined inhabitants were not intended to own actual books; plates and china statuary, perhaps—a huge conch from Maui, a fleet of Belleek dishes or Waterford crystal from Ireland?).

The place always felt smaller than it was, for reasons such as this.  It seemed to gesture at the next step up in luxury; and for that reason, it sacrificed the virtues of its proper level on the socio-economic staircase.  It squeezed us, and we abused it unfairly until, in our new home, we realized how much space was actually squandered hither and yon in the old one.  Sorry, old thing.  I gave you a hard time over that.

Let’s admit that you really were a bit schizophrenic.  I used to dig up fragments of suspiciously flat and well-groomed bitumen in doing my gardening, as if a rural road might have run through our back yard at one time.  Your two hot-water heaters were a mystery to everyone, as well.  Your size couldn’t justify them.  You must have had add-on work at some point—maybe a garage turned into a bedroom and bathroom (with those pretentiously huge closets, once again)and a new garage opening on a side street.  The buyer, or new owner, or whatever we call him, discovered that your ancient sprinkler system still worked in places (presumably not in the place where my son dug up one of its heads in excavating the mother of all foxholes).  You kept quite a few secrets from us, you know.  We might have spoken more kindly of you if you hadn’t been so evasive.

Yet for me, the worst problems were none of your own making.  Twenty years ago, Owen had playmates of his on age immediately on either side of him, and another couple within instant walking or biking distance.  That changed before he left elementary school.  Americans, they say, spread their bedsheets in something like thirty different dwellings over the course of a lifetime: they average one move every three years or so.  What a frightening statistic!  How can so many people be so unsatisfied or so insecurely employed?  (My wife and I managed to cram ten residences into a dozen years… but that was a result of my seeking a stable career in academe.)  What I saw that Sunday evening, old house, as I looked out the kitchen/dining room window and fought to suppress a sob was—among other things—a neighborhood that had long ceased to have neighbors.  As former residents “moved up”, properties turned rental; and as this and that property was rented, the one over there was drawn into the same orbit by a vaguely less “family-friendly” ambience.  The school ground down the street where I used to jog and where our first baseball team used to practice was rumored to have drawn a collection of pedophiles into the surrounding houses.  After a major overhaul, which destroyed whatever flat ground it once possessed for chasing long fly balls, it was cautiously fenced in.  The school buildings themselves morphed from a random string of separate structures to a megalithic Taj Mahal that must have made some city councilman’s nephew very wealthy (but that probably didn’t see the quality of instruction take a great leap forward).

“Progress” of some kind had eaten away the quiet shoal waters all around you, old girl. Now the waves gnash unimpeded at your curbs.  Dollars rule the currents that have reshaped your streets.  It couldn’t have been nostalgia, then, that made me choke on my rice as I looked down toward the school.  There were no old friends that way—or even any old enemies.  Only strangers.  My wife and I had invested in this neighborhood the twenty years of our existence commonly said to be the prime of life, the acme… and we were surrounded by strangers.

More than anything else, I have decided that the key to my grief lies therein: not that we were leaving so much behind, but that we were leaving almost nothing behind.  Twenty years of your life… and even the boy to whom you devoted the energy of those years doesn’t want to come back to the place.  Why would he?  A Big Nothing where people ingeniously apply themselves to devising strategies for grinding out a profit but never see a tree grow to maturity… what a waste.

That’s it: the waste.  You had potential, old house… but I was always too busy to give you a proper facelift until it was time to put you on the market.  You had never looked so pretty—and, by that point, you were already significantly not mine.  In the same way, the neighborhood and the city that surrounded you held reservoirs of untapped potential… and all of it will continue to run out into the great wide sea as this person sees an “opportunity” here and that one sees another there.  Waste.  Waste of all that really matters.

There.  I’ve done it—I’m finished.  I’ve worked myself into a state where I could almost break down again.  How we waste our time in this busy life!