The Room of Requirement
I’m in the room of requirement. That room in Harry Potter books that’s crammed with things, but in which what you most require suddenly appears. Only I am not at Hogwarts. I am in my childhood home on Hayloft Circle, and what I most require is to get this place cleared out in five days. Some things in this room are likely magical, but mostly it is junk that has been stuffed in here over the two decades since my mother died and dad’s last child left home for good.
At one time this room was a garage that smelled of dead crickets forgotten after a fishing trip. My father converted it into a “playroom” when I was young, giving my brother and me an out-of-the-way place to dance to records on our Mickey Mouse turntable and to play marathon games with our Fisher Price little people and their farm, airport, garage, and play family house.
Now those toys are buried somewhere in the box bench seat that spans the length of one wall and is currently piled high with wrongly labeled boxes. How sad will the grandchild be who comes upon the promising box labeled “Legos” only to find a stack of dental bills from the 1970s? But first, to get to those boxes, you must carve a path through the towers of old televisions, answering machines, printers and tangled masses of curly phone cords from retro dial and push button phones. And by retro, I don’t mean cool. I mean yellowed, dusty, cracked and broken.
Standing before this mess, I too feel broken. It is a scene that has played out for many of my peers, as they clear out the homes of deceased love ones, so I know that I am lucky. My father is very much alive. He stands beside me twisting the silver hairs at the corners of his mustache as I debate where to start.
“Well dad, I think we can Marie Kondo the heck out of this space once we get through the stuff that just doesn’t work.” I reach for a lamp with golden tentacles, one holding a magnifying glass and the other a magazine clip.
“That was your grandma Rose’s,” he says, “I keep meaning to get it fixed.”
“Well, where would you put it if you do?” I ask. “I don’t know, but if the lamp in the living room ever breaks, it could go there.”
“So you’re keeping broken things in case another thing breaks too?”
I guess we need to start kondoing now.
“Dad, does grandma’s old lamp spark joy in the memory?”
“I don’t think I ever saw her use it.”
“Alrighty then,” I push some boxes at the far end of the room toward the middle and move the lamp into their space. “This is the pile for the dump.”
It goes like this for hours upon hours. Broken appliances pile up in a corner with stacks of my mother’s old nursing schoolbooks. I thumb through a few, rolling my eyes at the old fashioned approach to caregiving, the assumptions that all moms are married to the father of the baby, the way they describe the perception of a bruise on dark skin. We choose to keep the anatomy book in which she has written on the inside cover over and over Mrs. William Eugene Lowe. Dottie Lowe. Dorothy McGrath Lowe in the giddy font of a 20-year-old schoolgirl dreaming of her wedding. Soon we fill dad’s trunk and the backseat and head to the recycle center and to Goodwill for the first of countless trips.
Dad drives the old Honda down what used to be a winding road past a tobacco farm but is now filled with apartment complexes with names that are clearly meant to inspire a sense of prosperity like Bacarra and Hunter’s Run. We cross an overpass that wasn’t there before over a freeway that is also new and turn on to a street that I recognize but only from the other side of town.
“Oh, it cuts through now,” dad says and I am twisted and turned around because that side of town is now my side of town and the adjacent town that was once miles away is now on the other side of a giant new office complex and I am lost. It happens over and over again. I recognize nothing. The streets where my friends once lived, where we sat in the basement and played spin-the-bottle while listening to Paradise Theatre have become ancient, overgrown offshoots from the new main drags where glistening strip malls welcome passers-by to get nails done or visit the Bojangles for a biscuit. The mall that opened when I was in Junior High, with the food court where I dreamed of hanging out with friends that year my youngest sister was born and mom was too tired to drive me, and where I finally did drink Orange Juliuses on breaks from my High School job at the department store is gone. Torn down completely. A mesh fence borders the dirt lot.
“What is going in there, daddy?” I ask as I strain my eyes to recollect the old footprint through gaps between a Jiffy Lube and a vape shop that was once a Pizza Hut. “Some new entertainment complex with apartments above it I think,” he says.
And I wonder. Is it better to go home and find your town unrecognizable because it is now one of the fastest growing communities in America, or is it better to return home to find that most people have left because the mill closed down, but you can still see the places you know, boarded up, perhaps, but there?
The next morning I tackle new boxes. Receipts collected in case of returns that were never made from stores long gone out of business. Years of printed emails because dad never understood the paperless purpose of computers. And stamps cut off of envelopes, thousands of stamps because my father is a philatelist and thought they might be worth something one day. He also has binders, drawers and boxes filled with stamp covers.
I remember waking up on Sunday mornings and seeing him at the kitchen table cataloguing his collection. “He’s playing with his stamps, coins, medals, honors and awards,” mom would tease with obvious annoyance as she pushed us out the door for mass. Dad is a Baptist so he didn’t have to go. I longed to stay back, to see what he was doing and get to know my illusive father better, but mainly to skip church.
In one box I discover the odds and ends that were in my mother’s beside table drawer when she died. Angels and amulets, a dusty dream catcher and rosary beads, a hairbrush still holding hair from before she lost it all, and a Prevention Magazine on which the cover promotes a “No Diet, No Willpower Weight Loss System” which is an odd choice in reading material for someone with metastasized cancer.
I find my parent’s wedding bands floating in the bottom of the box and dad’s eyes fill with tears. He’d long thought they were lost. Best we can guess, is that the drawers of my mother’s bedside table were emptied into this box by his second wife. I can’t imagine it was easy for her to enter this space filled with his dead wife’s memories. I wonder if it was easy for her to leave when the U-Haul pulled down the driveway thirteen years later.
And then there are the shoe-boxes filled with photographs, envelopes from the Fotomat with film cartridges and negatives in the sleeves. I open each one, quizzing my father on what’s inside, with intention at first, but the stack of photos that inspire memories is soon dwarfed in comparison to the box filled with blurry snapshots, lobotomized relatives and unidentifiable plants from unremembered trips to unrecognizable locations.
I quickly trash the discard box before dad gets sentimental. I hate to be so callus, but there are still so many boxes and there isn’t time to force recall. I know that in a matter of years, hopefully more than a decade, I’ll be back here, and the more I get him to purge now, the less I’ll have to deal with later.
I am erasing part of his story. Or at least I am editing it.
I come downstairs on my last morning at home and dad greets me in the kitchen, clearly emotional. “I was just sitting in there with my coffee and feeling so much lighter,” dad says. The door to the room of requirement is propped open, the shelves hold his treasured books, framed memories from his Navy days, and labeled boxes of photos. It was a shared cleansing experience, just what we required, and I too feel light.
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As told at Story Salon on July 19, 2023.