Dad, we need some shelves.”
“The LEGOs need a place.”
I liked the idea, so I went to task, jumping online to order some cool brackets. I ripped boards with my dull handsaw. We drilled in anchors and juggled the level. Each boy got five shelves, and the LEGOs went up like museum pieces. Star Wars here. Harry Potter there. Miscellaneous at the top.
It wasn’t good enough.
“Dad, we need more shelves.”
When COVID bullied its way in, it took some spots that once went unnoticed. A corner of the kitchen doubles as a Zoom space, a forgotten bowl now holds masks, and the new digital thermometer sits by the front door. These homes for things become ingrained. It’s the same at Christmas. From year to year, we remember where to set the nativity and which window candle needs the longest extension cord. The boys fight over who will help place the tree topper.
My childhood home here in Richmond recently went on the market. A small Cape Cod, I have some of my earliest memories from that house. It was 1979, and I remember helping with the move by riding in the back of a pickup truck. When I saw the online listing, the photo album felt peculiar. It was my house, but it wasn’t. Anyone’s childhood home forever remains a time capsule. The manicured images were just that, but I wanted more.
I needed to get inside a DeLorean and become Marty McFly, so I called our realtor friend and sent the listing to my sister and parents. Twenty-four hours later, my family traveled back in time.
The yard was as much of my youth as the guts of the place, so before the realtor even arrived, Dad and I walked the tiny lot. One tree I climbed was gone, but I tripped over another’s roots. Some people remember their childhoods with a line of birthdays, but my memories are loudest by recalling what improvements were made to that fixer-upper. My father was always performing triage on that house. Even though the foundation and boards were only thirty-one years old when we moved in, the home needed reconstructive surgery. Dad was the surgeon. There were plenty of maladies to address: a popcorn ceiling in the master bedroom, vinyl tile throughout the upstairs, no AC, and rotten boards. Every vital system needed a transplant or a transfusion. Each weekend, Dad donned his scrubs: khaki shorts, a V-neck, and docksiders. Sometimes, he would be on the 50-foot ladder, hammering. Or he was pulling out the furnace and waterproofing the crawlspace. As I watched from my bedroom window, his paintbrush kept time to AM bluegrass.
All of this came back to me when I walked around that yard. I followed him, like I had done hundreds of times as a kid, decades ago. Then, it happened. There was no flux capacitor – just the right footing and point of view. Without going eighty-eight miles per hour or dialing in my destination, the smell of fresh paint magically returned. In a flash, I was six again, then seven, then ten, and fifteen – as memories peppered my senses.
The realtor had trouble with the lock, but with the right pull and jiggle, it worked for me. Inside, the house looked better, more youthful, and lively. That old house had been transformed into a Pinterest board. My dad said, “We lit the spark.”
It felt brighter. But even with someone else’s stuff – a UVA diploma and baby photographs – I still saw my own past. I didn’t need to squint. Each room took me back. Moments when I got news about a friend. Or when
I needed stitches in my face. A phone call. A laugh. A party. Even a door knob brought a memory. I didn’t see any of the new fixtures or the granite countertops. Instead, it was all the old stuff: my memories and a childhood.
During my last loop through the living room, I stood in the spot our Christmas tree once occupied. My sister pointed out the hooks on the banister where we hung our stockings since we had no fireplace. Then I sat on the steps one more time where I had waited decades ago before opening our gifts on Christmas morning. The smell of an egg casserole from our first microwave returned, and my first bicycle, a Schwinn Thrasher, was once again, leaning against a sofa.
The half-hour tour was perfect. When I got home, the boys were disappointed they didn’t get to go. There’s a part of me that wanted to take them, but they wouldn’t have seen it like me. It would have been a cute old house, nothing special.
A few hours after the showing, my dad texted me for the realtor’s number.
When he was leaving, he noticed an old gym locker in the garage that he bought in 1978 at a Vepco auction. His stickers were still on it: Guilford College, 1981 VCU Champs, the 1979 Richmond Marathon. When I was a kid, it was in my bedroom and I stashed my stuff in it.
The whole time I had been in the house I was searching for any sign that I had once lived there: my initials in the sidewalk, a drumstick, a LEGO. That locker was the end of the search.
It took a few calls, but my dad got it back and brought that portable closet back home. This time it won’t be a container for toys. Instead, it will hold some tools, the same instruments my dad used to save that old house.
Sometimes, the best place for things is right where we left them.