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Callaloo 24.4 (2001) 1083-1101

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Goodbye To The House

Helen Elaine Lee

Three years ago this autumn, as the turning of the leaves began, my parents moved from the house where I grew up. Their big old Detroit house that was in constant need of fixing had become too much for the two of them, with my father's escalating illness and need for constant care. When they were burglarized, their leaving became a matter of urgency.

When my mother decided to move to an apartment downtown, I went to help, and the process of sorting through a collection of possessions, amassed over generations, began.

As my father lay in the hospital fighting to live, my mother, my brother, George, and I sat on the attic floor and sorted through letters and pictures, books and clothes and toys. Sifting through the surviving symbols of our lives, we decided which pieces of the past to take along to our new homes, and which to examine and leave behind. The flood of memories triggered by these objects, yellowed and wrinkled with age, became too much at times, and we paused. The richness of our years in the house passed before us, passed through us. The difficulty and the pain. The survival, the laughter, the joy.

From other generations, there were testimonies. Greeting cards and scrapbooks. Dog tags from World War I. A leather and china doll who was missing her hair. Sepia-toned photos and embroidered dresser scarves. Fragments hinting at my ancestral past.

We found documentations of my father's life: articles on professional achievements, business cards and briefcases. There were photos of his segregated WWII army unit and an article about his top Harvard Law School honor of best oralist in the 1949 Ames Competition. And alongside it, scores of rejection letters stretching from 1949 into 1950, as he tried for a year to get a job.

We came across clippings from the local "colored" newspaper. There were pictures of my mother as a young girl at social affairs, and articles on the scholarships she won, which praised her "beauty and brains." There were report cards and a Delta Sigma Theta pin, graduate school papers and the icing-encrusted bell from my parents' wedding cake. And articles published as she gritted her teeth and did enough scholarly writing to get university tenure and do the teaching that she truly loved.

There were pictures of family gatherings at Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard, and echoes of the more recent past. Evaluations from the unconventional school my brother and I attended that didn't believe in report cards. The finger paintings and school essays that parents save with such pride. Polaroids of neighborhood kids with [End Page 1083] the graduated tear-off edges still attached, and painful images of the shy, chubby, pre-pubescent girl with thick glasses I have tried to forget.

What happened in the house, where I grew from infancy to adulthood? Who am I and how have race and class shaped me and my family? What of me is rooted in this place, I asked myself, at this time of taking leave?

I returned to Detroit a month after the move for Thanksgiving, and helped my brother bring my father home from the hospital. The move had happened over the several months of his hospitalization, while he was transferred from intensive care to a regular floor, and then to a rehabilitation center. Confused about where he was and where he was going, he asked me, "Where is home? I have so many homes." We decided to take him by the house, so that he would better understand the move.

"We're going to Fullerton, Dad," I said, "to the old house. So that you can say goodbye." He nodded and said, "Okay." When we pulled up he said, "Yeah. That's the house," and asked my brother and me about the tenant's car that was parked in the driveway. We explained that someone else was living there now, and that we were going to the new place. We sat out front...


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