I spent most of the Winter Break fighting with my mother about paint swatches. The argument began with the baby photos, though — and it might even go back to the corner Picasso.
Essentially what happened was this: The parents went to a really snazzy New Year’s Eve party at a family friend’s house, and when they came back, they decided it was time to do a complete makeover of our house.
“This house looks like where old people go to die, and I won’t have it,” Dad said. I’d never taken a hard look at my childhood home before my parents started talking about redecorating. Every inch of it is covered in flowers. The couches are yellow, stitched with vines and roses. The wallpaper is rows of intertwining lilies. Throw pillows and doilies with dandelions and daffodils cover every surface. My grandmother gave us porcelain rabbits that sit on shelves next to china painted with springtime scenes: bunnies hopping over roses, little Dutch girls collecting edelweiss and grain pouring from a mill. A visit to my house is like a visit to the Easter bunny’s mother-in-law.
But then my parents went to the snazzy New Year’s party at the big house down the lane. The walls were a delicate gray-silver color. The furniture was comfortable but slim. Positioned carefully, but at the same time casually, throughout the house were works of fine art. Above the fireplace, most prominently displayed, is a Botero portrait of a plump Spanish girl. And in two separate corners, almost hidden, are two Picassos.
“Corner Picassos!” my mom said, “If that isn’t the classiest thing.”
Who even owns one Picasso? How do you have that much money? Why do you live on my street? Can I have one? And while I agreed that putting a Picasso in a corner is bizarre, yet classy, I reminded my mom that the communion portraits of her three children are free and at least one of them is very handsome.
But the baby photos were the first junk to go, along with other “clutter,” which became the enemy of my parents’ vision of a modern home. Clutter on the walls. Clutter in the bedrooms. Décor that counts as clutter includes children’s toys, some teen books, school projects, computer games, etc. I guess my parents don’t have any use for six expansion packs worth of Sims games. On Christmas morning, I found Encarta ’94 in the recycling, the very encyclopedia CD from the year I was born. It was priceless.
At that moment, it occurred to me that the remains of our childhood were being ritually cleansed. I imagined my mother and father chanting around a bonfire in the backyard, tossing in my macaroni drawings as an offering to tasteful modern homes. One night I had a nightmare where I burst into my bedroom and my dad had turned it into a home gym, laughing maniacally as he bobbed up and down on the elliptical. I tried to run away, but I realized I, too, was on an elliptical and could go nowhere. It was horrifying.
The tension peaked one night by the fireplace, once we’d finished playing Scrabble. We play the game often, so I made an offhand comment asking if they planned to throw the board out alongside Encarta ’94 (the digital encyclopedia from the year I, their only, and by default their favorite son, was born).
My mom skipped over the comment and decided it was a good time to bring out the paint swatches. She tested them against the wall, the next shade of silver or gray indistinguishable from the last.
I called most colors dull. I made up reasons why they wouldn’t work: “Cobalt grey won’t work either, mom. It clashes with my Erector Sets,” I said.
“Maybe,” she said. “But how about we take down the family photo and put up a painting?”
The family photo is a large print of everyone in my family wearing denim overalls and sitting in a field of daffodils. It hangs above the fireplace and it goes well with the floral print that covers most walls and fabrics around the house. She took it down and replaced it with a picture of our house — just the house, none of us, no dogs, no toys. And it struck me that my parents weren’t just “redecorating” the house. They were prepping the house to sell it.
I got very quiet. My parents are getting older. It’s an old wood house, everything leaks and it takes a lot of effort to maintain. I understood.
But my mom and dad saw I was quieted by the removal of the family photo. So after we finished going over some paint swatches and had finished a glass of wine, Mom took me down to the basement. She opened up a closet she kept locked for most of my life — where she hides all the booze and Christmas presents. But instead of presents, it was packed to the brim with boxes.
Boxes stuffed with toys. Boxes stuffed with macaroni art. Old CDs and Pokémon cards covered the floor. This was it — they’d already started packing.
“You’re selling the house,” I said. The words settled in my stomach like icewater. I love Ann Arbor, but it’s not my home — I don’t have roots here. I’ll never know a place as intricately as I do that house. I love the stupid floral couches and the tacky children’s art. I lost my uncle’s dog tags in the backyard when I was seven. Will I ever find them?
It’s just stuff, I told myself. It’s just a house. Just a thing. It’s not your family. But I can’t let go of any of it. As hard as I try, the meaningless scenery of childhood — Encarta ’94, my uncle’s dog tags, the house — still fucks with me when it goes away.
“That’s insane!” Mom said. “Tommy, we just paid off the mortgage. We’re stuck here. Just help us pick out some paint chips and stop being a drama queen.”
So the house is safe, for now. Things keep changing, and I hate it. But it’s selfish to make my parents live in a shrine to my ’90s glory. They can take away the flowers and the family photos, just so long as the family stays the same.
Tom West can be reached at email@example.com.