By Emily Erickson
In the warm haziness of childhood memory, I remember my dad teaching me how to take down a wall. I gripped the hammer — not a toy hammer — its weight matching the heaviness I felt for being tasked to hit something so permanent. He mimed swinging at the drywall, using his construction-thickened hand to point at the spot where I was to make impact.
As tears welled in my eyes beneath huge, plastic goggles, and as my insides squirmed with what felt more like dread than anticipation, I braced myself and swung.
I have always attached emotional significance to physical places, unable to easily distinguish a space as separate from the memories made within it. So maybe it was grief for something I had understood as permanent, or some previously ascribed significance to that patch of wall and the room it was a part of, but something beyond my then emotional comprehension caused my tears to spill over when peering at the dent my hammer left, and the spidery network of cracks that sprung from it.
Perhaps knowingly, my dad explained, “We have to take this down to make room for something else.”
Now, more than 20 years later, I’m standing in the “something else.” A large bay window looks out onto an empty lawn and a sleepy street. There used to be a maple tree in the center of that lawn, with branches that bobbed under the slinky hops of my old white cat.
Oak floors span the length of the room, showing their years with every scratch from moved furniture and scuff from shuffled sneakers and skidding dog paws. A wood stove is pressed against the back wall, its layers of dust and ash co-mingling from years of use followed by un-use. And in the center is a mattress, on top of a box spring, on top of the floor, that never used to be there.
My dad lay upon it, his emaciated shoulders rising and falling in time with his sleepy breath. As in the room around him — the room he built from the scattered debris of an old, taken-down wall that is now a makeshift bedroom — lines of hard, solitary living and illness are etched into him, too.
We had spent the morning getting breakfast at the local diner — which, despite the hands of its ownership continually changing, hasn’t changed at all — at a table next to groups of people I know, but haven’t known for years. In small towns like this one, the one in which I grew up, everything always changes while remaining exactly the same.
I ate jam-covered toast while he picked at his eggs, and I talked to my dad — who listened with clarity for the first time in such a long time — about the life I live 1,500 miles away. I felt sadness in my wondering of how many more breakfasts we’ll share, and gratitude for the quality of those moments spent finding the bottom of bottomless cups of coffee (like being aware of a future nostalgia).
Now standing here, watching him rest away the toll of our outing, I feel the confusing mix of life being long and time being short and the fact that certain places somehow allow us to experience both at once. I’m reminded of my childhood self, holding a hammer, gazing at a wall I thought was forever, and with too many commingling emotions to parse.
Being home will likely always be complicated for me, and more so as time continues to wear and pass. But I’ll also always cherish the memories contained within these walls, and all that can be felt when making a dent with my dad.
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