Flynn's Harp: Reflections on memories made, but not left behind, in family home of four decades
For four decades, it was the place where three children grew to adulthood and where their laughter and tears, and those of eight grandchildren, echoed from walls and windows that were always decorated by Betsy (mom and grandma) for the appropriate holidays. But the big old four-bedroom colonial in Seattle's desirable Mount Baker neighborhood had become too large for a now-aging couple, so the time to find a retirement apartment had arrived.
The attraction of moving into inviting new downtown-view quarters at Horizon House, one of Seattle's more sought-after facilities for retirees (and those not yet retired), eased the challenges of the move, particularly since familiar faces from Seattle's business community appeared around each corner.
But with the unfolding challenge of rapidly, and not easily, downsizing to take 40 years of accumulated items from 2,500 square feet plus basement into a place half that size, the memories surrounding the rooms, and many of the items, hung in the air.
In one bedroom, there was the bitter-sweet memory of the arrival of the daughter, born a year after our arrival back in Seattle from the Los Angeles area, who too briefly slept in her crib there.
Sarah Elizabeth, born four days before Christmas in 1973, gave a special meaning to that holiday season. Her brother and sister would sit on the couch and push as close as possible, looking on with smiling fascination while mom held or fed the baby.
Two months to the day later, we found Sarah dead in her crib, a victim of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). In an effort to bring meaning from her death, Betsy and I became involved in the state SIDS organization, first taking support in our pain, then eventually giving back by supporting other SIDS parents who needed help coming to grips with their loss. We learned you take, give back, then move on, once the realization comes that painful memory is replaced by loving memory.
The pain of Sarah's loss found a counterpoint two years later with the excitement of the arrival of Eileen, who bore the burden of being the "subsequent child," a description hung by psychologists on children born following the death of a sibling.
I made a point of being the one to check the sleeping Eileen each night as she lay in the same crib, though different bedroom, so that if she too had died, I'd be the one to discover it this time. As she passed the "at-risk" first year, the fatherly fears passed. But she retained, as the years passed, a special place in the family.
An enduring image for me was of the nightly routine we had when the children were young, of my singing them songs after they had been tucked into bed. I can still hear: "One more song please, daddy!" and Betsy admonishing: "You're being taken advantage of."
Those songs of childhood became part of our family culture, particularly when Michael grew into a young man and learned to play the guitar. As he would be sitting in the living room, in the final years before he married and began raising his own family, he'd be playing and singing to himself and dad would walk in and say: "play me a song, Michael."
Inevitably, it would be one of those songs I sang to Meagan, Eileen and him.
But sometimes it was Dan Fogelberg's "Leader of the Band," which Michael had learned to sing and play. And since it was one of his father's favorite songs, we'd sing it together. And again.
Then there was the room where Meagan and her Brownie troop gathered for their Monday afternoon activities under the guidance of her father, who turned out to have been the first male Brownie leader in the state.
That came about because when Meagan and a couple of friends found there were no Brownie groups they could join, her father said "let's see if this equal opportunity thing flows both ways. Is a man acceptable to lead a troop of girls?"
When I volunteered, the Brownie moms, to Betsy's amusement, called my bluff, welcomed me to the Brownie leaders' team, gave me the largest group of girls. But the moms were constantly supportive and available for questions from the rookie leader who was frequently panicked about creating projects and keeping a dozen second-grade girls focused. And Michael became a member of the group, possibly the first male Brownie in the state.
The empty spot by the front French doors after movers had cleared the area made it harder to picture the Christmas tree that occupied the spot each holiday season, to be surrounded by excited children, or grandchildren and their parents. And the absence of the sofa and chairs made it difficult to recall the candy-filled plastic Easter eggs that were inevitably hidden in and around them.
As we returned in recent days to check out the now-empty house, with its unfamiliar echoes as we moved through each room, an important reality for us, and for all those making large life changes, became clear. The memories don't remain behind in the place where they were made. Rather they travel with us, an essential part of the experiences we gather and carry through the years. Memories to be recalled and savored. Forever young.