Return to Hell House: Not a Lot of Good Memories Here

I’m sitting in the airport with two hours to go before my flight. Way too early, but I had to flee the silence of my house without my kids. Tonight, I fly to my hometown. Tomorrow, I’ll gather the rest of my mother’s things from my childhood home, the place I like to call Hell House.


A month ago, when the Family Crisis hit (Dad abandoning Mom for another woman, leaving my brother and me scrambling to manage her care), Good Brother and I returned to that house for the first time in years. After a day of hasty packing in preparation for my mother’s unexpected move, he sprawled on the couch and looked around at our surroundings: wobbly furniture with thirty years’ worth of dust in the crevices, boxes stacked in every room, and a gajillion religious knickknacks that made it all the more difficult to believe what my father has done.


“Not a lot of good memories here,” he said.


Good Brother is a man of few words.

For years, he and I have avoided that house without ever talking to each other about why—or the fact that we were doing it. My aunt, who lives an hour away, hosts all family gatherings since her house is bigger. Easy peasy to see our parents yet go nowhere near the home in which we grew up.


That day in the midst of the Family Crisis, my brother confessed his guilt that he’d withdrawn from our parents. He’d told our father as much, telling him there was always such an air of isolation and despair hanging over him.


That’s our dad, I thought. Heathcliff on the moors—if the moors were a patio home in Florida.


One Christmas about fifteen years ago, my father gave Good Brother a medallion inscribed with a Bible verse. I’ve forgotten the verse, but not my father’s explanation for the gift: “This is to remind you not to let your dreams die like mine did. Merry Christmas.”


An eggnog toast seemed a little inappropriate after that.


One of my several therapists called this “the tea you’re steeped in.” That’s the atmosphere and the emotional tone of your family of origin. Our tea was a bitter concoction of despair, hopelessness, shame, and anger. Hell House.


I wonder what I’ll find when I return tomorrow. Will the house be empty? Will my father be there? Will his mistress be there?


One thing I know for sure: my friends will be there. We asked for help, and our people showed up. Catching up, cracking up, lightening the load. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life it’s this: We get by with a little help from our friends.


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