My brother and his wife will soon be moving into my mother’s house in Smalltown, U.S.A. David and I grew up there, and though I left Smalltown in 1974, I faithfully returned to 713 Hickory Drive two or three times each year until my mother died in May. The house, which was built in 1962, became increasingly dilapidated after my father died, so my brother, a self-taught carpenter of near-professional skill, has decided to remodel it himself. He started with my old bedroom back in March, and now he’s working on the living room.
One thing that he’s long wanted to do is strip away the threadbare wall-to-wall carpeting that my father installed back in the Sixties, in the process covering up the gorgeous hardwood floors that came with the house. It was on the living-room floor that we tore into the mountain of presents that my parents piled under the Christmas tree each December. Needless to say, the presents kept on coming after the floor disappeared beneath the brand-new carpet, but little boys believe passionately in the beauty and significance of that which is, just as middle-aged men long no less passionately to recapture that which was, especially when it reminds them of a happy childhood.
A few days ago I got a cellphone message from my brother. It consisted of the picture on the right, accompanied by a single line of text: “The living-room floor has just seen daylight for the first time in thirty-plus years!”
As I looked at the picture on the screen, I suddenly recalled a song by Gerry Goffin and Carole King called “Goin’ Back” that I first heard around the time that my father put in the carpet: Now there are no games to only pass the time/No more electric trains, no more trees to climb.
I thought of the jumbo electric-train set that my father set up in the basement, a long-decayed treasure that went unused for decades after David and I left home. I thought, too, of the tall maple tree in the front yard that was destroyed by the great ice storm of 2009. My brother subsequently replaced it with a new tree, one that is coming along nicely but still has a long, long way to go before it reaches its full growth.
My eyes filled with tears as I reflected on what time had stolen from us. Then I remembered the last two lines of “Goin’ Back”: A little bit of courage is all we lack/So catch me if you can, I’m goin’ back.
“You know what that picture makes me think of?” I texted my brother. “Christmas, when we were kids–and now I’m getting choked up…”
“Yup,” he texted back. David is a man of few words, but he knows how to pick them.
The two of us needed more than a little bit of courage to cope with the trials of the year just past, and I expect it’ll take almost as much to get through the next one. But when I go back to Smalltown for a visit, I’ll be able once more to see the amber glory of the living-room floor, and I have no doubt that the sight will fill me with comfort and joy.
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The Byrds sing “Goin’ Back” on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1968: