All That You Can't Leave Behind

(with apologies to U2)

Christmas, 1985: the last time all the Anderson boys were simultaneously unmarried.

I was going to start this essay with a picture of An-Di-Fan, the house in McMinnville that has been at the center of my family's identity since 1945, but which will (hopefully) soon be changing hands. We've had two family gatherings there--Thanksgiving and Christmas--since it went on the market, each of which could have been the last time we were all together under that roof. Unfortunately, the market for large craftsman homes in McMinnville is sluggish at this time of year, so there may yet be more potentially final gatherings of the House of An at the eponymous homestead.

I changed my mind about using that picture--one that prominently features the "For Sale" sign that still gives me a jolt every time I drive up, and see it there in front of the house--because the house is not what I'm primarily writing about today, though it will still play a role later on. Today's essay is about moments, not property.

One such moment is captured in the picture I took in December, 1985, in Halsey, Oregon, using the timer on my camera to make sure we were all in the picture. It may be the only picture that includes our entire family--both parents, all five sons, and whichever pet we currently owned (in this case, a collie creatively named "Lassie")--prior to the first marriages to change the family landscape. All of us except Mom are wearing her sewing present for that Christmas, scarves made from the MacDonald tartan. We also all appear to be in good places emotionally, though Mom's father had passed away just two months earlier. I was in my first year of seminary, Ocean was in his first year of graduate school, and Jon was a freshman in college, so my parents' nest was well into its emptying period.

And we were all gathered for Christmas.

Yesterday, thirty years after that picture was taken, there was another Christmas gathering of the Anderson family. Bringing us together was more complicated this time: all of my generation have homes and families of our own. Settling on a day when we could all come together was challenging, and the day we chose still meant a number of grandchildren could not be present. But all five sons and their respective spouses were in attendance.

My father was not. This was not our first family gathering since his passing just over a year ago, but it's the one at which we most felt his absence. Dad loved having us all together for Christmas, and always insisted on singing "The Twelve Days of Christmas" with cue cards he'd made back in the 1960s for carol sings he led with his accordion. When the whole family is gathered, we've got more than enough people to hold up all twelve of those cards. Singing that song together was certainly a highlight of the family gathering a year ago, just hours before Dad's passing, and he clearly enjoyed the experience. There was some of him in it last night, and I know we sang more lustily to honor him.

Dad is present in a lot of the things I do. Last week, as Amy and I were visiting Joshua Tree National Park, I took time to read the interpretive signs at every scenic wayside, knowing Dad would've insisted on it if he'd been driving. On our last night, we drove to the most desolate part of the Park to gape at the Milky Way, a sight not available to us in overly-lit suburbia--and again, I knew Dad would've eaten that up.

Dad's presence is all over An-Di-Fan, and it always has been. When my grandmother moved into the house seventy years ago, Dad remodeled the living room to make room for the large oriental carpet that still covers the floor. Forty-five years later, my parents moved in and began a much more massive remodel. Dad's handiwork is in every room. It was his magnum opus, the culmination of a lifetime teaching himself to be a jack-of-all-trades. It was his dream to spend the rest of his life in this house, and he accomplished that.

And now it's time for all of us to move on. It's hard to think of the house not being there in McMinnville for us. I first visited it as a small baby--we watched the home movie of it yesterday, with my great-grandmother rocking me on the porch--and we've all been back repeatedly over the decades, many of us living there with our parents for a few weeks, months, or years. There are memories in every room, not to mention throughout the enormous back garden that was our private playland. The house has been a geographic center for a family so itinerant that none of us has a true home town. But it's far too much of a house for our mother to live in by herself, and none of us wants to move to McMinnville, so it's time to let go of it.

Of course, it's not just a house we're letting go of. Releasing this house to new owners is also the most powerful way we can let go of Dad. His presence in this house is far more palpable than in the ashes we scattered in July, or in any memorial plaque that may someday be put up.

I can't speak for my brothers, but I know that, when the house finally sells, I will need to visit it one last time to walk its halls, twist its brass doorknobs, inhale the mustiness of the basement, picture myself and my brothers and our children running up and down the stairs, playing in the bedrooms, sharing meals in the dining room, conversation in the kitchen. I'll look one last time at the house that was our father's, our grandmother's, our family's; I'll shed a few tears; and then 'll get in my car to drive away for the last time.

We'll have other family gatherings, complete with pictures and video. We'll find new tables to gather around, new kitchens to occupy, new living rooms to fill with the lusty harmonies of the Twelve Days of Christmas. And when we do, Dad will still be a part of the celebration, though not as tangibly. I can't ever leave behind the joy he felt in bringing the family together, in sharing a meal and a song, and waving goodbye to each of us as we drove away from An-Di-Fan, the House of Peace.


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