A few months ago I went back to Dallas, Texas to visit my father. He greeted me at the door and told me if there was anything I wanted to keep from around the old place I should pack it up and ship it now. He was 90 years old and blind. My mother, the official caretaker of our past, had passed away five years ago. Dad was certain that if anything happened to him the house would be cleared out and bulldozed before I had a chance to get back to sift through the rubble.
The unfortunate flip side of a long life. The joke is, we all know decrepitude and isolation are waiting for us—but only if we’re lucky enough not to die young. It’s the fine print of the writing on the wall.
My father’s announcement was not a surprise. I knew that once Mom was gone, our home had officially become a house of cards. It would fall down. Unbeknownst to Dad, for the last five years, each time I’d visited Texas, I’d been packing and shipping everything I knew I couldn’t live without.
I shipped back my teddy bear. I had shipped back the clay brontosaurus I made in first grade, the one that looked like it had a thyroid condition. I shipped back the big white family Bible my girlfriend Beth and I kept in our apartment in graduate school at the University of Illinois. We used it to prop open the bedroom window. We didn’t mean to be sacrilegious. A breeze was as good as a blessing on a humid Indian summer night.
I had sent back the first piece of music I ever wrote. I found it three years ago in my old piano bench. I wrote it when I was 8 years old. It was talent day in music class and a new student, Claire Richards, who was something of a piano prodigy, played “Pickin’ up Paw Paws” with such verve and joy I knew at that moment I had to be a composer. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t read or write music.
I got a piece of manila paper. I got a ruler and a pencil and copied a staff and made an attempt at a treble clef (a sadist came up with that one). I wrote notes down where I thought they looked good. I had titled the piece “Rain Dance.” I shipped it home. My wife Ann had it framed and gave it to me as a birthday present. It hangs in my study.
I assured Dad that I had cleared out everything I wanted, and as far as I was concerned, the house was ready for demolition. But for everyone’s piece of mind, I would go back and double check.
I went to my bedroom, ready to make short work of whatever odds and ends remained. I looked at my bookshelves where my mother saved my knick-knacks. I determined to make two piles. One for “trash.” One for “treasure.” After an hour of sorting I had nothing in the trash pile. Everything was treasure. I was horrified.
Let me be clear, there was absolutely nothing of any real value on my shelves. There was nothing there I had missed or even thought about for decades. This wasn’t even first-tier junk like the dinosaur with a goiter. This was second-tier junk. To my surprise, it was every bit as valuable to me as the things I had already determined were indispensible.
For example, I found a little white ceramic book. It was open and had my name written on it in gold ink: To Stephen Tobolowsky upon his graduation from Seventh grade.
A girl in my class, Connie Ann Moore—her mother, Lulene, bought those books and wrote each student’s name in gold and handed them out at the seventh-grade graduation dance. Mom had saved it. Now it was on my shelf. As it turns out, it was one of my few surviving artifacts of the seventh grade, or what I recalled as one of my most insignificant years.
I was 12 years old when I started seventh grade. I was at John W. Carpenter Elementary. In Texas, the seventh grade was the last year of elementary school. Next year we were all going to be shipped out to junior high—to a new school, a big school with three times as many students, all of them with acne.
The word on the playground was that everything would be different. In junior high school we would have lockers that actually had locks on them. We would have to wear jock straps without underwear in gym class and worst of all, we would have to takes showers at school with other boys. Barbaric. If you refused you would be cited and given a detention. It meant you had to stay an hour after school.
Certain school administrators determined that the reason why some children acted up in school was that they were bored. So in their wisdom they decided to punish them with more boredom.
My older brother Paul told me everything I heard was true. He was already in high school. He said the detention halls were huge. Rows upon rows of desks presided over by a “battle axe.” I didn’t know what a battle axe was even in regards to battle. My brother explained they were very old, mean teachers who didn’t say anything and didn’t teach anything.
I said that if I ever got a detention I would just do my homework. My brother shook his head, “No, Stevie. Not allowed. You just have to sit there, face forward, hands on your desk and do nothing for an hour.” What? This was crazy. And they thought this was better than spanking? I had always suspected that the adult world was crueler than it pretended to be. Now I was certain of it.