I write this from the floor, laptop resting on the edge of a coffee table pushed into a corner and piled with rugs folded in half. We’re moving and the house is the kind of empty that makes the creaks under our footsteps reverberate and the cats reluctant to move from the islands of home that have not yet become unfamiliar—stool by the window, carpeted staircase landing, bathtub ledge. I keep thinking of the last episode of Growing Pains when the Seavers share a pizza on the naked living room floor and then walk out the front door backwards. Carol leaves last and pauses in the doorway for a couple seconds before saying goodbye to her childhood home and, implicitly, her audience. I misremember her flicking off a light switch, which must have been featured in another touching series finale.
I want to say sentimentality is a learned behavior. Perhaps I saw enough of it on TV as a kid to want to elevate the act of moving from one house to another into an epic change worthy of thoughtful pauses in doorways during which I visualize four years of memories in a matter of seconds. In reality, moving hardly allows for the luxury of nostalgic respite. What TV does not show us is moving’s gruesome underbelly—the layers of grease clinging to the oven’s hood, the awkward conversation about who bought the can opener, the lifetimes wasted on hold waiting to terminate service for the internet and the gas and the electric and the water and the trash. Art comes down off the walls and knick knacks make their way to FREE piles on the sidewalk; the familiar slowly begins to disintegrate. Your life gradually compartmentalizes into a series of boxes labeled with sharpie markers as you slip into a transient state, eating every meal with the same bowl and spoon from some unclaimed chair in the middle of an empty room, staring blankly at a rotating fan. Your home becomes an exotic shell of its former memory-filled self, the way a corpse cannot substitute for the person who once gave it life. By the time you leave one place your brain has already half settled into the next, if only to protect it from the emotional vacuum that has filled the space you have emptied. When you lock up that final time you are not thinking of your fondest memories. You are thinking: did I remember to take the shower curtain?
Of course, if I wasn’t sentimental I wouldn’t be writing this. But the sentimentality of moving hides in the minuscule details rather than the panoramic view of life’s scattered finales. I found it while cleaning off the kitchen windowsill when I stumbled upon a ceramic eyeball that had once been attached to a novelty Halloween mug that belonged to my sister. The mug was in the shape of a head (vampire? monster?) whose eyeballs jutted out from its face on metal springs, the kind of impractical mug someone like my little sister would adore. One of the eyeballs popped off one day and we saved it with the intention of reanimation, but instead it ended up on the dusty windowsill in between an unidentifiable refrigerator part and a sun-bleached zine titled “How To Do The Dishes.” When I rediscovered it I held it in my purple rubber glove remembering the mug and the loss of the eyeball; the year my sister lived with us and how she tried to persuade the reluctant cats into sleeping in her bed every night; the way we save broken objects with the intent of repairing them—a refrigerator magnet from Italy, a ring from high school with stars and moons engraved into its surface; the reality that these objects can never return us to the past they represent; that life disappears behind us like the interior of a room disappearing behind a closing door as we stand outside, staring into the fissure until we hear the sound of a bolt being latched.
When you hold these objects in your hands you are tricked into feeling connected. After Carol’s weepy goodbye the Seavers close the door on their Long Island home (and their series), but Maggie rushes back into the empty house having forgotten a family portrait on the mantle. She picks it up and discovers a message scratched into the brick: MIKE SEAVER WAS HERE. She runs her fingers over the words searching for the moment in which they were engraved and hugs the framed photograph to her abdomen, savoring the bittersweet confluence of past and present before running out into an unknown future beyond the predictability of her staged living room. The camera pulls back. The score swells into a heartwrenching twist on the original theme. We are left with our nostalgia and a wide shot of a hollow living room, afternoon sun spilling onto the polished hardwoods.
If I were a Seaver I might have pocketed that eyeball, but it ended up in the trash along with a place card from a friend’s wedding and a pair of worn out orange Nikes with no shoelaces and dozens of other peepholes into the irretrievable history of my life. There was a time when I was more of a Seaver, when I would have said goodbye out loud to a house that only settled in response, but that era has passed. When I exit my house for the last time I will stand in the doorway for a second, scanning the interior for overlooked scuffs, and I will think of the Seavers and of my nostalgia for a time when I was more sentimental. And then I will lock the door behind me.