Ed. — From 2000-2003, I wrote an op-ed column for the Portland Press-Herald, having been invited to do so by then editorial page editor John Porter. He had lined up 4-5 different people of distinctly different ages to reflect on their respective existences at these varied life stages. In fact, the regular op-ed feature was called “Stages”. I was the ‘30something with kids’ columnist. As I’m now a 50something and my kids — the frequent subject of these columns — are off to college, I figured they’d make for some fun, retrospective fodder here at halphillips.net.
By Hal Phillips
First the good news: We’ve come into a lovely piano, a black upright that has been in my family since it was first purchased, new, in 1878. I frankly couldn’t believe my mother was prepared to part with such a hallowed thing, but why question serendipity?
It wasn’t completely random, this bequest. Periodically I’ll see something in my parents’ house, the place I grew up, and I’ll say matter-of-factly, “Will that to me, would you please?” With a sister and brother who share my basic tastes (they are, after all, frighteningly similar to me genetically and experientially) one can’t be too careful.
Anyway, I requested the Steinway at a later date and I’ll be damned if she didn’t offer it up forthwith!
As for the bad news, well, it’s become a running joke in my house… Basically, the place is only so big. As my wife and I get older and come into more compelling stuff, like pianos we don’t have to pay for, other things have to go. Invariably, what goes are my possessions — that is, those things I brought to the marriage seven years ago.
The dynamic is bittersweet: First, there’s the sanguine feeling of having acquired something really cool; then the downer — the realization that yet another of my things will soon be politely but ever so systematically removed from the mix.
Like I said, it’s become a comic, ritual dance between my wife and me. She’ll rearrange the living room and I’ll notice another of my things has been set to one side. “Where’s that gonna go?” I’ll ask, assuming my naïve role in the drama.
Her role? A pregnant pause followed by a sweet smile.
I know well this coy pause. It’s my cue to say, “You know, I bet that would look good in the barn.”
Most all of my best stuff has been dispatched to the barn in just this way. The wall art and curios which decorated a half-dozen apartments, my rare Billy Ray Bates poster (for which I’ve been offered all sorts of money), the “distinctive” hassock I picked up in Morocco, my futon couch, the untold boxes of clothing…
Most of it’s junk, I realize. But it’s my junk. It’s part of me. For better and worse, it helps me remember (not forget) who I was when I came into it, who I was when there was no barn, and what my life was like when this was A List, front-room material.
Sharon rearranged the guest room last week and, as a result, my great uncle’s trunk — the one who died in the battle of Midway for Pete’s sake — has been banished to the barn. Then I noticed a bookcase of mine (purchased at one of those impromptu, urban-sidewalk furniture bazaars) had been placed INSIDE A CLOSET. It’s been reduced to mere shelving, hidden shelving at that, which is one foot in the grave basically. It’ll be in the barn by next summer.
Sharon was recently obliged to reorder the living room on account of our new acquisition. Pianos are big, and you don’t need a detailed grasp of Archimedian theory to understand that something big would necessarily be displaced.
“Not the phone booth,” I whispered, hoping against hope.
Silence, then a smile.
The trunk of my war-hero uncle was one thing, but this was truly tough to swallow. My phone booth is an heirloom, too, of sorts. The contractor brother-in-law of my one-time roommate’s brother hauled it out of Boston’s Hampshire House during a mid-‘80s renovation. This is the restaurant above the Bull & Finch, the Cheers bar of television fame. What’s more, my parents courted in the Hampshire House 20 years prior. It’s entirely likely that one of them placed a call from, or walked right by, this very phone booth!
Anyway, it’s not an unattractive phone booth. It would appear to be from the 1940s or ‘50s, making it certifiably vintage. It is undeniably enormous.
Indeed, it’s so big that it wouldn’t fit in the new apartment of this contractor fellow, so we happily gave it a high-ceilinged home. When we roommates eventually went our separate ways, in 1988, my friend couldn’t take it. Attic apartment. Eaves. No phone booth. So I took it, as my new apartment had 10-foot ceilings — as did every place I’ve called home for the past 14 years.
[This free-standing phone booth is so massive and unwieldy that it can’t very well be “moved”, i.e. from apartment to apartment, from house to house. It must be disassembled each time, then reassembled in the new space. I’ve become expert at this breakdown/reassembly process. In fact, I’ve become so skilled and efficient that each time I put it back together, I have a few more screws leftover.]
Bottom line: I am attached to the phone booth.
Yet by this stage of my life, I’ve learned to read the writing on the wall. The piano having been delivered, I called my friend and offered the phone booth back. He couldn’t take it — but his brother could. Good thing because it was too grand and possessed too much singular character for the barn. It deserved better.
So it’s been a traumatic couple of weeks for me, furniture-wise. But there’s more. Turns out my parents are thinking about selling their house! Total bomb shell. Seems the ancestral home, the place of my youth, is more than they care to keep up. Understandable, I guess. They’re close to retirement. Most of their contemporaries sold off long ago. My parents were holdouts, but not for much longer.
Of course, this explains why my mother ditched the piano.
And it occurred to me that while I should be honored to have it, I’m merely replacing a bit of my more recent past (the phone booth) with a bit of my deeper past. More anxiety-ridden displacement theory. My brain hurts.