Full disclosure: This isn’t a post about advertising, but it’s a piece of writing I’m proud of just the same. And it actually IS what the title says — the single most interesting night I had all of last year. It was my stay overnight in the massive empty house that I grew up in, the house I wrote about in my memoir, Thirty Rooms To Hide In: Insanity, Addiction, and Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Shadow of the Mayo Clinic.
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“Why, yes! I would love to spend the night in the empty gothic house where I was terrorized by my psychotic, alcoholic, gun-waving father.”
This is usually the part of the horror movie where someone in the audience stands up and yells, “DON’T GO INTO THE HOUSE!”
But this isn’t a horror movie. As it happens, I actually am saying these words to a very nice man on the phone, a realtor who has the listing for the house where my psychotic, alcoholic, gun-waving father terrorized and abused the family – my mother and my five brothers. The realtor and I are finalizing arrangements for a tour of the house, after which I will spend my first night there in 45 years.
After we agree on my arrival time, I hang up the phone. It’s here they usually cut to the rotating newspaper and the headline: “AREA MAN FOUND SLAIN IN CHILDHOOD HOME.”
There is, actually, a headline about me in today’s Rochester Post-Bulletin but it’s just about my little 8pm book reading downtown at Barnes & Noble. It reads: “Brilliant Mayo Clinic surgeon created a private hell at home for family in this memoir of ‘50s and ‘60s Rochester.” My book I’ll be reading from is titled, Thirty Rooms To Hide In: Insanity, Addiction, and Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Shadow of the Mayo Clinic. (It’s kind of like The Shining, but funnier.)
As I start the drive to Rochester – where I will both read from Thirty Rooms and walk through them – the whole thing actually does start to feel like a movie. Because after the bookstore event some 100 readers will be driving out to take a nighttime tour of the house. There will be wine and cheese and the realtor will be on hand to point out the home’s wonderful selling points. I’ll be skulking about 10 feet behind him quietly pointing out which horrible things happened where.
(“That’s where the axe thing happened. That’s where he kept the gun. That’s where he bashed my brother’s head against the fridge.”)
Should be fun.
• • • • • •
You don’t just pull into the driveway of the home my father purchased in 1954. That would be the cymbal crash without the drum roll. No, first you have to drive up into the hills outside of Rochester and after turning off onto successively thinner and thinner roads, you will come at last down a lane shadowed by 50-year-old balsam fir trees which stand like bodyguards obstructing your view of the house until the last possible second.
And then … then when you turn into the driveway between the giant stone gate posts, you’ve had the proper warm-up for your first viewing of the great house we called the Millstone. This would be the part where the movie music crescendos and the camera pulls wide to take in the four glorious acres of Minnesota that are its kingdom.
It isn’t just the size of the Millstone or its grounds that make you want the house. It’s the sense of stability to the thing. It had already been here a quarter-century when my father first pulled into the driveway in 1954; its walls already thick with ivy, the red slate roof veteran to a thousand Minnesota snowstorms, and the windows on the third floor looked down on every trespasser and said no matter how long you live, the house will outlast you. Even the owners only rent.
I pull into the Millstone’s driveway at noon and the realtor is out front to greet me. Nice enough guy. He hasn’t read the book but he knows I’m some author guy who used to live here. I tell him I’m hoping to spend a few daylight hours inside shooting pictures before the reading. I’ve brought along a folder of old family photographs from our years in the house, images I’d like to recreate shooting from the same spots my father stood when he took them.
There’s a jangle of realtor’s keys, a quickening of heartbeat, a push against the thick oaken door, and we’re inside.
• • • • • •
This isn’t my first visit back to the Millstone. All six of us have returned to this door many times; sometimes in twos, threes, sometimes alone, arriving over different years, always asking the same thing, hey would it be okay to maybe step inside and just sorta contemplate the smoking apocalyptic battleground of our traumatized youth?
Considering the stories in Thirty Rooms To Hide In, why any of us ever wanted to return is a mystery. On the other hand, if we’d had idyllic childhoods here, would we have been drawn back to visit so many times? (“Oh, and remember what happened over there by the pretty balloons? That time we all smiled?”)
But here I am again. And the first thing – it’s always the first thing – is that ancient smell; of wood, of stone, of time. And the second thing – the silence. Near complete silence. Standing inside the empty house, what I can hear is the page turning in my head to Shirley Jackson’s opening lines of The Haunting of Hill House:
“Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
And, as my realtor might add, “Walked alone … through a stunning 5-bedroom, 4-1/2 bath, 1920’s beauty. Check out this woodwork.”
We close the front door behind us revealing the entryway closet, a feature the realtor is already busy selling. “Check out this big ol’ walk-in, perfect for kids to set their muddy boots!” Meanwhile, my memory conjures a somewhat darker sales patter. “And this shelf here? Perfect for storing rifles to wave in the wife’s face if she just won’t SHUT THE FUCK UP!”
We walk into the main hallway and at the bottom of the stairs I pull the first photo from my folder and hold it up. And the six ghosts appear, standing at the top of the stairs, still waiting for the okay to come thundering down to Christmas, 1962.
I ask the realtor if he’s ever had houses with ghosts.
“No. Don’t much believe in ‘em,” he laughs, adding, “Just the same, I’m glad it’s you bunkin’ here tonight, not me.”
Maybe it’s time to admit that I am a little afraid of the supernatural. Most of the time my western education prevents such fears from bubbling up. But ever since parking my car in the shadow of the great house, the kevlar vest of rationality I‘ve been wearing all these years suddenly doesn’t feel as snug as I’d like it to.
The realtor and I lock eyes, both smiling at our private musings. I shake mine off thinking Hey! If there are ghosts here, they’re gonna be cute little boy ghosts; laughing holograms of boy-energy still wandering the grounds of a house they loved and lost many years ago.
Outside again, I discover another little clutch of spirits, standing both directly in front of me as well as in the year 1956 under a summer rain that falls onto the dry patio stones under my feet, and as my poor head tries to reconcile the permanence of place and the fluid mystery of time, my reverie is broken by the arrival of a car and the year 2012. My brother Dan, age 59, steps out, says we’re late.
• • • • • •
The Barnes & Noble in downtown Rochester is housed in a beautifully preserved movie theatre called The Chateau, the very place my brothers and I first saw movies like “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Mary Poppins.” That wobbly feels-like-I’m-in-a-movie feeling sharpens into Technicolor as I realize wow I’m signing books about my childhood right in the Chateau Theatre, ground zero of so many vivid memories. And to thicken the plot even further – thank you very much – two more of my brothers arrive at the reading; Collin and Chris.
Books are signed, hands shaken, coffee drunk, and more than one reader leans in a little close but very grateful, saying, “It’s so freeing to know my crazy family wasn’t the only one.” And before you know it, the as-promised Warholian 15 minutes of fame have come and gone and I’m getting into a car with three of my brothers to drive though the night to the home we left 45 years ago. Along the way, Dan expresses interest in staying overnight in the house with me. Secretly, I’m relieved.
There are many strange “firsts” this night. Not being able to find a parking space at my childhood home is one; not being able to find standing space inside it, another. And then to stand and speak honestly and openly about my angry, abusive, alcoholic father – in some of the very spots where I used to hide from him – strangest of all.
The crowd is big and as I go through the house describing what happened here, there is a cleansing feeling, one I attribute to the power of storytelling; to the power of witness. The nodding heads and looks of empathy surround me like a benediction and their public condemnation of the story’s villain helps to cleanse the rooms like the smoke of white sage.
• • • • • •
The crowd is gone and the four youngest of the family end the evening sitting quietly in our old living room in front of its iconic fireplace.
Our mother and father often posed for pictures here before heading out to Mayo Clinic parties; nights that routinely ended of course with Dad in a drunken rage. Earlier, I held up one of the old pictures to the scene and was surprised by how short my parents were. Tonight, we all wonder again how a man as slight as my father was able to get away with abusing and tyrannizing what was basically a crowd of seven people. Dammit, we could have just tackled the fucker, just covered him in a huge pile and sat on top until the cops pulled in.
It simply never occurred to us we had the power.
Brothers Chris and Collin have plans that keep them from joining Dan and me in our overnight stay and, after hugs and warnings to watch out for vengeful zombie dads back from the grave, they head for the Twin Cities. By 11:30, Dan and I are alone in the Millstone.
We turn to begin clean-up and to shut the house down for the night. Picking up plastic wine glasses and flicking off lights here and there on the ground floor is an agreeable enough job. But we soon remember the lights have been turned on everywhere for the open house; including way up in the attic and way down in the basement.
One would think that two grown, college-educated, otherwise-sane men from the 21st-century would not get all heeby-jeeby about having to go alone to an attic or a basement and turn off a damn light for Christ’s sake, but as Dan and I look at each other it’s clear we both harbor a very small but very real hope that maybe the other guy’s going to volunteer for the job. Then, perhaps remembering that tomorrow we each have to be able to look our wives in the eyes, we divide the duty; one up, one down.
This of course is the part in the movie where we’re picked off one by one. But curiously, we manage to turn off all the lights in the house and neither my brother nor I are slain by vengeful zombie dads back from the grave.
We end the night in the living room again chatting by firelight. Dan’s going to sleep in the master bedroom upstairs, I here on the couch. And tonight, after 45 years of thinking about this house, and dreaming about it, and talking to psychiatrists about it, we realize we are finally its equals. We’re okay with it. It’s just a house; a house we loved and one we’ve been happy to visit again, but it’s just a house.
As if to test this new feeling by inviting fear into the room, Dan recounts a nightmare he had only a week ago. In the nightmare, he was here in the Millstone, up in his old room, and “something horrible was floating just outside the window. And there was a rage, a malice directed into the room. ” That’s all he remembers. Malice and rage, floating.
A week later, Dan wrote to me, “Even after that nightmare earlier in the week, and even as you and I sat there in the dark, my imagination couldn’t conjure anything evil or sinister about the house.”
He was right and that night we slept without dreams, like happy guests in a huge bed-and-breakfast, without the breakfast. The next morning we took one last look around, pulled the oaken door shut behind us, and drove away; Dan to the Twin Cities, I to the airport and on to Savannah.
“When I left that morning I had a good cry in the car,” Dan continued, “and I didn’t know why. I still don’t really know. It was a sweet sadness. I guess it felt like the last time we’d be truly alone with the house. It felt like the Millstone embraced me one last time and bade me farewell.”
For me, my emotional moment happened the day before when I was in the house taking pictures. Several families had been invited by the realtor to tour the property and as I came around a corner I almost tripped over a very cute 7-year-old boy. He was coming down the stairs from the top floor, followed by his mother, father, and little brother.
“What a big house, Mom!”
And so I told him all about the horrible raging man who once lived here and threatened little boys with axes and guns.
What I said to him was, “This is a big house. I think you ought to tell your mom and dad to buy it. You will have so many happy times here.”
I give the parents a wink, partly to apologize for putting them on the spot and partly to hold back a tear, because the moment feels like I’m in yet another movie, but this time in a happy one.
(Interested readers can view more family photographs, letters, and videos on thirtyroomstohidein.com.)
How did you save yourself and manage to talk about the “unspeakable”?
It seems we have a similar background but it was my Mother who died at 48 in 1968 when I was 18 and my younger sister 14. Dad had left years earlier to save himself. Sorry I cannot make our Bonita book club meeting on Monday. I would have cherished taking with you.