The car was packed. It had taken longer than expected, but everything was ready. Everything had taken so long and had been so frustrating that he just wanted to get on the road and go. No time for a proper goodbye. He wanted to be there before dark, after all, and it was already almost noon.
Quick hugs all around, and he got in his car and drove away. He tossed the package his mother had hastily stuffed into his hands onto the passenger seat. He didn’t open it. It felt like a book.
“Probably a photo album,” he thought. He would look at it later.
As he drove, he didn’t think about what he was leaving behind. He thought about the new life he would have. New opportunities. He’d be able to do everything he’d always wanted to do. Lead the life he couldn’t before. He wouldn’t have any of the restraints he’d had before. In his mind, he built the glorious picture of his new life, brighter and more beautiful than anything he’d known before. Of course, he knew he was exaggerating, but that was what they always told you to do, right? Dream big.
It was just getting dark when he finally got to his new home. An apartment in a new city. It was bigger than his home town, but it definitely was no New York. It took a few trips to take his things in. He left the package his mother had given him on the front seat. He could look at it later.
He settled into his new life with ease. It was everything he’d always wanted, he told himself. After all, no need to look back when everything he wanted was right there. He was busy, so it wound up being several weeks before he finally managed to bring the package his mother had given him into his new home. And then it wound up being even longer before he actually opened it.
As he’d expected, it was a photo album. It was the sort of thing a parent would do. Parents were always looking back at the days gone by. Fondly remembering the days when their children were small, or longing for the days when they felt alive. He didn’t like thinking that way. He was always looking ahead. He longed for the freedom that adulthood promised. And now that he had it, he saw no point in looking back.
But for the first time, as he looked at the photo album, he felt conflicted.
His mother had a good eye. She didn’t pick all the moments when she had been happiest. She’d filled the album with memories that she knew he would want to have. Their family hadn’t been one of the ones that carried a camera everywhere they want, so having a photo of a memorable occasion was rare, and more often than not, the picture had been taken by another family entirely. That’s why the photo album didn’t show him taking his first steps, or the day he’d said his first word. It wasn’t stuff he wouldn’t remember, or wouldn’t want to remember.
It was a friend’s birthday party when he’d found out how much he loved horror movies. A family picnic when he’d sprained his ankle. His dad had been carrying him on his shoulders and slipped. His dad never did it again, even though he always wanted another ride.
There was a photo of his old room, exactly as he’d always kept it. A mess in the corners and every inch of the walls plastered with cut-outs from magazines – cars, boats, a girl or two. His bed was unmade and covered with random articles of clothing. Months later, he still knew where everything would have belonged if he’d had to put it away. He wondered when the picture had been taken. For all he knew, he could have been buried somewhere under the clothes on his bed. He decided he should keep his bedroom in his new apartment a little neater.
Another picture showed him the back yard of his old house. There was no one in it. It was just the view from the back porch. The back yard was huge. It led into a field and a small wood. He and his brothers had spent most of their childhood out there. Barely visible in the picture was the exact patch of trees where his brothers had made an imaginary fort. A fort which he had not been allowed into. A fort which he had snuck to in the middle of the night with the sole purpose of destroying it. He got punished for sneaking out, but the looks on his brothers’ faces had been worth it.
Other photos showed other memories. Things he’d forgotten about that made him smile. He wondered where his mother had gotten them all, and he wondered if his father had helped put the album together. There was no order to the pictures. They were all crammed together in a kind of senseless order. Kind of like the way memory works. You never remember the first thing first, but the things that stand out to you. The things that were important.
And he felt conflicted because these memories were important to him, and there was a part of him that wanted to go back and experience them again, just so he could appreciate them more. But he couldn’t. How could he? He’d moved on.
On the last page of the album, his mother had written him a letter. Just a motherly thing to do. Write a letter. It said everything a mother should say. She loved him. Call often. Write often. Visit often. Get married. Have children. She loved him. Eat well. Work hard. Oh, and she loved him.
The last line, in a post script, said, “No matter what happens, always remember that you can come back if you need to.”
That was the thing, though. How could he go back when he’d moved on?