On a heavy Saturday in June, Steven and I wait for strangers to pound through my mother’s front door, but the strangers never come. Exclamation points, dotting our Craigslist posts like lollipops, have failed to lure buyers for the Vintage, Mint Condition! Italian provincial dining room set! and the Like New! Singer Sewing machine. No one inquires about my grandmother’s maple bed, ringed by a starched white halo of eyelet ruffle, or the steel filing cabinets, emptied of water bills from the 1960s. No interest, no offers, no sale.
Somewhere near my spleen, so I cannot identify it as an affliction of the heart or the gut, something inside of me hides, relieved.
I do not tell Steven about this relief, though after a decade of marriage, I suspect he senses it, in the same way he knows I smile whenever a mouse evades a trap. It’s an odd feeling, beyond the reach of love or reason, the kind of feeling that another language, better than English, would have a word for, the kind of feeling located at the opposite end of Schadenfreude. It is joy at having failed to accomplish something that is in one’s best interest. The house sits, quiet and whole, its things exhaling, safe, still ours, and I am glad.
This sentiment baffles my husband. We have no choice. Someone wants to buy this tax-accruing, maintenance-demanding, gangrenous shelter. We cannot afford to wallow in nostalgia’s sweet mud. We must sell. Simple as an amputation.
Everything must go.
We wander the rooms, where ceramic lambs and wooden bowls remain as my mother left them when we found at her at home alone, having dismissed the aide, lost in a delirium of sepsis and dementia, the only clarity her pride.
“No ambulance,” she had insisted. “I don’t want the neighbors to see.” She hobbled down three brick steps, flopped into her wheelchair. In my panic, I misplaced the leg rests and held her legs aloft, a distraught lady-in-waiting attending a silver-haired queen staring at the sky in disbelief, while Steven, footman, muscled the chair through the lawn dirt, to the car.
My mother had wanted to die in her house, where her own mother had passed, and my brother, likely her twin from another life, had reinforced this idea, asserting the impossibility of ever moving her. “One day we’re going to find her at the bottom of the stairs,” he predicted. I comforted my inner brat by reasoning that if that happened, it would have been her decision. Even with dementia, she was living life on her own terms, I told myself. Before the fateful trip to the emergency room, we had tried home health aides, ranging from the caring and competent, to one who bought my diabetic mother’s silence with pastry so she could abandon her shift to shop. My mother went through them like Pez. “I don’t want this,” she had said. “I’m a prisoner in my own home.”
* * *
Now that our flimsy sales plan has failed, Steven does not lament our fate, wring his hands, blame God or even my mother—all drugs of choice for me. Instead, he gulps his overstuffed DeCiccio’s ham-on-roll, picks up the tape gun and heads for the disintegrating driveway, a black tarred madeleine that returns me to memories of a fin-backed blue two-wheeler, my first flight to freedom, the wary thumbs of my older brother tethering me to safety until I panicked and crashed into the wormy apple trees; morning runs with the bow-legged, curly-tailed Jinx before school, Friday night talks with my best friend David comparing crazy family stories, imagining our places in the Universe that was yet to be. This driveway. My driveway. Fissures like veins run its length.
At the driveway’s end, Steven approaches a sapling and nails a bendy plastic sign to it: GARAGE SALE, 1-4. “That will do the trick,” he declares. “People don’t surf the internet for garage sales. They follow the signs.”
Above, the maples, oaks and ashes of my childhood tower and wave, fan dancers surrounding a sturdy brick house whose peeling paint now flies off in sheets on windy days. My mother has protected them all these years, staving off exhortations from her neighbors to cut them down in the name of safety and light and air, hurling retorts about soil retention, cooling properties ,and baby birds nesting. She has guarded the garden against landscapers intent on transforming azaleas into pink meatballs. She has stopped them from spreading fertilizer and pesticide and seed; it has been a long time since the lawn was a lawn. Over time, the grass disappeared, replaced by clover and burdock and dandelion, then moss. My mother gave orders to mow whatever sprouted from the ground. Now when the landscapers work, they kick up plumes of dust and dirt like giant birds competing in a mating dance. My mother has enjoyed the show.
She loves this peeling, crumbling, moldy, living, breathing house that has held her and our memories, keeping it, in the face of time, against the tyrannies of suburbia for the last twenty years, after my father traded her in for a newer model, as she put it, leaving her for a pubescent graduate student. The man who hoarded pencil nubs and hardened erasers, who kept a burned-out well pump wrapped in a stained tablecloth, tossed away the woman who had been the Liz Taylor lookalike girl riding on the handlebars of his Brooklyn bicycle.
In response she destroyed most of what he had cherished. Wooden planter baskets smashed and burned down to charred screws in the fireplace; tiny house Christmas ornaments pulverized by my grandfather’s claw hammer, then stuffed under greasy cheese wrappers into a grocery store garbage; a leather jewelry box, reduced to red strips and tossed into the kitchen trash. Each removal, each act of discard an act of violence, a willing destruction to trigger pain enough to numb her from feeling the raw edges of the space he had left behind.
When my mother dug her way out, she saved anew, pulling the house and its treasures around her. She even developed a kinship with an unseen creature that perpetually dug a bowling-ball-sized hole next to the foundation.
“That’s the great, great grandson of the groundhog that used to live here. There’s a big grease spot on the garage floor. I think he sleeps there.” On every visit, my husband and I would fill the hole: rocks; mothballs; screen. Each time we returned, the hole had reappeared. When we told my mother this, she offered a Dali Llama smile. “He’s a part of things,” she admitted. “I like having him around.”
For the past three years, our phone conversations carried extra drama. “Wait a minute,” she would say, dropping the phone, which rolled along its bouncy, curly cord, until it fell silent. “Ma?!” “Ma, are you there?” In response a whack, indicating, I later learned, that she had smashed a hairy centipede.
But then she told us a large rabbit hopped across the living room floor every night.
I have seen videos of President John Kennedy’s fateful ride. They say that in the moment after he was shot, Jackie scrambled back in the car, attempting to save his brain, desperate to hold on to the part of him that made him him. For the past few years, I have felt that my mother was being assassinated, that some sniper had fired upon her, that there must be a way to save her mind: books; phone calls; old photographs; familiar scents; blueberries. We pressed her to move in with us. Each time we broached that porcelain conversation, she concluded with, “I’d be better off dead. Make everyone’s life easier.”
Had my mother known what we were doing to her house, to her things, she would have died in rehab, where she landed after that soul-searing week in Intensive Care, cheating sepsis of a victim. Unlike celebrity rehab, this place does not return people from cocaine or bourbon but instead nudges them toward the land of the moving, yanking them from the cement of inertia, pushing legs that will not move, quieting joints that scream and bones that ache from a lifetime spent carrying the spoils of Depression-Era cuisine. The place smells of urine and boiled potatoes.
During the fifties, my grandfather, a taxi driver in Manhattan, looked for useful trash—a bureau or baby carriage that someone needed. He’d pick it up and deliver it, a one man redistribution center. My mother modified the model, simply holding on to everything that came her way. “Don’t throw that out” followed even a glance in the direction of the garbage, whether it was plastic caps from milk jugs (someone might need them) or torn pantyhose (perfect footies). “That Tupperware is older than you. Still good.” The corollary family motto is “that could be worth a lot of money Someday,” which applies to everything from a brochure announcing the Word Trade Center’s opening, to brass state coins from Shell gas.
EBay teems with the spoils of sellers for whom Someday has arrived.
When we first realized we had to sell the house, we began peacefully, moving boxes from the attic to the main floor and then from room to room. The boxes rattled with acorns deposited by mice. I announced each bending back of dusty flaps with a “Wow!” or “What’s this?”; held every item to the light and then returned it to its moldy carton. Khaled Hosseini writes in The Kite Runner, “[I]t’s wrong what they say about the past… about how you can bury it, because the past claws its way out.” In our house, we never attempted to bury the past; it was always there, around us. Now Steven and I must play archaeologist to my mother’s Pompeii.
I tried inviting my family to the excavation, to share shards of our history. Wooden spoons. Another madeleine. I heard them rattling as my mother searched for the one long enough to scrape the bottom of the tallest pot. Arguments about basil, garlic, and browned pork. How many lips brushed those spoons, eyes closed, over my great grandmother’s, my grandmother’s, my mother’s sauce? I called; I texted, but no one wanted a spoon. Content in crisp Pottery Barn apartments, protected by advice from The New Potato, my nieces and nephews all said no.
“Throwing things out is cathartic,” Jessie in New York explains. “You’re getting a fresh start.” They have their lives. You cannot force the past on people, even if, especially if, they share your blood.
I made a timid foray into eBay, posting a Like-New! asparagus pot I’d purchased: Very little family history. No bids. Another attempt with a pink ukulele seemed successful ($7.00), until I realized it was won by a buyer in Alaska and I hadn’t charged enough for shipping.
Steven tolerated this floundering until Colleen the Realtor arrived with her iPad.
“Everything has to go,” she said. “Buyers want to see how much storage space there is.”
“Can’t we just leave it in boxes?” I whined. “They’ll understand we’re moving. Besides, if they see how much stuff we have in here they’ll get a great idea of the house’s capacity.” I was bargaining for my life.
“No, it has to go. They need a blank slate that they could picture as their own.” That’s the problem, I think. People don’t have imagination anymore.
“How are we going to get all of this,” I said, waving dramatically, “out of here?”
My husband anticipated my next move. “We can’t bring it home,” he said. I had been imagining how my mother’s wooden porch furniture might look in our modern living room.
“I need more time,” I said.
“I know someone,” Colleen said. “His name is Paul. He’ll take care of everything. Even the stuff in the fridge.” I looked at the towers of cardboard, the plastic storage bins packed with marked-down Christmas wrapping paper and pink Easter chicken garland.
“What we can’t sell or give away has to go into a dumpster,” Steven said firmly, his jaw beginning to seize, “or we’ll have to pay Paul to haul it out. It will cost.”
Friends on whom I unloaded misgivings but not doilies offered well-intended advice: “Have an estate sale.”
“Has to be at least five thousand dollars of stuff to make this worth our while,” a gravelly voiced woman told me over the phone, as I pictured fingers of cigarillo smoke curling above her red hair. No deal.
Paul arrived on a sweltering day in a white pickup, and bounded from the cab, clean shaven, wearing a white muscle shirt. He glanced around, smiling. “I did this for my grandmother. You have to walk away,” he said.
The cab of Paul’s truck rocked back and forth, and two small heads popped up.
“My boys,” he said. “We just got back from dirt biking.”
“Check this out!” I yelled, as if I had just discovered diamonds. “Shovels! Every kid needs a shovel. Would your boys like two of these?” I waved a plastic toy shovel enticingly, like the Shamwow man. Paul laughed. “No thanks,” he said. “They have dirt bikes.” He sent my husband a sympathetic glance. The shovel went back into the box. Surely I would find someone for those.
* * *
After posting the sign, Steven and I begin dragging out items. I unfold Uncle Jack’s bridge table. Shelves from my first desk, a dehumidifier that sounds like an airplane, an enormous off-white La-Z-Boy recliner that my mother refers to as “The Disaster Chair.” It smells, but only faintly, of pee. I have come to think of this as the Febreeze stage of life. I wonder who will mop up after me.
Steven is right about the sign. The hunters come. A man with stinking breath and a magnifying glass studies a wristwatch for twenty minutes after I tell him I want a dollar for it. Three sisters from the Dominican Republic bring their 91-year-old mother, who stays in the car with the air conditioning on, letting me practice my limping Spanish on her. They are all laughing, women out together on an adventure. They buy a vacuum and my mother’s favorite tablecloth for six dollars. I want what they have. I want my mother to be well enough to come sit in a car while I bring her treasures from someone else’s house. I want her to congratulate me on my great bargains. I even want her to tell me that the floppy straw hat from Aunt Trudy’s trip to Mexico makes me look short.
The clock is ticking. Colleen has a buyer.
In August, we borrow a truck and haul 2,000 pounds of steel, aluminum and copper—a check cashing machine; a mini beer keg; plumbing fixtures; pipes—to Action Metal, where steel drums and piles of metals dot the landscape. A burly blonde Viking greets us, explaining that he and his brother took over the business from his father who started in 1964. While Steven and the employees sort out, I sit with him in an office, staring at yellowed newspaper clippings and a tower of identical worn-out black workshoes. Like a hedge fund manager in a Carhart suit, he laments guessing wrong about the market when aluminum was up and then crashed. “My kids don’t want anything to do with the business, but they like the money. Part of me wants to just die here so they have to clean it up,” he says, waving his hands.
The closing date approaches.
One night I type a question to my Facebook elementary school group: “Does anyone remember Susan Trimble?”, a playmate who died in third grade. Lately I have been thinking a lot about her, how her parents went on without her, what her fleeting life meant. Tracey, another classmate, responds, offering that the teacher had ordered her to clean out Susan’s locker. When Tracey protested, the teacher asked, “Do you want her parents to do this instead?” Between sobs, Tracey had snuck a homemade bracelet of braided colored threads. “I wanted to keep a part of her,” she confesses.
Refugees stream across Europe, through fences, over walls, clutching life, every thing of theirs abandoned, dropped, lost, stolen, traded, bartered. They struggle to hold on to themselves.
The nostalgia over things is an albatross, a luxury, a prayer that might be held.
During our last garage sale, a Toyota pulls up and a tall brunette woman with a pixie haircut and a white eyelet sundress emerges. An even taller, brooding man with a crew cut and swaths of tattoos around his biceps walks silently behind her, followed by a teenage girl, absorbed by her phone. I hope they will buy the china hutch.
Before I can launch into my pitch, she says, “I’m Magdalena,” and extends her hand. “We’re buying your house.”
“Oh,” I say through my garage sale grime. “Oh.” For awhile, all I can do is watch their eyes, darting across the lawn, up to the jalousied porch. I am trying to blot out the wrecking ball that Steven insists is inevitable: “It’s a teardown. Any new owner will want to start from scratch.”
“Would you like something cold to drink?” I ask.
Magdalena declines sweetly. “No, thank you,” she says. “I see you have a lot to do. We wanted to take a drive up from the city, and I thought we might be able to meet you.”
Her husband murmurs something and she murmurs back, then explains, “We’re originally from Poland.” She introduces him; then her daughter, who scowls.
“Oh,” I say, and then I think, given my current English vocabulary, perhaps I, too, am from Poland. I realize that we have not saved anything from the garden, except to have the attorney add a line about the weeping pussy willow.
“Do you like flowers?”
She pauses. “These are lovely. But I’m afraid we don’t know much about them.”
Magdalena and her brood depart.
We dig out some peonies, and the pussy willow that now seems too big for its own good, whose roots reverberate with the whack of the shovel. I put the last of the bone meal on the irises and whisper, “You’ll be okay.” I take the mussel shells and tiny smooth stones that were saved up in a coffee can in the garage and lay them around the scraggly maple you can see from the kitchen sink, my mother’s favorite, and shudder at the chainsaws that will buzz through all this very soon. Magdalena will feel she is letting in the light, but I know she will be baking the place, roasting the grass-dirt, killing baby birds with sprays meant to save the place from a few harmless caterpillars. I know this, but what can I do. You cannot stop progress.
I am stuffing crazy things into the pockets of my jeans and hoodie. When we return home, I empty plastic medals of Jesus from the Sacred Heart Auto League; bobby pins; a moldy penny; an uncancelled stamp, and a shoehorn from Caesar’s Palace.
Before we close on the house, I go to spring my mother from rehab, to take her to her new home in assisted living. I fantasize about making one last mad dash across the Tappan Zee Bridge to the house. Magically, I would manage to get her up the brick steps, onto the porch and her favorite rocker next to the wooden lamp that my brother made in seventh grade shop. She and I would sip lemonade mixed with her secret ingredient, listening to the robins and gossiping about Alex Trebek.
On the day of the closing, the last day I will ever be in this house, the day of the walk-through, I start to lecture the new owners, standing there, looking around, impatient to get going with their lives, to lay claim to what will soon be theirs. I tell them about the roses. And that the trees are so good, so important, that they will shade the house and save them hundreds of dollars in air conditioning. And retain the soil. I look at the teen daughter, lost in her phone, and try to befriend her, thinking that she might have some sway with her parents.
“What do you like to do?” I ask in a cloying tone that hurts my ears before it is even out.
“Stuff,” she says.
“Please,” I want to say to her. Have a friend over and sit on the jalousied porch, listening to crickets, drinking iced tea and assessing the universe, late into the night. Imagine who you will be and why. Complain about your parents; it will do you good. Don’t worry about the giant hole, next to the foundation, that keeps reappearing. Think of it as magic. Or as hospitality. Something wants to live here, next to, maybe under this house. The great, great granddaughter of a lonely groundhog.
I teach them the trick to the gas stove. “Turn on the burner and wave your hand, thus,” I say, Houdini-like, passing my hand across the top, creating a gentle gush of air that coaxes a flame to life. I show them the switch to the outdoor lights at the tippy-top of the porch brick wall. “In summer,” I advise, “stay here. The second floor gets hot.” My mother prided herself in her ability to withstand intense heat, to manage fans and window shades with precise mechanical timing, as if we were deckhands aboard the African Queen.
In the assisted living facility where we have moved my mother, the air is always conditioned. “It is a closed system,” Steven explains.
Steven and I have tried to recreate an entire house in her studio apartment: the lavender horse painting from the dining room; a plant stand shaped like a wheelbarrow from the porch; my grandmother’s bedroom dresser. A statue of Mary and one of Michael, with Lucifer pinned under his sword, and dozens of crucifixes in wood and gold, stowed carefully in Tom McCann shoeboxes. We had it all set up on the day she arrived. Looking around, she nodded at a framed photograph of Pope John. “That has to go,” she said. Can’t have too much of that stuff in here. They’ll think I’m some kind of religious nut.” The Pope left.
She has never been a joiner or a crafter—of clubs or sports or pinecone wreaths—and now, at 83, nothing has changed. She rejects offers of jewelry making or painting or even Happy Hour, despite the flaccid comment, “Jeez, I’m going to get a room here” from well-intentioned but stupid visitors who have their youthful freedom from the prison of endless leisure. And yet, against all prediction, against all possibility, she begins to settle in a place where the stoves have been disconnected and the hallway smells of fresh paint.
Looking at her sitting in the frayed blue living room chair we have rescued from the house, I can almost imagine that the past year never happened, that she never got so depressed in rehab that she could not eat, could not care, all sense of time and place and purpose and dignity drained from her like pus. She tells me that she won’t allow the housekeeper to come in because she might steal her dentures, like the aides did in the Other Place (rehab), and besides, she can take care of everything herself. I nod, gathering laundry, wiping, sorting, surreptitiously tossing, as if my industry will reorder the past, keep all of life’s chaos from slithering under her door toward us, and its final tidy conclusion.
The house has been emptied; the house has been sold. She does not, cannot know.
Pulling open a drawer in the kitchenette, I discover hundreds of little empty plastic coffee creamer containers, stacked together like shot glasses after a boozy night. Next to them, a pile of Popsicle sticks.
“Save those,” my mother directs. “I’m going to make something.”