In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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There is nothing new to be thought about the evanescence of human things; but there is always much to be felt about it.
There is nothing new to be thought about the evanescence of human things; but there is always much to be felt about it.
— Max Beerbohm
Fans of I Love Lucy will recall that, during the final season, the Ricardos move from their Manhattan apartment to an Early American farmhouse in Westport, Connecticut. When they are ready to move out, Lucy stands alone, surveying the old apartment’s living room. It is empty-looking despite the furniture, which she and Ricky have agreed to sell to the new tenants. Lucy is reluctant to leave, to let go, to say goodbye. She weeps softly. Then suddenly she masters her emotions, musters her forces, and straightens up like a soldier. She must move out, and she will, but not before reclaiming all the furniture, carrying it away, piece by piece.
Life is a sitcom; our pain is so ordinary, it’s laughable. Almost everybody goes through this at one time or another. The realtor tells me our society is becoming mobile. I agree. But I wish I didn’t have to sell my parents’ house.
There’s nothing extraordinary about it: a 1949 ranch-style house, red brick with white trim and aluminum windows. Three bedrooms, one and a half baths. Hardwood floors throughout. Attached two-car garage. Eighty-nine thousand, firm.
It’s not the greatest house in the world. When I was growing up, my mother complained constantly about the heating system, which involves miles of copper pipe in the ceiling. (“We’ve got a fortune up there!” my parents used to say.) Hot water circulates through the pipes, and the heat radiates downward, making the rooms feel like “a warm car on a cold, sunny day” — or so the contractor said in 1949. The heat is clean, I’ll say that. But it dries out the plaster, causing cracks and blisters in the ceilings. At least, that is what my mother believed.
She likes to tell how she fought with the contractor during construction. Contrary to the plans, he tried to install a picture window in — of all places — the garage. “I won’t have it!” she said. “But later you can turn the garage into a den,” he argued. One day, when my mother came to the site and discovered a bricklayer preparing an opening for the window, she told him, “You lay one more brick, and I’ll kick it out!” He did, and she did. The contractor finally relented.
I think the best thing about the house is its location, a block from East Carolina University at the back of a long corner lot on a hill. When I picture it, the sloping front yard is bathed in the early-morning light of childhood. I remember how, in the first proud flush of ownership, my mother planted flower beds on either side of the front walk, and one bright, sunny morning, barefoot in the grass, she was stung on the toe by a bee. I stood by, a helpless, frightened five-year-old, as she hopped about on one foot, grabbing the other with both hands and moaning, “Ooh, ooh, ooh.”
Now, at age fifty, I am helpless and frightened again as she calls from the nursing home to tell me that she has fallen once more. She is eighty-seven and too weakened by osteoporosis and a heart condition to walk without assistance. She didn’t break anything — just bruised her hip, thank God. She was getting up from her chair and tripped over her own foot, she says. She sat on the floor for an hour and a half until someone came and found her. The previous time, she lay on the floor all night, unable to reach the emergency button on the wall next to her bed.
Still, she is better off in Cypress Glen Retirement Community than she was at home. She can’t stay by herself anymore. This is why my sister and I are selling the house.
“Have you lived here all your life?” the realtor asks as we walk through the house.
“From when I was five years old,” I say, “until I went off to college.”
“It must hold a lot of memories,” he says, entering the kitchen.
Exactly. I remember my father opening the knotty-pine kitchen cabinet, preparing to give me a bottle of sweetened formula, although I wasn’t a baby anymore. I remember my mother bathing me in the sink. I remember climbing onto the counter top between the sink and the stove and hunkering down beside the radio to listen to The Shadow on Sunday afternoons. When I was sick in bed, running a fever, my father would crush ice for me on that same counter top. I would lie in bed and hear him pounding a kitchen towel full of ice cubes with a rolling pin.
In the entrance hall, at the double door, is where my mother and father stood and tolerated the neighbors’ caroling one Christmas. I, a brooding doctoral candidate home for the holidays, kept my distance behind the archway. Before it was over, I saw tears in my father’s eyes. In the living room is the mantel where I hung my stocking; this house is the sacred site of all our Christmases.
Now, on this spot, I stand fatherless and childless, engaged in a travesty of the Christmas spirit, robbing my own home of its treasures: my mother’s silverware, china, and crystal, each piece of which I wrap in sheets of newspaper and pack gently in cardboard boxes, arranging them neatly by the hearth until I’m ready to lock them in the trunk of my car and make my getaway.
Because my much older sister — the mother of two grown sons and grandmother of six — is long settled in a house of her own, while I am single and still struggling on a teacher’s salary to furnish mine, I get to take these things and the bulk of the furniture. On forms supplied by the van line, I have listed the items I want shipped from North Carolina to Missouri: two beds, three chests, the dining-room table, the corner cupboard, a wing chair, a rocker that my father bought for his mother, a drop-leaf table my mother said was given to her by a beau, and the little lamp by the telephone in the kitchen (because it’s been there as long as I can remember). I have marked each item with a number matching its number on the list.
Should I take the kitchen table? It’s solid maple, handmade, built specially for the breakfast nook out of leftover boards from the grain mill my father owned and operated. I remember my father sitting at this table, his forearms resting on this very surface, when I’d enter the kitchen after mowing the lawn early in the morning. I’d walk in, sweating and proud, exhilarated by the exercise and the fragrance of freshly cut grass, and my father would look up at me and say, “Ready for some breakfast?”
When he died ten years ago, I took his gold pocket watch and his signet ring, which I display together in a glass case, and his bedroom slippers, which, at the risk of sounding morbid, I confess I keep under my bed beside my own shoes. Now I have his homburg (the one he wore inside the house because his bald head was cold) and his rimless spectacles. I have his confirmation certificate and his death certificate, and a book with the signatures of the mourners at his funeral. Should I take the kitchen table?
I have returned home to Cape Girardeau, Missouri, where I’m awaiting the arrival of the furniture. Here on the banks of the Mississippi, I am reminded of the flood of ’93, in which entire houses were swept away. People lost everything: every piece of furniture, all their clothes except those they were wearing, every snapshot in the family album. When I moved here in 1978, I’d never heard of the New Madrid Fault. Now I stock bottled water and keep a first-aid kit, ready for the inevitable “Big One,” the long-predicted repeat of the earthquake one hundred years ago that reversed the course of the Mississippi, rang church bells in Philadelphia, and destroyed whole towns. At the university where I teach, we have earthquake drills, and the English-department office posts a list of earthquake safety tips. (Tip # 1 — DURING THE SHAKING: If indoors, in most cases, stay indoors and protect yourself.) Several years ago, a 4.8 tremor sent students and faculty running out of their classrooms and into the streets. It is to this seismic time bomb that I have brought my mother’s crystal.
After I’d been in this house a year, I hired a couple of carpenters to build a privacy fence and deck for the side yard. During construction, they unearthed a few ancient artifacts: a toy soldier cut off at the waist, rifle raised to fire; a chunk of rusty fuselage, two wings, and a tail that together must have been a toy airplane; twenty-one marbles of various colors and sizes; a baby spoon marked “Gerber” on the handle; and a tiny perfume bottle containing a few drops of clear liquid. I presume these playthings belonged to the Jay and Jane whose names I found carved in the doorjamb in the basement and painted in two places in the garage.
When I was five or six, I wrote with blue crayon on a basement wall in the North Carolina house, in spidery, uneven capitals: I LOVE YOU. I was in love with the beautiful little blond girl across the street. Now, when I think of that message to the world scrawled on whitewashed cement in the dark, hidden underground, awaiting discovery by the house’s new owners, I’m reminded of prehistoric cave paintings, King Tut’s tomb, the ruins of Pompeii.
As an English teacher, I have read Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne-Buriall, about the transience of life and our pathetic stabs at immortality. I read it first in graduate school. The language was obscure at points (some passages still baffle me), but behind the veil of antiquity I could hear a man speaking honestly, courageously, without illusion, about final things: “Our Fathers finde their graves in our short memories, and sadly tell us how we may be buried in our Survivors.” The occasion for these thoughts was the unearthing of funereal urns, “some containing two pounds of bones, distinguishable in skulls, ribs, jawes, thighbones, and teeth.” Against this dark background of death, Browne asserted his faith in the soul’s immortality through the Christian Resurrection.
The vigor of Browne’s faith is perhaps the most antiquated thing about Urne-Buriall. But when I first read it, I was inspired by his conviction. I prefer to believe that each of us has an immortal soul, although there are intelligent people who seem to manage quite well believing otherwise.
In the year before he died of Alzheimer’s at seventy-eight, my father told my mother that he wanted to go to his parents’ house, that they had spoken to him and asked him to come. He said that, if she did not drive him, he would walk. Unable to reason with him, my mother drove my father the few blocks to Ninth Street, where he saw with his own eyes that the house where he and his parents and his twelve siblings had lived was gone, and his parents with it, and that in its place was yet another tacky fast-food restaurant. He was “satisfied,” my mother said, although satisfied is surely not the word to describe the disappointment he must have felt.
Against common sense, I want to believe that my father’s parents did in fact speak to him, calling him home, and that he has joined them there — wherever “there” is — his personality intact and recognizable. But I can’t know for sure that my father’s frayed synapses weren’t simply lying to him, the chemistry of his brain brewing up a wish-fulfilling hallucination.
Recently, I dreamed I was walking along a path through thick woods, up a mountain, my parents on either side of me, holding my hands. (I was a child.) As we walked together, I saw a bright light behind the trees on either side, so bright I couldn’t look at it directly but was still aware of it filtering through the leaves and pine needles, with the effect of glittering stars. As we walked through this dark forest pierced by light, I felt what I can only describe as the presence of God. This sounds stupid, fatuous, and utterly trite, but I felt that God was the source of the light, the source of my utter bliss. When I woke up, I felt that I had been on my way to heaven.
My mother now complains to whomever will listen: “Oh, I sure hate to give up my house. It’s the worst thing in the world, to give up your house.” I remind her that she’s not the only person who has had to sell his or her house, that nearly all the other residents at Cypress Glen Retirement Community have done the same thing. I tell her that Cypress Glen is a wonderful place, that we’re lucky to be able to afford it, that she’s safer there than she was at home, that she eats better, that she’s near her friends, that she’s waited on like a queen, that she might as well be on a cruise ship!
I itch to remind her of all the times she complained about the cracks in the ceiling or the faulty plumbing. The commode in the half bath was continually overflowing due to tree roots invading the underground pipes, and the dishwasher had been out of service for years. I could remind her of the many times she complained, “There’s not a comfortable place to sit in the whole house!” or, “This house is so dark!”
But I’m just as guilty. When I’d come home for a visit, I’d say there wasn’t enough light in the bathroom by which to shave. I’d complain about the tepid shower. I’d miss my computer, my stereo, my piano, my washer and dryer, my bed, my food, my TV. I couldn’t live there anymore. Yet the For Sale sign in the front yard looked like a tombstone.
There’s something self-indulgent about this grief, like a refusal to face facts and move on. Nostalgia is utterly vain. I look at pictures of myself in the family album: the adorable baby, the cute ten-year-old, the handsome young man. Cleaning out a chest of drawers, I discover snapshots of the house at the time we moved in, the trim a pristine white, the lawn, still bare and unseeded, a uniform gray. A later color snapshot shows the climbing rosebush we once had; in the spring its pale yellow blossoms completely covered the plank fence at the side of the house and arched over the gate. I can’t smell a rose without thinking about it. There was a spirea at the edge of the back yard that would explode in clusters of white blossoms more delicate than forsythia, the tiny petals scattering like confetti. Most beautiful of all, however, were the camellia bushes my father planted in a row on the hill, early bloomers, some variegated like raspberries and cream. Once, when I was a child, I saw a chameleon on the fence, its throat bright red.
The house has been purchased by a couple from India. The wife is joining the university faculty in the fall. She teaches psychology, I believe. They have a daughter.
My mother was not enthusiastic upon hearing the news. She was glad we got the asking price, but she was a little uncomfortable with the idea of Indians buying her house. Mother was afraid the woman would “do voodoo.” She was remembering a former neighbor down the street, a member of the anthropology department and certifiable eccentric, who hung colored bottles in the trees to frighten away evil spirits (and scandalize the neighbors).
But Mother is adjusting. “I can’t worry about it anymore,” she told me on the phone a couple of weeks ago. This is progress.
My sister will supervise the movers when they pick up the furniture. The day before they come, she phones me in Missouri to ask whether she should send the mattress and some sheets with my father’s bed. I answer her questions, but I must seem disinterested and ungrateful. It’s not that I don’t appreciate receiving the furniture. But I have never felt completely comfortable about bringing it to this house. From the day I bought the place, I’ve worried that I made the wrong decision, that I’ll never be able to sell it, with its two (“and a half”) bedrooms and its location across from the sandlot-baseball diamond in the park. My house is not worthy of this furniture. Bringing my parents’ furniture here is like furnishing a tent with antiques, installing heirlooms in a Quonset hut.
Besides, I liked thinking there was a place where my most valuable possessions — my diplomas and awards, photographs and newspaper clippings — were safe, that my history was preserved in a proper setting. Now I don’t have a safe repository. There’s no place but here.
The movers will store the furniture until they can ship it next month, my sister says. When the time comes I will watch with amazement as they carry in each piece. For days afterward, I will walk from room to room in wonder at how such permanent fixtures in my mental landscape have washed up in my inadequate house, halfway across the country. At first they will break my heart, like my father’s bedroom slippers. Then their power to touch me will begin to rub off with the dusting. Their ability to make me weep will be dispelled, and I’ll confront them, demythologized. I’ll look at the furniture and see . . . just furniture. And I’ll shake myself and say, “You’re not dead yet!”