(Originally published as “Our Memories Can Be Legacies to Strangers.”)
I never did find Dad’s appendix in the attic. He always claimed it was up there, a souvenir of the surgery he had in his youth. After he died, I had to empty the house before the new owners moved in, had to sift through four decades’ worth of junk from basement to attic. Lots of weird stuff turned up, but no appendix. Now the house in which I grew up is vacant.
Surrounded by the Jelly Belly colors of a Washington, D.C., spring – wild pinks and reds against a sky of peppermint blue – I’m sitting on our front steps for the very last time, listening to a cleaning company called the Maid Brigade vacuum up the remnants of 43 years of living in this house. The movers took away the few pieces my mother wants in her new home, an assisted-living facility near my brother. The memorabilia my brother, sister and I wanted has been boxed and shipped; the rest either has been given or thrown away.
I’m suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of loss – for Washington, which I left decades ago when I moved to Miami, and for this house, which would make me absolutely nuts whenever I would visit. It had deteriorated and become too much for my elderly parents to handle. I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t move someplace where they could be more comfortable and where their needs would be better met.
I think I understand now. They didn’t want to say goodbye. I have to do it for them. So goodbye to the ivy that covers the wall, providing Dad with an excuse to paint the house only once in 43 years. Goodbye to the spreading maple tree, heart-enclosed initials my brother carved in its then-sapling trunk still faintly visible. Goodbye to the huge triple sycamore in the back yard which my parents obsessively feared would crash not just onto our house, but that of our neighbor, who would sue us.
Not our problem any more.
Nor any of the other problems: The problem with the leaky basement window Dad solved by slanting plywood over the window well to deflect the overflow from the leaf-stuffed gutter overhead, arranging a parade of sponges on the sill to absorb what leaked through the plywood. The fleet of carpenter bees that buzz overhead like baby Hindenbergs on their way to their home in the roof. The so-sue-me crater in the sidewalk everyone tripped over. The weeds Dad preferred to grass so he wouldn’t have re-sod.
It took several days to comb the house from top to bottom, deciding what to keep, what to give away, what to throw out. They saved everything: fly swatter with a bite out of it; drawerful of those bag sealers that come with bread; bald mops, bristle-less brooms, cleaning supplies from the Eisenhower era; wardrobe bags without wardrobes; moldy army trunks; framed, autographed portrait of Dad’s boss; worn-out toilet ball and chain, carefully preserved and dated inside its own envelope.
The stuff from the attic filled the living room. Covered in dust and soot were things I hadn’t thought about in decades: report cards, baby shoes, Mom’s mah-jongg set and every card anybody ever sent her, newspapers covering historical events (Kennedy’s election, Kennedy’s assassination) so old, dry and yellow that they crumbled like cornflakes. Dad’s black doctor’s bag and autopsy kid, canceled checks from the 1930s, IRS returns from the 1940a ($24 due in 1941), my grandfather’s saw, Dad’s yearbook and army uniform, ice skates bought with earnings from his after-school job in the Fulton Fish Market. A lock of hair, brown and wavy, saved in a folded piece of paper.
And love letters. I carefully unfold the yellowing pages, read mushy words I never imagined my father saying in his rough Bronx accent. My mother’s letters are more in her voice: soft, Southern, shy. Although the letters are rather prim and proper, I feel like a voyeur, reading my parents’ words to each other. Is this who they were before they had me? What happened to make them change?
The slurping sound of the Maid Brigade’s vacuum is starting to suction my brain, so I go around back where the sycamore stretches white and stark against the sky, tiny green buds on its branches evidence that, yes, it will live another year. I can see my sister Jackie, 8 years old, parked in the crook of this tree. She scurries up the trunk, lithe and quick as a squirrel, then fades into memory.
Then I walk down the hill to Turtle Park, where once upon a time I hit tennis balls, where my brother shot baskets, where my sister swung on the swings. Where I took my own kids to crawl over the stone turtles in the big sandbox. Where, decades later, I took my grandson to crawl the same path. I sit on a bench and watch the kids play. Many of them are watched by nannies. There weren’t nannies here when I was a kid.
When I get back to the house, the Maid Brigade is packing it in. The house is spotless, all clutter swept away. I walk through, ostensibly checking for stray litter but really to say a last goodbye. I go down to the garage, haul up (Dad didn’t believe in garage door openers) the heavy door with the sticker warning about the (nonexistent) alarm system. Inside, only one thing remains. Forgotten by the Goodwill truck: a mirror, dusty and fogged by time.
Peering back at me through the mirror’s silvery fog is Dorian Gray in reverse: myself at sixteen. I stare at this youthful apparition, this Me who is yet without a history, and I ponder time and fate and the ephemeral nature of material things. Houses, like life, are vanishing acts. All those memories, all those desires, all those possessions are inevitably reduced to this: an accumulation of stuff that’s either given away, thrown away, or sold as a bargain on eBay.
And yet, some things survive the past to tease the present with mystery and speculation: Pyramids. The Rosetta Stone. The Shroud of Turin. The Lascaux cave paintings. And Dad’s appendix: A treasure as yet undiscovered, hidden somewhere in the attic.
St. Petersburg Times 11/24/2002