The house my dad is leaving is 3,600 square feet, according to the property listing. It sits on about 1 acre of land and was built in 2003. Per the realtor:
Tucked away down a private lane, this custom-built Cotswold cottage style home is so charming and welcoming. The spacious great room has a beautiful stone fireplace flanked by built-ins, hardwood floors and French doors opening to the front entry gardens w/custom wrought iron fencing. The large gourmet kitchen is equipped w/granite counters, beautiful back splash and a center island. Doors open to the cedar deck overlooking a beautiful wooded backyard, ravine & stream. Also on the main floor is an owner’s suite w/walk-in closet and bath with walk-in shower, the laundry room, and powder room. A finished walkout lower level w/wet bar and lovely patio is the perfect space for entertaining family and friends. Central vac., irrigation system, Surround sound.
The house I grew up in was a three-story American foursquare with a basement, built in 1903. Mom wanted a house to grow old in, easy to clean and with all the essentials on one floor. They moved into that house slowly, furniture from one suddenly disappearing and arriving at the other, like a scene from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind played out over several years.
A few weeks ago, I went to claim the items I wanted as my father dissolved the house before he left for a new one. Most of those have gone into a storage unit: the Appalachian hardwood kitchen table I grew up at, the everyday china I loved best, the bins full of books, toys, notebooks from my childhood, the cooking implements I’m saving for later. A few boxes came to Brooklyn. My apartment is big for New York but small for Ohio, and I needed to make room for these old-new pieces I was taking into my life.
I attach outsized value to the smallest things: a piece of paper where my handwriting looked particularly good, a fortune cookie fortune that made me laugh, a figurine of Charlie Chaplin I found in a king cake during high school French class. So many small, strange objects lived in the background and created an irreplicable setting that I wanted to carry with me. That duck and the stapler lived on Mom’s desk; the duck has “MEX” scribbled near the ribbon, but I have no idea where the thing came from or whether it was that special. The golem, a gift from Mom’s best friend after a trip to Prague; the hippo is William, an Egyptian artifact from the Met.
We got the mug during a road trip between two cities we didn’t live in. One year we visited my sister Erika in Seattle, then drove down to Portland, to see it and to visit relatives. Mom delighted in the roadside diner where we stopped for lunch. The mug was grayed and washer-stained when I picked it out for packing. I wasn’t going to let it go.
The coaster complemented the tiles on the low countertop in our kitchen addition, a place I spent years coating in the residue and debris of art projects. Its twin survives unscathed.
After I left my last job, I got sucked into the Great British Bake-Off, a sweet and pastoral vision of what both baking and reality TV could look like that convinced me I too could love ovens, recipes and infuriating ingredients. I used to love watching my mother bake bread and cakes. As we packed up the kitchen, I laid claim to everything I could: melamine bowl sets I’d seen her stir batter in, the flour-dusted pie mat with diagrams for how far to roll out a crust, a long ceramic roasting pan, four or five wooden rolling pins. I’m determined to remind myself every day, the joy is in the process. I don’t bake and I don’t cook much, but I want to. I love making something out of not much; I love working with my hands.
When Dad first told me how soon he intended to leave the house and divide it up, I began to have dreams about a particular bowl, built deep and wrapped with pastel rings. My heart clenched to think of someone else taking it. I ached to raise dough in it, to reconnect with that process, that feeling. When the boxes arrived from UPS, I found that the three large bowls I’d set aside were stacked inside each other. The top two had shattered, but the last, the bottom one, had survived.
My insides twisted, but I let myself grieve, and then I said, Okay, this one’s going to be mine, then.
Some of my bracelets and watches belonged to my grandmother. I was the only one with chicken-wrists skinny enough to wear them. My mother had beautiful long fingers. She used to take my hands in hers and turn them over. “Such little hands,” she’d say quietly, smiling, and I wanted her to cup me in hers forever. I’m starting to develop the same patterns in my skin, the lines around my knuckles I used to study on hers.
This ring pairs with her wedding ring; it fits together with her wedding and engagement bands as sure as a puzzle. “One stone for each child,” my dad told me.
One afternoon, after a long lunch honoring my mother, Dad, Erika, my cousin Jackie and I sat on my parents’ bed and went through Mom’s jewelry. I’d never seen that little chest opened, though I’d often thought it was neat and mysterious. We found strings of pearls, coral, a jade pendant Mom wore at so many occasions. All of us had pierced ears, so we left behind gorgeous clip-on earrings. As a little girl, I loved stealing a particular twisted gold chain that my mom wore every day. I took that, and her everyday watch, and some brooches, some rings, some bracelets, more beads. I don’t know when I’ll feel comfortable wearing them. They’re still her jewelry. I can’t give them back when I’m done.
The storyteller doll I brought for her in the springtime, the last year she was alive. Years before, we’d visited my great-aunt and uncle in Arizona, and Mom had fallen in love with the figurines at the Native American art museum. She related, both as a teller of tales and a grandmother and mother to so many. She didn’t want to get just any storyteller, though. It had to be the right one. I knew we were running out of time, so when I took the train from Los Angeles to Santa Fe, I made sure to find one — a right one, if not the right one.
I don’t know when I’m going to hang these. The mirror was a gift from Aunt Pearl, the matriarch of the family; it was understood that I would have it when the time came. My mother was a brilliant needlepoint artist. She did it in her spare time, and her work probably should be in museums. The Georgia O’Keeffe print hung in my parents’ bedroom, and it always made me feel so peaceful. I got a membership to the Art Institute of Chicago in part so I could visit the real thing, a monumental painting 24 feet long.
I don’t know if I’m ready to look at these and have them looking back at me every day. I’m also not sure I trust my thin walls to hold them up, given their solidness, their weight. I couldn’t bear to see them break too.
My mom got this motorcycle-style jacket during a cruise around the Mediterranean. They stopped in Florence, at a shop where I also bought a leather jacket once. In the ’70s, my mom was pretty hip. She once showed me a pair of beautiful knee-high boots she’d lived in, and that I was more than free to wear myself, but my feet were too small and my calves wouldn’t fit.
I’ve inherited a few pieces of clothing, other than those I squirreled away because I couldn’t bear the idea of them ending up in some Central Ohio Goodwill. Sometimes her socks would still show up in the laundry when I visited. Dad once tried to offer me an Adidas tracksuit she never wore, which I couldn’t stomach. I took home a silk bathrobe she also never got to wear. I only saw her in the leather jacket once. She looked so happy and relaxed in it, so proud and pleased to just be living her life.
I’m taller than she ever was. She used to tuck her head under my chin, hug me and say, “It’s such a shame that I’m so much taller than you!” But her jacket fits me well. I don’t know that I can wear it yet. It may be years. I don’t feel ready to have absorbed my parents’ household into mine, in any part. Since coming back, I have so much more Judaica in my apartment, including the silver candlesticks I grew up using. It’s destabilizing in a way I didn’t expect. My abandoned knitting and untouched subversive cross stitch live in my mother’s last black-bottom tote bag. One nook of my room might accidentally turn into an altar.
But okay. This all is going to be mine now. The joy is in the process. I’m going to see where this takes me, and where all of it goes.
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