It was a Saturday morning last fall, and I was frantically scheduling middle-school tours for my daughter on SignUpGenius when I got the call. As any type A Manhattan mother with a full-time job, two children, a cat, and a Chinese hamster will tell you, picking up the phone at that moment means taking a chance that an even more neurotic Manhattan mom will beat you to the last of the precious tour spots. Just the same, I answered. It was my mother. (Hadn’t I trained her to e-mail?) Doing her best to talk fast (OK, maybe I had trained her), she said, “Deed? I know you’re busy, but I just wanted to tell you that Tia Sylvia and I found buyers for Abuela’s house, and we’re going to Buenos Aires next month for the close. That’s all.”
A few words about me, my family, and Argentina. My mother is an accomplished concert pianist, born and raised in Buenos Aires, whose life has revolved almost entirely around playing and teaching music. When she was 20, she met my dad, a renowned German-Jewish concert violinist 18 years her senior whose family had escaped Berlin right before World War II and fled to Buenos Aires. He had emigrated again—this time, to New York—when, through their mutual agent, they were set up to play concerts together in Latin America. Within two weeks, my mother knew that she loved him, and within the year she left Buenos Aires for America and married him. By 1970 the two had landed jobs teaching music at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where I was born.
Selling a family home is a life event that raises questions about, well, everything. It’s one thing to hear that; it’s another thing to live it. Although I had visited my grandmother’s house many times as a child, I had never thought that the absence of a family home there would bother me. Besides, I still had cousins and friends in Argentina. And I knew that managing the motley crew of rotating tenants who had inhabited my grandmother’s house since her death, in 2004, was getting overwhelming for my mother and aunt. From time to time, they talked about unloading it. But once the reality arrived, I found myself speechless (which happens precisely never). The next few days went by in an endless cycle of rumination. Now that the house was being sold, would I ever visit Argentina again? If I did, where would I stay? Who were the buyers? Would they take good care of the place? Would I like them? Honestly, I was surprised by how distraught I was over the impending sale. By the end of the week, middle-school tours be damned, I had booked my ticket.
You know those stories about an orphaned dog being raised by cats? Growing up, I felt like that dog. Despite my love for my parents and theirs for me, there was no denying that they were a wildly different breed. They were artists. Throughout the school year, they ducked out of their teaching posts to perform in far-flung locations (spring break in Cochabamba, anyone?), alternately taking me with them and leaving me with neighbors. My father rode around town on a Kawasaki Z1300 with a Stradivarius strapped to his back. While my friends’ moms spent most of their time cooking, my mom spent hers practicing. (I credit this for the fact that to this day I still can’t so much as boil an egg.) They were also capital-F Foreigners. Never mind the matter of their heavy accents. On my mother’s first Halloween in Massachusetts, the trick-or-treaters who came to our door had to explain to her to “give us candy or money.” Regarding the time my dad slammed the door on the Girl Scouts, the less said the better.
On the plus side, I grew up going to Argentina and staying with my grandparents for a good chunk of time once or twice a year. I studied piano, took folk-dance lessons, and learned to write in a checkered composition book, like Argentine kids. When I was six, I met a girl named Andrea at a beach resort outside of Buenos Aires. We’ve been friends ever since.
My grandparents’ home was a lovable three-story maze of mixed-up rooms and secret hideaways in a working-class neighborhood called Monserrat. There I helped my grandfather, then an Associated Press photographer, develop pictures in his darkroom. Every morning, my grandmother and I sat in the kitchen and ate dulce de leche and drank maté (a bitter South American tea sipped out of a hollowed-out gourd). It’s been said that if you like maté, you will return to Argentina. I guzzled it.
When I graduated from college, in 1992, I decided to move to Buenos Aires to live with my grandmother. (My grandfather had already passed away.) There was something about closing the loop on my mom’s exit from the country that appealed to me existentially at a time when I had few other prospects. But I lasted just six months. The only work I could find was a low-paying translation job. Living with an elderly person turned out to be not that much fun, either. Additionally, I was still wrestling with my own demons, having not fully dealt with the loss of my father, who had died unexpectedly of a heart attack when I was 14.
In what I now view as a two-decade-long attempt at establishing some kind of normalcy, I left Argentina, moved back to the States, got a master’s degree in journalism, met and married my husband, worked at several magazines, and gave birth to my two children. I visited Argentina during that time, but only once or twice and briefly at that.
It was thrilling to be back. My first visit to the house brought on a mad rush of nostalgic joy. Every corner I explored evoked a powerful memory: the pantry where my grandmother kept the maté, my grandfather’s darkroom. I even made a special trip to the basement to get a whiff of the mothball smell. (Forget Proust’s madeleines.) By the time I left, I was emotionally spent.
My mother and aunt had conducted the closing before I arrived, and the final walk-through wasn’t scheduled for two more days. So in the intervening time I went on a mommy bender. I walked for hours, visiting some of my favorite sites: La Boca, the neighborhood known for tango; Recoleta, the cemetery where Eva Perón was buried; the Teatro Colón, where my father played his first concert. I ate steaks the size of a Birkin bag, drank Malbec as if it were apple juice, and smoked cigarettes to the point of nausea (which didn’t take much, since I don’t smoke). Andrea and I spent a whole night talking about our parallel lives on different continents and trying to put neat bows on each other’s problems. I was in such a blissful state that I rarely FaceTime’d home. I know I am supposed to feel guilty about all of this. Just shhh.
On the morning of the walk-through, I strolled to the corner for pastries. When I got back to the house, my mom and aunt were there with the new owners: Silvia and Andres, a pair of empty nesters moving back to the city from the suburbs. He owns a sporting-goods business; she is a therapist. I liked them immediately.
There were four pianos in the house: one modest upright each in my mother’s and aunt’s bedrooms, a slightly nicer baby grand in the rehearsal room, and a beautiful Steinway grand in the living room. These, of course, were prized family possessions, and my mother and aunt agonized over their fate. Moving them to the States was too expensive. Selling them, given the exchange rate, would have fetched close to nothing. In the end, it was decided that two of the instruments would be donated to local schools, and the grand would be given to the Jewish community center. The baby grand in the rehearsal room would stay with Silvia and Andres. Andres's mother likes to play.
Those wondering if I came into any expensive jewelry or heirlooms will be disappointed. The sum total of what I brought home was a few framed photos, an elaborate pincushion that I had loved as a child, and some sheet music.
That’s OK. I came home with something more valuable. Earlier in the day, Silvia had shared a thought that has come to sum up the trip for me. It’s the reason, I see now, that I went. Maybe it’s the reason that we are all drawn to family homes. “We are born thinking we have free will,” she said. “But the longer we live, the more we discover we’ve been programmed by our ancestors.” Of course, I will return to Buenos Aires. With or without the house, it’s part of who I am. Next time I’m taking my kids.