When I pull into the driveway, the first thing I notice is the real estate sign planted on the snowy lawn. Even though the house, located in an eastern suburb of Cleveland, has been on the market for a year and I have been working with the real estate agent from my home in New York City, seeing the sign makes the impending loss more tangible.
I find myself feeling possessive of this burnt-red house with the brown trim and door, of the magnolias and the frozen shrubs that line the tree lawn. My father had the house built over 50 years ago in anticipation of having a family. It is where my three sisters and I grew up. Soon it will belong to a stranger.
From the windows hang thick icicles of different sizes, all shaped like daggers. I remember ducking when I was little so one wouldn’t spike me in the head. I don’t duck this time. I let myself in the door. I find myself studying each object, each piece of furniture—the dictionary propped up on the wooden stand in the living room; the grandfather clock in the hallway that once commanded my attention every hour, long silenced; the Art Deco dining-room chandelier Mom so loved.
I go into the kitchen and see the long black-walnut table, where my sisters and I, as adults, served brunches of scrambled eggs, bagels, and cream cheese when we came to visit. Displayed on the open shelves is Mom’s collection of yellow, blue, red, gold, and green Fiestaware, assembled during her flea-market days.
I peer at the old milk chute, in the downstairs bathroom. It’s now bolted closed, but when I was younger, it was a point of intense fascination. I would come down the stairs in the morning and open the chute and find that two bottles of milk—one white and one chocolate—had miraculously appeared inside. Later on, when my sisters and I were teenagers, we would sneak through the milk chute to meet our friends late at night and then use it to crawl back in.
I am transported to a time when the house was bursting with life. The walls of this house held our laughter, our quarrels with one another, our love. I hear doors slamming. I hear my mother shouting from downstairs. I smell something cooking on the stove.
Now the house is very quiet—so quiet that I can hear snow fall off the roof when a gust of wind blows.
Mom is upstairs in bed. She has been suffering from migraines so intense that a slant of light will undo her. When she has a spate of these headaches, it is hard for her to function. Recently she has given up driving, so she feels more isolated. I came home to help her pack and to finalize the arrangements at an assisted-living community, where she will be moving to shortly.
Mom’s caregiver, Carol, is upstairs, too. I can hear Mom’s footsteps on the carpeted bedroom floor, the same creaks I used to hear when I was making out on the couch with my high school boyfriend, one ear intently listening. She was alone then, too; my father had long since died of a heart attack.
I go upstairs. From the hallway, I watch Carol help my mother, who has just gotten out of bed. She brushes Mom’s hair and clips back her bangs with a bobby pin. Mom used to do the same thing with my hair in front of the very same mirror. How young and beautiful she was then, with her brunet wavy hair, clear porcelain skin, and model’s figure; I hoped I would be equally striking when I grew up. She is no longer young, but she is just as beautiful.
When I was a child, Mom was active and social. She went bowling once a week and played mah-jongg. She cooked elaborate gourmet meals and hosted dinner parties; everything down to the matching table napkins was perfect.
She was warm and compassionate as well. Enduring the death of my father had made her more sensitive to others’ pain. So no wonder that when my teenage friends were having troubles with their parents, the one person they chose to confide in was my mother.
“I don't know what I would do without you,” Mom says to Carol.
“You’re going to be OK,” Carol says.
Mom hugs Carol. She has never looked so fragile. My eyes tear up, and I am seized with a complex emotion: I have no name for it, but it has to do with the passage of time and my fears of the future—of having to live in a world without my mother.
“Hi, Mom,” I say. “You look good.”
“Oh, hello, Jill,” Mom says. Her voice is soft and tired.
Packing the house has been overwhelming for her. I can tell. “Will you call the doctor and ask him about my prescription?” she asks me. “Of course,” I reply. Over the last few months, my sisters and I have grown tight with my mother’s physicians and become acquainted with her medications. We’ve also balanced her checkbook and looked over her living will.
Although I’ve long been anticipating this moment—when my mom would put up the house for sale and move into a place where she would be better cared for—I don’t want it to happen. Right now I want to swoop in and tend to her needs, momentarily forgetting that I have a teenage son, a husband, a full-time job, and a home of my own that demand my attention.
“Where’s my hug?” I say to her, a little jealous.
Mom comes over and hugs me. The migraine still hasn’t passed. She goes back to bed to lie down and asks that Carol and I shut the door. “The light from the hallway is unbearable,” she says.
“Jill,” my mother calls out as she gets back into bed. “Will you call the doctor about my prescription?” Yes, I say.
Carol and I discuss my mother’s condition for a few minutes. Mom has been a little worried about the move; I suspect it may be causing some of her headaches. Carol sits on a rocker with a pink Post-it stuck to its back. Pink Post-it notes denote the furniture pieces that my mother will take with her to assisted living. They adorn only a few items: her bed and a dresser, a small couch, and a square table with four chairs. Soon most everything else will be gone.
A few hours later, I go back to Mom’s room and sit at the foot of her bed. “Are you sad about leaving the house?” I ask.
She answers with a more upbeat tone than I expect. “It’s time for me to go. I just hope I like it in the new place.”
Mom gets up. She’s feeling better. She takes me by the hand. “Make sure to pack the Fiestaware,” she says. “And thank you, my darling, for all you are doing for me.”
For so many years, I worried about my mother living in the house on her own; now I am distressed at the thought of the perimeters of her life narrowing. It is hard to accept that her circumstances are not temporary or situational—that her inabilities to manage her health and finances independently, to oversee repairs on the house, or to drive are permanent. I haven’t totally accepted the fact that she may not be able to come visit me in New York, where we loved to go shopping together, or to stroll through an art gallery or a museum. These days it is harder for her to travel.
Over tea, my mother and I take out the packet of literature about her assisted-living community and look at its busy schedule of activities. The facility offers yoga, current-events discussions, book clubs, and twice-a-day film screenings. I have been fearing my mother’s move and worrying about her loss of independence. But I also recognize that by having her personal needs met in the assisted-living community, without the worries of going grocery shopping, cooking meals, or keeping up with yard work, she will have an opportunity to explore new interests; rather than her life narrowing, as I feared, it may expand.
I had been feeling bad for my mother, but to be honest, she is not lost in a fog of nostalgia. I am the one who can’t stop dwelling on the past.
Packing up the house represents the end of my childhood. From now on, coming back for a visit will entail staying in a hotel, not in this cozy Colonial that my mother so meticulously cared for—the one that evokes so many memories I associate with the word home. But she needs to move on—and I need to let her.
I kiss her good-bye for now, promising to call her doctor once I’m at the airport.
Before I start the car, I take one last look at the house. I think back on playing red-light–green-light with my sisters and the neighbors on the front lawn in the summer and building a snowman in the winter. I remember rushing in the front door, cold from the snow—on a blustery day much like this one—and my mother in the kitchen making us mugs of rich and velvety hot chocolate.
The house will remain, but I will take the warm memories of my childhood wherever I go. And they will be wherever my mother goes as well.
I pull out and start driving. This time I don’t look back.
Jill Bialosky is the author of three poetry collections–including, most recently, Intruder ($25, amazon.com)–and two novels, House Under Snow ($15, amazon.com) and The Life Room ($14, amazon.com). Her memoir, History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life ($14, amazon.com), will be released in paperback this month. She lives with her husband and son in New York City.