We moved into our old Victorian house in March 1989 when the kids were two, four, and six. David, the eldest, ran through the halls and backyard exploring, convinced he’d find relics from a long, lost time. Ben, the youngest, had little to say, although for some still unknown reason, he insisted on wearing his blue rubber rain boots that were stenciled with gold half moons and stars, and wouldn’t take them off except to sleep. Ellie, the middle one and only girl, refused to attend nursery school as soon as we moved in. The principal wanted her to go for “therapy,” but I knew she simply had a justifiable case of “Mommy-itis” brought on by the change, and that she would heal in time. Sure enough, about a month later, she got up one morning, dressed, ate a big breakfast and went to school with little fanfare. Shortly after that, Ben removed the boots, and David’s accrued “treasures” he’d dug up in the backyard were placed on a shelf: shimmery rocks, pieces of broken china, old metal miniature cars, and plastic soldiers.
And so, within months, this house became home.
The wraparound porch where they once roller skated and rode their tricycles on inclement days morphed into a teen hangout on both winter and summer eves, the air filled with cigar smoke (yet another phase the boys went through), while a boom box played CDs in the still of the night, and laughter wafted up to our bedroom window. In the morning we’d invariably find an occasional (okay, more than occasional) empty can of Budweiser hidden in the grove of hydrangea. Thanksgivings and Christmases smelled like applewood and pine from the wood-burning stove, with typically 20 people – friends, relatives, and small children, filling the small contiguous rooms.
Now, our house is for sale, and this past Thursday was most likely our last Thanksgiving here. The guest list dwindled as adult friends have chosen to visit parents in Florida who can no longer make the journey, and many relatives have become too infirm to travel, or simply too tired for an arduous drive. This year, it was just the five of us, something that concerned me when I broke the news to the kids, yet surprisingly, they were all pleased to be just our core group on what was a most poignant day.
At first, I was mystified by my reaction to letting go of this house. I questioned why it wasn’t more difficult for me. I’ve concluded that it’s because memories live within the mind and heart, and there comes a time when letting go is far better than hanging on to a past when the future beckons, and it’s simply time to move on.
My parents have lived in the same Manhattan apartment since 1957. I can’t bear to go there these days. It’s not the modern, well-appointed home that I recall from my youth. My old bedroom is no longer the little girl room with doll-lined shelves and floral chintz, that then became the teenager’s room with postered walls cautioning to Make Love, Not War. In fact, the room that was once mine is now my mother’s “hospital room “replete with mechanical bed, and medical supplies piled to the ceiling, her wheelchair in the corner. You see, my parents stayed too long. I so often wished they were more like so many of my friends’ parents who retired to a warm clime, or simply moved to another, newer place when they were in their own middle age and my sister, brother, and I had moved along. That way the apartment would not have become a place where white walls are now gray and peeling, and memories have become blurred and tainted by the scourge of aging and illness.
I neither want that sort of decay for my children, nor for my husband and myself. I want to enter a new phase, as my children forge lives of their own. I hear my friends talk about the glorious prospect of grandchildren within the next decade, and I cringe when they say this old house could be filled with even more family. Have I become selfish, or is that time is galloping, and although I can’t slow it down, I don’t have to push it along?
I have had our babies. I have smelled their sweet necks powdered with talc. I have seen my children take first steps, speak first words, go from home to school, from tricycles to bicycles to cars. I’ve stayed awake until dawn with children who had fevers and earaches, waited half the night for them to come from a party when they were teens. I have packed their bags to leave home for college, from college to their own apartments. I have cried, laughed, burst with pride, and ached for them – sometimes to a point where it placed marriage at a distinct disadvantage when it came to making time for romance, let alone conversation. It was nothing that we all haven’t done as parents - nothing heroic. But, in fact, it was unquestionably a sacrifice, and one we gladly made, although at times it took its toll. It’s hard to be a wife, mother, husband, father, lover, worker, and friend all at the same time without sometimes leaving yourself and someone else in the dust.
And so with the letting go of this house, I don’t let go of history. My memories are vibrant and sweet. I don’t let go of all the wonders of my children growing up into three of my favorite people on earth. I only let go of the house, and want to spare my children the despair of one day seeing something that once was beautiful become unwieldy with memories tainted by time instead of preserved in the gossamer of the heart and soul.
After 24 years of marriage, we look back and realize that in the beginning, in so many ways, we were nearly strangers. And as strangers, we had babies and made a home, but only saw each other in stolen moments, and neither of us was that good a thief. And so, perhaps an oxymoron, we begin now in the middle as the best of lovers and the best of friends.