Time colors and shades in many ways so although I think that I remember clearly the day that my family moved into our “new” apartment in November 1957, I probably don’t.
I recall the room I shared with my younger brother: The glaring circular florescent light on the ceiling (a sign of affluence at the time), a “modern” television encased in sea foam green (replete with a rudimentary remote control the size of a shoe box), the tweedy brown and green somewhat industrial wall-to-wall carpet, and the white twin beds on either side of the room – with half bed rails lest we tumble out in the middle of the night.
My older sister’s room was across the hall: a turquoise blue pile carpet, floral draperies and matching bedspread of the same hue, twin beds ( for a sleep over), and a cherry wood two-toned dresser with attached vanity mirror. My parents room had twin beds pushed together with one long headboard covered with a beige spread, a gold-toned chandelier in the room’s center, a sleek lounge chair with an ottoman in the corner, and my mother’s dressing table with upholstered bench. The rest of the apartment was simply gleaming and new: a crystal chandelier in the dining room, cornices and draperies, faux marble tile accented with black in the entrance foyer. It was nearly dreamy – and all this grandeur considering that the previous tenants had, according to my mother, used the “servants quarters” in the rear of the apartment as a dog kennel.
It is now 52 years later that my siblings and I are moving our widowed father to a “down-sized” apartment – not because we want to, but rather because the landlord is a shrewd and notoriously ruthless businessman, and as a renter, my 90-year-old father has to go.
What is left in that apartment are what could all too easily be termed “vestiges” of a lifetime. If only my parents had moved (as my mother had wanted) before the ravages of time set in, before this move became an overwhelming task as we, the three “children” must undo, relocate, redistribute, donate and toss the collection of a half century in 30 days.
The other day my 25-year-old daughter Ellie (among others) asked if I am “sad” to dismantle this home where I grew up. No, I said. I am not sad. The apartment (an odd word as I consider that we are, indeed, taking it “apart”) was no longer the same for me since the day my mother became ill and the room that was originally my sister’s and then mine became a hospital. The apartment was no longer the same when the aromas from the kitchen and my mother’s bedroom were more like those in a nursing home despite great efforts by the care givers to mask what was the unmistakable scent of old age coupled with illness. And more, for me, the apartment lost whatever touchstones remained once my mother died in that room. Memories of a childhood remain if I search the recesses of my mind, but the sense of “home” died with my mother.
So, no, I am not sad, but a part (there’s that word again – a part – apart – apartment) is angry: Not only did my parents stay too long, but my father is resistant not only to moving but to dismantling – to giving his children whatever legacies remain. He is, I try to joke, like an Egyptian wanting to take his belongings to an afterlife. Yes, I understand that he is 90, but the adage about old dogs not learning new tricks resonates deeply: his sentiments are not because he is 90, but rather a lifelong inability to let go. My mother was realistic, wanted to downsize and simplify, often gave us gifts on birthdays and holidays that came from her home or her jewelry box rather than buying something at a store. It was my father’s clinging to that apartment, to his possessions that kept them there.
Being realistic about one’s parents, by the way, has little to do with devotion.
In short, the apartment should have been a place where my parents lived and raised their children – not a place that turned into a veritable Grey Gardens. My siblings and I, in our middle years, should not have to be sifting through memories that are more like ghosts.
Three weeks ago, my husband and I loaded up our daughter’s car with her “memory boxes” saved by me over the years. My obsessive placing of my children’s memories in airtight plastic bins labeled boldly in black magic marker was clearly a reaction to my mother’s saving of nothing from my childhood (which, in that 20/20 hindsight, was probably her reaction to my father never wanting to let go). In part, it was a legacy that I handed to my daughter. For me, it was also an admission that as I grow older, these are things to be passed on and cherished – at a time when I can see the delight on my child’s face as she revels in the memories. Ellie is the one who has a home with a basement now. For my sons, the day will come when I will give them their plastic bins and boxes as well.
The quintessential middle child in me is stirring as I anticipate the month ahead. My brother, sister and I, despite the differences in our personalities and approaches, and perhaps more profoundly the differences in our histories despite the familial bond, must cooperate as we plow through. Figuratively, I envision us wearing hip boots and mud flaps – and for me, some armor. I am trying to step back and view this as a “project,” remove the emotion for the time being, be organized and “get the job done.”
When my mother was ill, I thought there could be nothing worse than that. I thought that once she died it might not feel that different since I felt that I had already lost her. I was wrong. And so, I think that once this task is done, and our father is settled, moved and adjusts with what I know will be difficulty, then I’ll probably feel the sadness set in. For now, a little bit of anger feels healthier, pumps my adrenaline as I head into the trenches, trying to stay present as I am whipped into the past.