Good friends of ours recently moved into a new home. Mike, the girls and I took a housewarming gift to them last weekend, in exchange for a much anticipated tour of the place. It’s situated on a quiet cul-de-sac lined with oak trees and manicured lawns. There are sweeping views of acres of green grasses that glisten in morning light. It’s perfect for them, and for a while, I had house envy.
Perhaps it’s because my kitchen is nowhere close to being finished. But my patience is.
I love my house. I do. Our daughters love it and use every square inch for dance and play. So do our two destructive, demonic dogs. It’s where we’re supposed to be, with or without countertops and food disposals. Yet the work never ends. Fences have to be repaired or rebuilt, air conditioners need new relay switches. Furnace filters are no longer available for the temperamental unit that warms our house with the smell of burnt dust in the winter. The list goes on and on. Well, make that Mike’s List goes on and on…
Then, there’s my aunt’s house, which is now our house since she passed away. Six months ago, Mike and I vowed that we would enjoy this little fixer-upper-summer-project. We decided over artisan beer and pizza that we’d rip up carpets to expose hardwood floors, scrape wallpaper and paint the surfaces a nice beige-gray color from Pottery Barn. We’d landscape the sidewalks with English boxwoods and cut back wild bushes to reveal pretty stonework on the foundation.
Yeah, right. I haven’t lifted one finger, other than to wipe tears off my face because I can’t stand to be in my aunt’s house. It’s as if I’ve had some type of delayed reaction to her death that makes it nearly impossible to be around her things. I walk into the living room, spot one of her many watercolors soaking up dirt on the walls, and I walk right back out. There’s something about parting with her belongings that makes me feel like I’m getting rid of her memory. But I don’t need another china cabinet. I don’t need two more bedroom suites or another chest of drawers from the 1950s. I don’t want to haggle over them in an estate sale, either.
I’m just unsettled.
Houses are a funny thing. They’re a burden of bricks and mortar, but a solid presence that stands for something much more than an address. Whenever I look over at my aunt’s house, I feel like she’s close by. She’s still here, even though I know she’s gone there.
So now this house has become a monument that makes me feel both safe and sad. It also makes me feel sick when the home owners insurance and tax bills are stuffed in the mailbox on the same day. It makes me feel greedy to hold on to a piece of property that would make a wonderful starter home for a young family, or a retirement home for an elderly couple (or single). It feels wasteful to continue paying utility companies to keep the life on in the house. It also feels like I’m spoiled for having a second home to rely on when my kitchen is in shambles or the cooling system freezes. It feels immature to have a garage full of toys and hobbies, a space Mike has come to call his frat house.
Yet this cottage isn’t full of fond memories. This is the place associated with her illness. It’s the place that served as a type of assisted living with two caregivers located directly next door. When I do peek into the TV room, I see a new, leather lift chair that carried her from a sitting to a standing position three or four times. I see the indentations on the carpet where the wheels of a hospice bed were stationed. I hear the clicking, ticking sound of an anniversary clock, an eerie reminder that she bought the house two years ago this week.
And because of these things, I’ve decided to sell.
No, dear readers and neighbors, I’m not ready to show the house. But I’m ready to part with it. I’m ready to let go of the weight that’s holding me back. I need to remember that my aunt was a real estate agent and she bought houses as investments and sold them for profits. These structures were places to hang her hat, not her heart. During the brief moments that I’m feeling more confident, I imagine her saying, “Sell it, honey. Get what you can and get out from under all this trouble!” I can also hear her chanting, “Never fear! Auntie’s near!” She would sing this line into the telephone whenever I called to complain of losing my way.
But now, I need to find my way back across the sidewalk into my home, where my family lives and loves. I need to see her place for exactly what it is: a ranch-style house with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, situated on a large lot with access to leading schools and city conveniences.
It’s said that we can’t take any of this stuff with us when it’s our time to go, but I’m grateful that my artist auntie left more than a few paintings for me to hang on the walls of my TV room. And when I glance at “The Old Homeplace,” I’ll have no fear. Auntie’s near.