Over the holidays I flew to Maryland to empty my childhood home. Ever since my parents’ marriage ended, I was haunted by that house. A testament to its power, the house was not a vessel for ghosts but the ghost itself.
I originally grew up in apartments. I scraped knees with kids upstairs and slept in the electric glow of a streetlight right outside my bedroom window. I picked wild apples full of worms and sat on swings until they squeezed my thigh meat. I sometimes fell asleep to the strains of college parties, and sometimes I was pulled upstairs by my nightgown sleeve, as my mother pointed at me and said “My kid needs to sleep.” I found mouse droppings on my nightstand and months later, after we got the cat, a freshly slain mouse laid to rest beside my slippers. Life was messy and jubilant. But like a lot of kids who grow up sandwiched between floors, I dreamt of a house.
Houses had backyards and basements. Houses had dark bedrooms and no one upstairs but my own two parents or my kid sister. When my parents started looking for a house, I didn’t mind the Saturdays and Sundays spent walking through echoing rooms, the backdrops of imaginary people’s lives. This could be my backdrop! Here, the corner where I could read, here the closet where I could hide. Here, a bedroom, a basement, a backyard—-like an incantation. Decades later, I still remember a few of the interiors. That’s how much I wanted it.
We moved in when I was almost thirteen. All of our utensils, plates and pans were packed away for what seemed like weeks. My mother went to the grocery store, now so close we could walk to it, and bought frozen pot pies with billowy yellow skin, full of butter and flake, that spilled gravy-robed-guts with the prick of a fork. My sister and I ate McDonalds breakfast sandwiches, hot in waxed paper. We ate pizzas left by the friends who helped us paint the walls. We sat in the middle of our empty basement and cracked rainbow candy canes between our jaws to find out their flavors.
The carpet looked like steel wool and felt about as cozy. The walls were painted like 1979 died and no one had bothered to tell the inhabitants. It was hideous and empty and ours.
Our family took a thousand pictures and put them in boxes in the crawl space that snaked through each floor like a digestive system. I filled journals and outgrew clothes, my sister made masterpieces, first with finger paint and later macaroni, and we put them in boxes and put them in the crawl space. My parents had a whole life before the house that they put in boxes and put in the crawl space, and then they kept living and there were always more boxes and seemingly always more crawl space. We joked that the previous owner probably lived deep in its belly. Honestly, we never would’ve known.
When I came home for the last time, there was a half empty can of sparkling water in the fridge, a straw bobbing out of its open mouth. I couldn’t find peanut butter. I didn’t know where to look. I’ve never known so distinctly that I didn’t live somewhere as I did standing in the house for the last time. A funny feeling to have when there are pictures of your face on the walls.
My husband and father pulled the boxes from the crawl space. There were books for grandchildren I haven’t provided and sticky shot glasses from my first year of college. There were photos of my father in kindergarten piled on top of my father holding his first child in his arms. There was my mother pregnant with my sister, then my sister in a paisley purple prom dress in the front yard, the blood-red leaves of the Japanese oak tree hovering over her head. There was my mother with a smile I didn’t recognize and one that she’s retired.
It was so full. Standing in the middle, I thought if there was a heaven, it was this basement emptied. Because wasn’t this where we ate those first meals? Side by side by side by side. Happy about nothing.
My husband found a Jewish deli and went out to buy sandwiches, and my order of “so many chocolate tops” and “rainbow cake only if it’s made with jam.” When he returned, we trekked upstairs to eat because it was easier and because it was sad downstairs and we were all tired of not talking about it. We ate pastrami in silence. The chocolate top was dismal, the rainbow cake thick with raspberry goo.
In the end, I donated an entire basement’s worth of stuff, packed the journals and threw out the rest. There’s so much mortality in our clutter. Like if we keep saving it for later, keep letting it pile up, it will keep us too heavy to disappear. Like death will forget us if we build monuments to our lives and let them swallow whole basements, crawl spaces, houses. Like change won’t come if the door is blocked shut by old shirts.
Now every time I see clutter, it’s like I’m staring at a graveyard.
My grandmother’s china, peach and white and silky to touch, is packed away, waiting to be shipped, waiting for years until my parents broke up and put the house on the market.
When it gets here, it will be my friend. I will treat it with rough affection. It will know toast and chili and birthday cake and Tuesday cake and leftover nachos. I will open my arms. I won’t save anything for later, I won’t hold on to all these monuments. I will eat my morning cereal and feel the cool china curves against my palms.
All of these things! Heavier than marriage, than family. A distraction from today. This mortal life. This deep seated fear.
A china bowl of potato chips: I think that sounds right.