Do these chairs go in here, ma’am? What do we do with the table leaf? Mom! Where’s my deodorant? Babe, where do you want these lamps? Mother, my bed is not where I want it. Please… can we move it now! The dog got out!
Arrrgggghh! With the movers quickly asking me questions along with the three grown men in my family and a little mixed Chihuahua underfoot (also male), it’s enough to drive any woman senseless AND useless. I flop down on my back with my arms splayed at my sides on my bed which has been positioned correctly in my new room although its sheets and blankets are nowhere to be seen. I give up, momentarily, and reflect on what a tremendous transition we've made.
In 1985 I was a young, newly-married working girl who made a significant commitment by purchasing an 800-square foot, three bedroom, one bathroom ranch house. With little furniture and less money, my husband and I moved into our little abode that, 28 years later, we would actually find it prudent to sell and bid farewell. Twenty-eight years of alternating bliss and despair; hopelessness and delight – the roller coaster of life as we know it all wound together in this home…our home.
Over the years, we purchased furniture, decorated, added a second story and bathroom, renovated, replaced the roof and siding (twice!), updated boilers, washers, dryers, dishwashers, and shabby couches, installed central air conditioning , and forever battled with a stubborn lawn, 120-foot slope, and even more tenacious greenery and flowers that remained eternally out of our grasp as ‘manicured.’
But those were just the things we did TO the house. More impactful was what the house did for us. This is what caused me pause this moving day. For nearly three decades our family of four traveled many roads in and out of this house - both scenic and dangerous - all bringing us back home: Home with new babies and pets; home with new jobs and launched businesses; home after our own hospitalizations and home from funerals for family members who died too young. It was also a home that was open for relatives who needed a place to stay and a very lucky home that was hugged – yes hugged - by loving neighbors and friends who saw us through our greatest triumphs and our deepest anguish.
I recall the time our backyard neighbor called to let me know that my son and his friends were jumping out of his bedroom window (they were playing fireman) and, as a reliable lookout, he called again to tell me that that same son and his best friend (next door neighbor) had climbed to the top of the 50-foot tall pine tree we had planted in memory of our nephew when it was just two-feet tall. I think fondly of neighborly traditions such as door-decorating when a baby was born, block parties that went on for hours, impromptu gatherings just because we met up outside, neighbors helping neighbors with tree and snow removal, leaf blowing, groceries and medical crises both big and small. We all had each other’s keys and the children knew they would never be locked out, anywhere.
Along with children came pets; so many which passed through our lives and left indelible impressions. One neighbor would walk his dogs while his two cats marched steadily behind. Our own cats and dogs staked out their territory and all were respectful of the other neighbor pets’ turf. We couldn’t say the same for one little deaf cat who tortured our first dog, a Shepherd/Huskie/Collie mix, who would sit out on our front lawn attached to a six-foot tether. That cat would sit exactly one foot away from the fully-extended lead gleefully indifferent to our frustrated dog’s loud barking. A chewed and battered feral mother cat had litters and litters of kittens that a responsible neighbor trapped and lovingly delivered to the local pet shelter. None of us could ever entice Mama Cat inside but several of her kittens found homes within the small perimeter of their birth in our neighborhood.
Our house, yard, and deck became an informal gathering place for our family and friends and our sons’ friends - sometimes every day after school, camp, or whenever they needed a place to meet. I doled out more daily snacks than on Halloween when nearly 100 trick-or-treaters made their way to our door. I was fortunate to be able to work from home.
We neighbors enjoyed each other through the good times and bad and we all held each other in very high regard. We were a community that fiercely protected its own. I will miss that terribly. Reveling in the young ones milestones, we all stood outside when babies were on their way home for the first time, graduates took pictures in their caps and gowns, and when limos pulled up for proms and, later, weddings. If an ambulance arrived, everyone went outside and formed a cocoon around the impacted family. When one elderly neighbor would fall down, some climbed through her window to help her to safety. We were unified in love.
And yet like perennials that bloom each year, my husband and I somehow managed to dust ourselves off and recognize that our income was not meeting our expenses anymore in this fiercely competitive economy in a suburb with ever rising taxes and foreclosures and we must rise again to plan, set goals, and dig a permanent pathway for our children to follow; young men who are now succeeding in their own right and choose to be ‘home’ with us wherever we go, for now. Today, that home is a rental just three blocks away from our old sold house. It’s a stepping stone to reach what my husband and I call paradise – a little enclave near the beach in South Carolina that is memories and miles away from the New York City area where we have lived all our lives.
This rental apartment is an interesting two-story dwelling with a long history of its own. Although it has known more owners and occupants than our former 28-year home, it has retained a dignity and character that is calming and serene. It also revealed its cracks quickly in plumbing, window, and foundation issues and an entirely different structural past that my husband does not have to fix because we have a landlord for the first time in over 30 years. It’s enough to make us a bit giddy.
It started about four years ago before the massive economic downturn but with the awareness that we wanted and would need something else financially prudent for our future. In one week, we had identified and purchased a condo in South Carolina. We spent another week painting and furnishing the place, spending so much money out of our New York-based bank account that our credit card was denied at Walmart. It was awkward yet refreshing to have a bank representative call my cell phone as we were walking to the parking lot to verify attempted large purchases. It all began to make sense as I enjoyed the balmy weather, walking at a slower pace and allowing obliging people to help.
Back at home, we set the long-range plan in motion. We downsized in earnest, clearing clutter and selling off items that had become just things. We had the requisite tag sale and donated much to our local Church. We kept on going by paring down saved items and giving pieces of ourselves away – namely collectibles and other treasures that we felt would be enjoyed by family and friends. It makes me happy to think of a certain painting hanging in a friend’s house or a decorative bowl in another. My husband took the boys’ memory containers to South Carolina for storage. They will be there for them when they want and I will, undoubtedly, go through them once again because I was oohing, ahhing, sighing or crying each time I held a particularly sentimental item close.
These days, our oldest son follows generations of family tradition and treks into Manhattan to work and our younger son continues his college education. Thus, before we set sail for South Carolina on a permanent basis, we can be snowbirds who are a bit on the younger side and can help our kids launch successfully. The constant that was our house with its several refinancings and equity loans held us in good stead. We are proud of what we have accomplished.
Retired from the FDNY and working as a school bus driver, we are blessed that my husband has a decent pension and health benefits. A former public relations and marketing executive, I now am disabled due to traumatic illnesses that remain chronic. Both of us are affected by the cold weather – he becoming asthmatic from the horrors of 9/11; me due to after effects of treatment for Stage 4B cancer, Lupus and Fibromyalgia. Both of us will enjoy much better health in a warmer climate and fare well financially if we keep following our plan. Plus, we've already made a lot of friends there including a number of similarly transplanted New Yorkers. I feel largely unencumbered already.
A sweet, young working couple bought our house, about the same ages we were when we first purchased. It is wonderful to see that the circle is, indeed, round. Perhaps they may follow in our footsteps making memories that will nourish their souls for a lifetime. Perhaps this home will be a stepping stone for them as they move on to other opportunities. I will miss many things about our house and I am so very grateful that we have been able to watch its transfer into good hands.
The day before the closing, I visited the now clean and empty house one last time. I sat in every single room, spending extra time in the ‘nursery’ where my boys laid in their cribs. It is also the room where their height measurements are recorded in increments in pencil on the inside closet molding. (It’s okay if the new owners erase them. We took pictures.) I blubbered and sobbed and thought of many of my children’s milestones. I pondered a long time in the room where I spent a year being treated for cancer, barely being able to move, in tremendous pain, always nauseous and completely reliant on my spouse, family, neighbors and friends. I recalled one particular moment when it started to rain and, since the head of my bed was pushed up against the open window, I let the warm droplets fall all over my face, chest, arms and hands. The tears flowed freely.
In my high school yearbook (which I tossed when de-cluttering) I selected my senior quote from a popular Cat Stevens song: “So on and on we go; the seconds tick the time out; there’s so much left to know; and I’m on the road to find out.” So, when I really sit and think about it, nothing’s changed at all. I’m still on that road exploring and finding new places, people and things and, when I look back, what a wonderful ride it’s been.