Thursday, December 06, 2012

Not everything was swept away.

“Broom swept.”

If you’ve sold a house, or bought a house, you attach a particular meaning to that phrase.  As a seller, usual contract terms require that on closing day, you deliver a "broom swept" house; no more, no less.  As a buyer, you can expect to take possession of a home free from dust – bunnies; no more, no less. 

Last week, I played the part of the seller, with broom in hand.  So why is it that when I started at the top of the hardwood stairs in my parents’ home, and swept my way to the bottom, I felt like I was doing so much more than just prepping for sale?   

Although I know an actual, definite number exists, it’s impossible to know how many times I climbed or descended those stairs over the years.  But I do know this:  some trips were more memorable than others.  Like this one:  When my sisters and I were young, my dad complained that we sounded like “a herd of elephants” as we ran up and down the stairs.  We were “young ladies.”  To help us learn what that meant, we had to walk up and down the stairs – quietly, almost noiselessly, mind you – for about an hour while he and my Mom sat in the kitchen listening to some very muffled footsteps.   

The good news for us was that the stairs turned a corner at the top and sometimes two of us took mini-breaks to sit down for a bit while one of us carried on the “lesson” for Dad.   I’m not sure we learned anything but this happened more than 40 years ago and I remember it very clearly.  Up and down a staircase?  For almost an hour?  On those little legs?  Isn’t that child abuse?  Nah.  Call off the social worker. Not one of us needed medical attention. It’s what people used to call raising children. 

Here's another staircase story, although I remember this one with much less bemusement than the “young lady” lesson.  One warm summer night, I was sitting on our front porch glider with a date, probably doing exactly what a young couple would do as they sat together on a warm summer night on a front porch glider.  No doubt we were in the throes of as much passion as we could muster on a front porch, albeit a dark front porch.  Then from inside the house, we heard a bit of mayhem, some bumps and thumps (like someone slamming into the wall at the bottom of the stairs, right inside the front door), muffled voices, and then silence.   

Later that night, I learned that my Dad, while drunk, mostly stumbled down the stairs, hit the wall, and was just about ready to confront me on the front porch with as much passionate outrage as he could muster given his state.  My mother stopped him cold, and the moment passed.  I remember my sister telling me, “Mom saved you.” 

Skip ahead about ten years.  I descended those steps as a bride.  A young lady in a satin gown with a long train, I posed for pictures with my parents in the living room.  No, I didn’t marry the guy from the front porch, and no, I didn’t have to confront my Dad’s alcoholism that day.  He gave me the gift of sobriety for my wedding weekend.  (A few years later, he made the choice daily to live the rest of his life sober, this time as an unspoken gift to his grandchildren.) 

Final staircase story.  The last night my mother spent in her home included a very labored, exhausting trip up those stairs.  One difficult step at a time, she made her way to her bedroom.  She left her house the very next day via an emergency squad gurney, so she never stepped foot on the stairs again. (For decades, every time we talked about downsizing out of this too-big-for-her house, she dismissed us:  “They’re going to carry me out of this house.”  She was right.) 

Despite the lesson we endured, I’m positive my sisters and I spent years stomping up or down the stairs as outraged teenagers, and my brother did his version of the same.  The wall at the bottom of the stairs (and the people in house) somehow held up against a number of drunken bumps over the years.  The staircase showcased a few brides, and new babies being carried up for naps, then older grandchildren (especially three little boys at once, sounding not unlike a herd of elephants) running up and down the stairs during visits and sleepovers.  This time, the din went unchallenged by Pop-Pop.  In the end, it posed a formidable challenge to my Mom, who never, ever stopped loving the house she and my Dad bought all those years ago, without even looking at the second floor. 

So there I stood at the bottom of the steps, next to a small pile of dust ready to be scooped up.  From my spot, I looked into the kitchen, then past the living room and the dining room to the doors of the sunroom. The silence felt overwhelming despite the fact that for me, the life of the house had been seeping away for months, leaving nothing more than a space, a shell, a structure to be “sold and settled” as the realtors say. 

Except for that day, except for that moment while I gathered the dust at the bottom of the stairs.  Right then, I gave myself permission to gaze; time to see just about every family moment we created in that house.  Then I checked the lock, and pulled the door closed behind me.  Walked past the glider – that same one! - and stepped off the front porch.  

I drove away.  I teared up a little bit.  And realized this: that broom swept exceedingly clean.  With my last look, I saw kinder, more joyful and more comforting scenes than I would have imagined.  Slammed doors went silent.  Shrill voices sounded soothing.  The only tears we shed were happy ones. The piano was always in tune; the cacophony of music and voices,  plus the television and noisy toys was inexplicably harmonious.  Even as I saw that very last morning at home with my Mom – so tired, so tired of everything her illness represented – the lens revealed only the love, not the despair and desperation that crowded my thoughts, and surely hers, that day.  Only the love. 

In this empty home, the people are gone.  The connections remain.  And those can never be swept away.    


Joe said...

Damn you, Renee! I'm a guy. I'm not supposed to cry.

renee said...

I'm not sure quite about that, Joe. : ) I used to tease my Dad about his "Irish sentimentality." Maybe you have a wee bit of it, too? Thanks for your note.

Pamela Varkony said...


I think this is the best thing you've ever written... and that's saying something. Your parents are smiling in Heaven.

renee said...

Pam - you have been so supportive throughout this whole year, even if I've kept to myself more often than I would have wanted to. Thank you for your kind feedback - but more than that; for your friendship, kindness and love.

Troy said...

Beautiful Renee. What an awesome house. I will always remember coming next door for the holidays and witnessing the amazing italian hospitality and food..all that food!..the back yard in the winter..the coolest front porch on the block..(same glider!?)the roaring fireplace..and the italian mom i never had. It was so great being neighbors all those years. Very fond and enriching memories. Thank you.. and your amazing mom.

renee said...

Troy! So nice to read your note and share this with you. It was quite the block, right? One of the unexpected pleasures of growing up around so many kids in the neighborhood: having each other to be part of our collective past - but part of our present, too. Thank you so much for your comments! XO

Anonymous said...

Memories are always with us and never swept away and know
that, hopefully, those walls will
once again hear good times and feel
love. As we had our grandchildren,
your Mom would knock on the dining
room window and wave to us in our
kitchen to share the joys with the
grandchildren. And the time Larry
played Santa when Mark was little
and the laughs coming from Aunt Kay and
your Mom were thoroughly enjoyed by
all of us. And the time Larry was
in the hospital and I tried to
celebrate the holidays without
him and made more tolerable by
your Mom's invitations to "come
over". So, so, many memories.
And all the chats on the front
porch discussing our trials and
tribulations as moms. They
were wonderful times...thank God. last thing. The sounds
of "The Doors" from Robbie's
bedroom into our second floor
window and played over and over.
Blessed Holiday to you and yours.
Love, Marlene

Michael Tredr said...

I really loved this Renee. i believe that a house's spirit stays with the family that's living there. so in many ways, by coming back and sweeping up, you've allowed that spirit to come with you and stay with your family forever. beautiful, beautiful post.

renee said...

Marlene - I hope you know those warm memories go both ways - the friendship and love shared between our families was special - and remains so. Thank you for evoking some wonderful memories in your comment...and thank you for listening to more Doors than any neighbor should ever have to hear! Merry Christmas to you and yours!!!

renee said...

Thank you, Michael. I hope you're right, and the positive spirit of the house lives on for as long as it stands.
I can think of many ways I wish I were more like my parents, and probably as many ways I don't want to emulate some of their flaws. The reality is that imperfect people make imperfect families and thank God for that.
In the end, I think this: I lived through the bad stuff once, and emerged as best as I could. Have reconciled it with who I am today as best I could. Why relive it for the rest of my life? Despite all the hurdles, and all the challenges, I choose to remember the good and this post was a way to capture that for me. Thank you for your support and lovely words.

Kim Gimbel said...

What a beautiful story, Renee. You made me cry!

Kim Gimbel said...

What a beautiful story, Renee. You made me cry!

renee said...

Thank you Kim! Very late replying to you but thank you so much for reading and posting your kind words.