It’s Sunday afternoon. Open House day in Culver City, California. Normally I drive right past those For Sale signs sprouting on street corners. I’m too busy coming or going or thinking about food or traffic or listening to the latest podcast of Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me. But not today…
Many of my long time blog friends endured the “big house sale” back in 2016. It happened about this time—just as summer slides into fall. My mother passed away on Independence Day (there is plenty of irony there folks) and I needed to clean out forty years of stuff from my parent’s townhouse. Before the 2016 election because God knows what was going to happen with that.
My husband and dear friends helped when they could but the load fell on me, sorting through dense, dark memories that lay like dust on the books and clothes and lamps and desks. In boxes and file cabinets and closets. Several 1-800 Got Junk trucks came and went, as did the paint guys and floor guys and a cleaning crew.
The mother daughter real estate team held my hand, made the calls, went above and beyond the job description of “let’s jettison, let’s clean, let’s stage, here’s the paperwork and congratulations, escrow closed.”
“Please no assholes,” I begged them in the whiny, tired voice of a person slightly beaten down. I want good people in this house.
We got very good people.
And three years later, this same mother and daughter are selling my parent’s place again. Starting today.
I haven’t been back to the old homestead since the election but I know I have to do this. “Be a big girl, Cali,” I tell myself. “Take a deep breath, fluff up the hair and say hello to your favorite realtors.”
And now I’m standing at my parent’s front door as I slip the complimentary white paper booties over my shoes and enter this hallowed ground. Well hallowed for me. I am the only one carrying a lifetime of memories about THIS house. The only one who remembers my mother’s stark-raving mad tantrums, all those Chinese Food take-out binges between fights, the omnipresent drone of my mom’s television upstairs, the hushed tones of Beethoven wafting from my dad’s eight-track in his den downstairs. The stony silences when no one was talking to nobody and my father’s ultimate descent into end-game emphysema. Until he just couldn’t breathe anymore.
My mother. She could butter you up with compliments and cheesecake one moment… And mean it. Then wish you dead the next. And mean that too… She was certifiable. They call it Narcissistic Personality Disorder. She thrived in a whorl of frenzy and if things mellowed out, she’d conjure up something big and theatrical to fill the void. The more eyeballs on her, the better. And you couldn’t look away because she was so entertaining and funny and bawdy but God help you if you stood between her and the spotlight.
And true to narcissistic form, she was incapable of self-reflection. Whatever nasty rockslide lay at the end of the tunnel, it was NOT her fault.
If you have been around people like this then you know how exhausting they are. Yet they still find willing victims to “carry their water.” This is such a tragedy because it is untreated mental illness that is the thief here, stealing my mother from her higher angels. Stealing my mother from me.
Some of these old feelings wash over me again as I tiptoe across the threshold in my disposable booties. The home is staged and looking effervescent. Millennial couples and curious neighbors fan out across the square footage. I search for a place where I can be by myself, alone in this house, alone with my memories. Instinctively I follow the steps down to my father’s den. Once-upon-a-time this was my refuge of sanity, even with its lopsided stacks of books and boxes and disparate piles of paper strewn across his desk. A desk that was the size of a door. Because it WAS a door. The man was a brilliant writer and enthusiastic aeronautics engineer. He needed a lot of elevated flat space to spread out.
The den today is clean and Zen spare. I notice the picture of a VW Bug on the far wall. My father would have chosen a framed likeness of a Saturn Rocket. Then I see an open book resting in a petite workspace to the right. What is THAT book? It draws me closer, closer, like a tractor beam from the Death Star. I lean in to read the title: Psychoanalytic Family Therapy.
I have to tell you, home stagers have a subversive sense of humor. Or they are freaking psychic. Or this a very entertaining coincidence.
Let’s face it, most of us have “someone kinda like my mother” in our families — either hiding out or in plain view.
One of the realtor assistants is standing at the front door greeting potential buyers as they remove their shoes or “booty up.” I’m in the mood for sharing, especially after the “book encounter” downstairs and I tell him this was my parent’s place and yada-yada yada. This lovely man takes a deep breath, actually more like a heave ho, and describes his family home. The one that sold two years ago. The new owners demolished the house and built one of those boxy monoliths. Long on architectural flourishes and short on…well…trees. Two years later, he still can’t drive down that street and look at that house.
He says to me “well I guess I gotta let it go.”
“We honor our parents by carrying their best forward and laying the rest down. By fighting and taming the demons that laid them low and now reside in us.”
Bruce Springsteen, rock n’ roll philosopher king
When I get back home I don’t pull the covers over my head. THAT is a big victory. The memories are softening a little and losing their sizzle, their power to pull me back in time and grind a few gears.
What I do instead is sit at the computer and write this blog. It’s my way of “laying the rest down.” It’s my way of looking in the mirror at my own stuff, of teasing out what was my parent’s burden and what is mine. It’s enough to carry our own water, don’t you think?