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Hi, loves. 🌿
On (finally) going home.
It was the house where you could find anything: rusty drawers packed with hair pins, perfume from 1986, soap that had long ago lost its smell, a bath plug, clips, rubber bands, pads, glue, envelopes, diapers, toilet paper, purses, shoes, bags that were back in fashion, 30 years later. Look hard enough and you’d find it in the detritus of 45 years. Rarely did we need to buy anything, it could always be found in some bathroom, some closet. I’m sure I have that somewhere, Mom would say. Her bathroom packed with at least a dozen packaged toothbrushes, so many bars of Dove soap, pins to tie up every stray hair, hair spray from 1991. Mounds of toilet paper.
One afternoon — months after finally selling the house in Montreal they’d lived in for almost half a century — I go searching for a hair elastic in the “guest bathroom” in their new condo (we never had a guest bathroom) and find that the drawers are empty. They slide open into nothingness, revealing nothing. Why did they build in drawers if they had rid themselves of anything to put in them? All the crap my sister and I made fun of them for never clearing out? The joke is now on us because there’s nothing. Like we never even lived here.
I keep having to remind myself that we haven’t.
In the many, many months my parents spent clearing out the house before moving out in late 2018, my mother is occupied, all day, every day, by her excavation projects. The depth of the work is bewildering: our baby clothes are in garbage bags in the basement. There are skis and winter coats we haven’t touched in 35 years. Boxes our parents salvaged from our grandparents’ homes after they died, the last one over 20 years ago. Hundreds of records — the Beatles, Raffi, U2, Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn — and hundreds of frayed books of sheet music, surely a thousand novels, hardbacks of Roth and Atwood and Henry James. Two pianos. A dining room set, with two extra leaves for the table. Furniture to outfit several families.
Each day my mother confronts another corner and emails us: Just found 2 hair dryers, which are very old, of course, but they both work. Would either of you like one? For the girls, maybe? There’s a Clairol one and Styliss by Conair.
Much she figures out how to donate: whole bedroom sets go to Syrian refugees; my old violins go to my violin teacher; rhythmic gymnastics equipment go back to the club where I trained. Each week she reports back, giddy with news from our past, from people we’d all but forgotten about, a sort of this-is-your-life reel of our childhood. I saw Dragan today and he apologized for thinking you were such a difficult violin student. He didn’t have kids then. The Yugoslavian violin teacher, the Estonian gym coach, the Russian ballet master. Vital points along a map we didn’t even know we were drawing but are now so easy to retrace.
I wonder whether she needs this time, to sort through the detritus of our family’s life, or if she’d rather someone else just come over with dumpsters and heave.
I know the answer, though: Mom doesn’t toss lightly. Everything should have a home, get used by someone who can benefit from it, or at the very least recycled properly. She opens the cabinets in the breakfast room and goes through every marker, testing out the ones plush with ink and the ones running dry. She sorts the fresh, unused paper from the scraps. Runs her fingers along the spine of each book: What do I want to carry along with me into this next, last part of this life?
My father isn’t sure about the plan; he isn’t sure he wants to move. His old joke — you’re taking me out of here in a box — may still be true.
Occasionally, he sends us a scanned fragment of a letter he’s found from his own parents or ones he’s written to them (one about the “great girl” he’s met and wants to marry) or a New Yorker cartoon that made him laugh. We’d long tried to convince them to move to Los Angeles, at least for part of the year. This was where Mom had grown up, they’d be close to our families, the weather, the grandchildren, etc. They could be snow birds! It was, by all accounts, a miracle that their two daughters had ended up in the same place. We hadn’t lived anywhere near each other since 1987.
We have a life here, you know, they’d say defensively. Plus the piano. And medicare! And your awful government!
We gave up asking and shrugged every time someone asked us, “But why don’t your parents move to California?”
One day we get an email from our dad with the subject line: “A word of caution.” In the picture — yet another New Yorker cartoon — an elderly couple is standing at the front door of one of their kid’s apartments, looking sheepish, tired, and holding several suitcases. The caption reads: We’ve changed our minds. We do want to be a burden to you.
It’s been three years since I’ve been home to Montreal. The longest I’ve ever been away. Next week, knock wood, we will head there, not to the house I grew up in — now four years gone — not to the safety of those old rooms and drawers, but nearby, to a house we rent a few blocks away. The safety I once felt on those quiet streets feels tenuous now: everyone is older, more vulnerable. Last time we flew in, we weren’t masked or afraid to touch or infect anyone. We knew nothing of viruses or tests or quarantines or risk factors. We landed and flew into my parents’ arms.
Our last full summer there, Noa was barely six, and I wrote:
Now, every time I drive into the parking garage of Mom and Dad’s condo, every time I ride up the elevator, every time I open the heavy door to their apartment, I am acutely aware of time. Will it be like this next year? And the year after? When they happily greet us at the door, welcoming us in with strong hugs and good food and comfy beds and fresh sheets? How long will we stay in this liminal space? How long can we float here, in some sense of safety?
Little did I know what next year would bring; of the time that would elapse and the safety that would be stripped away and to all those Montreal summers lost.
And yet we will return — to what, I’m not sure. To my parents, kept safe all these years in that condo. To beloved friends we’ve not set eyes on in years; their children, no longer babies. To our own excitement and trepidation and fear and giddiness: what is safe? What is okay? To the quiet of Montreal nights: so few cars out on the roads, people strolling slowly back home after a sudden downpour, sidewalks streaked with rain, lawns full, a dark, lush green. My fingers locked into my husband’s, Noa’s body ahead of ours, dancing and leaping and twirling down these familiar streets, pulling us all the way home.
PS: Because we will be traveling, there will be no letter next week. So see you in two weeks!
✨ There’s still time to sign up for Summer School! Join over 100 women who are diving into their creativity this summer. We will begin on July 1, but I’ve been previewing some poems and prompts, so sign up now to not miss anything. Also, people signed up for summer school will get early access to fall zoom classes.
ALL THE THINGS
Honestly this week I was solo parenting and spent any free moments watching Couples Therapy (and any kid TV time watching Top Chef), but also tearing through Jennifer Weiner books, which have a bad rap but are actually sort of wonderful when the world is falling apart and you just need a fucking reprieve?! But I did read this brilliant piece co-written by my psychiatrist sister about gun control. And I love this Jess Zimmerman (one of my all-time fave editors) essay about giving up pants. LA: it’s the last day to vote! Please vote for Karen Bass.