My girls and I crack open the door to my parents’ house on the hill. It is visited only twice a month by Anna, the cleaning person, and of late, the appraisers. Paintings, tall as my petite teen, line the great room. While high on the walls, the scenes spoke idyllic locales to me–one of a Roman aqueduct, another a rushing Cowboy stream, another a muted Italian bridge. Dad had bought them as originals; up close, the printed versions peek out behind brushstrokes.
Mom’s treasured crystal, the European jewel tones we as children sneaked to touch, diffuse color among various tables. The metal-worked statute of a little boy playing a violin stands rooted in the middle of the room.
I hunt down the K-cup to make sure it hadn’t gotten boxed. And hallelujah, I find it. My girls pick through the out-of-place items they’d admired on previous visits. Easton Press books are missing, they report. Yet “some of the good presidents” linger. Grandma’s St. John suits still hang in the closet, and her makeup fills the bathroom drawers. The pantry has been emptied of Lorne Doones and sugared cereal–not even salt and pepper left. The frig holds a box of baking soda. Grinch had hit the Subzero early this year.
I grab some outdoor cushions and head to the covered porch. Momma hated that word. She preferred “lanai.” I’m not that sophisticated. I like a porch, like the ones my grandmothers potted petunias on.
The fountain, my dad’s triumph over retirement, is wrapped in industrial plastic. I miss the summer water burbling, the birds flitting about, the ones he despised for using his fountain as a bath. At least he hadn’t shot at them.
My grandmother’s hydrangeas, the ones Mom insisted be brought from the old house ten years ago, had finished blooming flowers as large as wedding cake toppers. Crisp shadows are all that’s left. That same ten years ago, her doctors wedged me against the nurses’ station and spoke of cancer snaking her spine, wreathing her pelvis. They alluded to weeks.
The doctors didn’t know my momma though, or her special weapon we call Twin 1. My aunt prayed her sister would live years longer. Not the pitiful prayers my sister and I launched and lobbed, asking for a couple of months, until after the New Year. No, Aunt G prayed for another seven years of life. Momma survived ten years from her initial death sentence.
As we ready my parents’ house to sell, I will drive over in Spring, and take a hydrangea cutting and hope it roots. I’d never been much for them, but how could I not continue a tradition onto the third generation? Big and extravagant in summer, rooted and twigged in the colder months, they told time, these hydrangeas of my grandmother and mother’s lives, their heartaches and joys, their comings and goings.
Evening clouds slash the sky. Tucked among the pines, an owl hoots near the Confederate grave 300 feet from the house. Why have I not wandered there more, now that the land will be sold come Spring? Isn’t it true we miss things deeper when on the edge of losing them?
The cows move and moo to gather for sleep. I clutch the backs of my parents’ breakfast chairs. Dad sat here; Mom sat there. Until the upheaval. She instituted a chair-sized semi-colon of space between them. A place for the mail, she said. Perhaps it was Dad’s propensity to give his attention to the caregivers.
Three years have passed since seeing his face at the table: the way he’d start a sentence and take a bite of food in the middle, so I had to wait and watch his lips chew before he swallowed and finished. It’s been almost a year since a crystal wine glass clinked the solid surface, alerting me that Mom stooped over the kitchen sink, heaven-bent on doing dishes. Her dangerous motor scooter paused by her side. She’d walked fast in life. The scooter changed nothing. She’d zipped the hot red machine around, skimming our toes, marking the walls.
I’m not a crying woman. Yet tears shelter my eyes, then sigh back inside. The house stager has moved Mom’s obit collection, the ones she never sent donations to. Now her name has become one of those in the Bristol Herald Courier. My heart pounds to the beat: I’m the last generation. I’m the last generation. I’m the last generation. Just as the confederate soldier had been. Just as we all are, if we live long enough.
Among the dishabille of the house (Mom would like the French word, but hate the effect), I find a homemade item, ignored by the appraisers, decoupaged on wood. It was my grandmother’s saying: “The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.” As a youth, I read those words Sunday afternoons and holidays at her house. I asked Mamaw to explain it. She’d smiled, and said I’d understand one day.
I’ve driven the 52/74/77/81 route to my parents for twenty years. My older children were barely teens when Mom’s first cancer settled in. My teen girls don’t remember her as anything but sick. I’d come to this porch, as my mother napped, and sink into the pasture’s pastoral beauty. Dad would saunter outside, ask me the same questions he’d ask at dinner. Occasionally, we’d veer into politics and God, and agree for the first time in our lives.
Then he’d do what he always did. Get a call or visit from someone crucial. I’d early on accepted the truth. Business was Dad’s first born. A picture tells my story: my four-year old self perched on my Dad’s lap, his feet stretched before him in steel-toed boots. I wasn’t being held; I wasn’t at rest. I leaned forward, ready to hop off in seconds before Dad scooted me away to answer a company call. I had a moment before losing him to productivity and gross margins.
He wasn’t given to compliments. He did say once I made a fine momma cow. Yes, he really did, and yes, I received it as such. In the end, words are what we leave our family and friends and strangers. Yet I inherited his propensity to brush off my people to tackle emails, social platforms and to-do lists. How now do I redeem the time with those I love?
Going home to a my parents’ home decorated only with memories of their hard last years is deep dirt digging. It’s as appraising as the tax man, picking up a silver piece, examining its worth and flaws, then accrediting a price.
The disassembling of my parents’ house has reminded me one thing. My own children will experience their own appraisal of our lives, when their father and I pass. They will remember the times I ignored them, the times I spent at their schools assisting, the ugly words I said, the positive ones, I hope. They will see my art, which are prints–really well-done prints. May God remind me to toss the putrid yellow Samsonite stuffed with 80s photographs before then. No one should see their mother in a toga, belly filled with beer.
They will decide how and when to sell the house, divide or donate the furniture, thrift the clothes. They will touch an empty chair and their hearts will tick off time. Feel the weight of how fast it went. They’ll remember our quirks and wish they’d not distanced themselves from us when we were together–although my children are better than I, so much better than I. They actually give their undivided attention to both of us.
The sun pinks sunset through the trees. A fence rail is broken, shoved down by the cows scratching their sides. It’s odd to sit on earth that is so old. To see only three generations, sometimes four, yet know others lived and died right where I am. They came by horse or foot, speaking another language, perhaps a Native American one, perhaps one from a European country. It’s that rare moment when the land connects to my utter being, the deep DNA of me, and those gone before. I have no word for it, except the land becomes us.
For one eagle-eyed moment, I glimpse the generations to come. My granddaughter, God-willing, will be a grandmother and appraise the life of her mother. And on it will go when our names are but cursive in the Family Bible. But this is it for the now. I sum up my parents’ lives–quirks, faults and rich moments–and I say, job well done, Frank and Jackie. This is life appraised.