Mom says good-bye with three kisses. It is continental. It is a talisman. It is a loving, but strict rule. A kiss on one cheek, then the other, then back to the first. An audible smack: Mwah, mwah, mwah. If there is some postponement of departure, she gives a hug, but no more kisses. She would never say it would be bad luck, but that’s the unspoken truth.
Last weekend, Dave and I joined Mom, Dad, my sister Francie, and her husband Matt in Vermont to close down the house that had been my parents’ Green Mountain State getaway for over thirty years. The disbursement of furniture and collectibles had been a gradual process since December, and now the U-Haul stood waiting in the drive for the last load.
I hadn’t thought this would be particularly painful. In recent years, due to busy schedules, we hadn’t come north very often. Just in case, though, on the way up on Friday, I ran through a mental slide show of memories: sledding with little Tucker and Casey on the hill behind the house as our malamute Kody danced about nipping our boots, snow-shoeing with Dave to Magic Mountain for a glass of hot mulled wine, post-Christmas gatherings around a tiny tree, and late night woods walks by the light of a nineteenth century lantern.
The seven-hour drive from Pennsylvania had come to be too much for my parents. In addition, almost every visit to their eighteenth century house was distinguished by furnace failure, plumbing glitches or leaks. The mouse infestation didn’t help, but it wasn’t ranked high among the negatives either. Brushing pillows, pot holders and beds clear of mouse leavings were simply customary rituals upon arrival for a stay. The occasional unseen scurry across the old floorboards while drifting off to sleep was expected. In fact, we had reason to admire the industry of those mice, as they demonstrated a perseverance and ingenuity that astonished even my two mouse-phobic sisters.
When Kody was young, her food of choice was Purina Dog Chow nuggets. One morning, Mom was up first as usual, making coffee and eggs, and caring for the visiting grand-kids and grand-dog. She fetched the Purina, surprised that the bag was so light - and even more surprised to find it empty. A search of the kitchen revealed a waist-high drawer by the sink full of nuggets. The mind reels at the image of a mouse bucket-brigade stretching the length of the kitchen, passing nuggets down the line and somehow maneuvering each chunk into that closed drawer. For all their ability to startle unnervingly, those mice were mini-miracles. As I said, the mice were part of life in the house, not part of the problem.
In all likelihood, Mom and Dad would have continued to battle the rebellious furnace and unreliable plumbing if it hadn’t been for the long drive up. Last winter’s trip was the final straw. Mom was at the wheel as they approached Manchester when she “tried to kill me,” according to my father. The road was slick with ice and the car went into a 360 spin. Mom has said she prayed to to her parents, my Byeo and Poppy, to hold any oncoming cars at the crest of the hill. Had other vehicles been involved, it would have been a fatal accident. My heavenly grandparents were vigilant, however, and Mom and Dad emerged terrified, but safe.
That scare solidified my parents’ thoughts about selling and the house was placed on the market.
As we hauled the remaining chairs and bureaus from the upstairs bedrooms, we closed the door of each empty room behind us. Tucker and Casey’s room with its red and blue plaid bedspreads and ever-so-sixties jungle print quilts. Now empty. Door closed. Done. Our room overlooking the sweep of the yard graced by gray-lichened prows of glacial drop. Empty. Door closed. Done. The bathroom with its impossibly tiny shower and Mom’s pencilled note above the toilet: “Nothing goes down this john but toilet paper! No Kleenex, paper towels or Tampax.. This is a country plumbing situation!” Empty. Door closed. Done.
Dad was having a hard time. Red-eyed and drawn, he went from task to task stopping periodically in each beloved room where fresh tears would flow. To our sympathetic pats and clucks, he would grouse, “Humph! I look around and there’s nothing but work to be done! The house needs painting, there’s two dead trees... I’m only relieved.” With a dismissive wave, he’d lumber off to another pile awaiting sifting.
When Dave and I bought our house in Connecticut, Mom had warned, “A house is not a life. It’s the shell of a life.” But just as the snail would not last long without its portable shelter, our lives are inextricably connected to the roof and walls around us. As Matt and Dave rolled up the fraying braided rug in the Florida room, they uncovered five gold foil letters stuck crookedly to the floor. “C-A-S-E-Y.” How old had my little girl been when she left her mark? Now she is twenty-one, a college student, living in Massachusetts.
Mom deliberately chose Johnny Seesaw’s Restaurant for dinner Friday night as we’d never been there so it held no memories for us. Both Mom and Francie took me aside as we walked into the restaurant to whisper, “No toasts!” Dad and I are the family toastmeisters, but it is rare that we make it through our sentimental tirades without getting teary.
“But I’ll just raise my glass...”
“No - It would be too hard and Dad would dissolve.”
Dinner was jolly and the food delicious, but I felt the absence of that toast. It seemed a disservice to the house and I worried that Dad would think me remiss. Later, once Mom and Dad were snug in bed, I leaned in to give Dad a goodnight kiss, explaining my forced silence in the toast department. He burst into tears.
I guess Mom and Francie were right.
There were no weepy skies for Saturday’s departure; the house beamed in a sunshine bath. Purple irises and fragrant day lilies nodded beneath the windows overlooking the yard. Dave and I dug some up and wrapped them in damp newspaper, hoping they’d take in our garden. We have hostas from Aunty Cam’s house at #3 Stratfield in Worcester and we’d love to have a living memory of Thompsonberg Road as well.
The lawn ressembled a tag sale as chairs, rugs, tables and benches were parcelled out near the cars and truck. Gradually, those items dwindled as we stowed them away for the drive south.
Matt grimaced as he hauled an over-sized glass cask encased in basket weave to my car. “Whoa, I think you’ll be taking some of those mice with you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Take a whiff...”
“Oh my God.”
“Yeah. A few must have crawled in and died.”
“Ugh - Can you shake them out?”
Of course, Dave wanted to commemorate the occasion with photographs. Mom and Dad posed gamely before the house, each holding a broom or shovel, “American Gothic” - Ingersoll style. Dad’s smile was a grimace, just holding on.
The U-Haul was running. It was time to go.
We did a final walk-through, patting the walls, wishing the house well, wishing happiness for the new owners. They’d told Mom and Dad of their plans for a renovated kitchen and new master bath, but other than that, they love the house and respect its antiquity. My parents are pleased: they’ve done their job in furnishing the house with caring stewards. It helps.
We went outside and Mom locked the door. Empty. Closed. Done.
Mom’s cheery bustle had carried her through the packing, but her face crumpled as we gave the house our final tribute. There were hugs all round as we were heading in different directions. Mom gave her three kisses - Mwah! Mwah! Mwah! The U-Haul pulled out first with Dad red-faced and weepy at the wheel. One by one, the rest of us followed, a subdued four-car caravan.
“Good bye house!”