Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The first house we did not buy

“You should have seen this place." The owner's name was Patrick. "Every weekend, people came up from Brooklyn, Queens - so many people. The house was always filled.”

On our way over, Mary, our real estate agent had told us his story. "The only son died twenty years ago--car accident. The wife never really got over it. She died, five years ago... cancer." When he'd called her office, asking for an appraisal, she'd found him living alone, desperately lonely. "He broke my heart," she said. "I've been visiting every day. I bring him dinner, after the boys and I have eaten. He likes my pies."

On the late August day of our visit, the neglected garden was in full exuberant flower. Honeysuckle draped over fences, spilling into the cracked concrete swimming pool; fallen fruit sugared the air, drawing bees.

Patrick, 70-something, stoop shouldered, drew deeply on his cigarette, coughed. "Everyone's dead now,” he said, watching a cluster of bright yellow butterflies skim toward and away from us.

“I kept the house to leave it to my brother,” he said. “But now, he’s dead too.”

The wallpaper in the guest room featured bright blue cabbage roses; in the master suite, purple and yellow pansies on lavender ribbons ran up and down the walls. The lost son's room was a shrine. "Look at this," Mary said, pulling open a dresser drawer on a stack of tee shirts, a carefully folded pile of jeans. The whole thing brought tears to my eyes: the faded brown cowboys on the wallpaper; the electric guitar in a corner; the shelf lined with football trophies.

In the bright, finished attic, Matthew lingered, the skylights streaking his hair with gold. "I could work here,” he said, and stayed there fifteen minutes as Mary and I checked out the bathrooms below.

Have I mentioned the large country kitchen, the white porcelain sink overlooking a lily pond? Why are we even here? I sighed. He's asking two-hundred thousand dollars above our budget.

"I nursed my wife right here in the dining room, we put her hospital bed here, under the chandelier. She couldn’t manage the stairs in the end… but from here, she could see the garden."

"It’s overpriced," Mary said. "But that won't be the issue. With no family left, I’m not sure he’s really going to be able to let it go. Where would he live?”

“He could live with us,” Matthew said. “We could move him into the basement with his projects.”

“Would he be comfortable there?” I asked. “This is the home where he raised his son, where he loved his wife. Don’t you think he’d hate that—being trapped in the basement?”

“We’d make it nice for him,” Matthew calculated. “We could build him an apartment for like fifty grand. What I’m looking for,” he told Mary, “is a significant cut in the price.”

“Wait… is that fair?” I asked. “Is it nice?”


“It just seems… I don’t want to take advantage…”

“This is a business deal, Amy. You’re on my side, not his.

“I know but…”

“We’ll make the offer and he’s free to say no. We’ll move in. We’ll be his friends. We’ll help out.”

As we waited for Mary's call, I kept thinking about the white wooden cottage in the garden. No one could find the key but we viewed its two rooms through mildew-clouded casement windows. The first was crowded with tools, lawn mowers, rusted clippers, a wheelbarrow, leaning against a wall. The second was empty but for a tin-topped potter’s bench and a pair of women’s gardening gloves abandoned on the side of a rust-stained sink.


The second house we did not buy was once a manor house on twenty acres. Now, with the land sold off and subdivided and ten ranch houses sprawling across the hills behind it, the once great home seemed shoved against the busy road like a shy, overdressed girl at a rowdy dance.

"Seven bedrooms?" I read from the listing as Mary pulled the car to the rear. "This must be a typo. How could it be... at this price?"
"I don't know. I haven't seen this one," Mary said. "Let's find out."

First there was the smell, years of neglect, something fried, mildew and the wallpaper peeling from the parlor like curling ribbon. Newspaper, stacked floor-to-ceiling, blocked access to the porch. In the living room, several broken windowpanes were patched with plastic wrap and the grey cardboard sheets that dry cleaners use to stiffen men’s shirts.

Still, with a little elbow grease…

“You have got to be kidding!” Matthew laughed.
“There’s a rental apartment, a pond—there’s a huge studio space for your office.”
“It’s in the wrong school district.”
“Our kids are in private school!”
“Not if we buy this house they won’t be. Besides, it’s too much work.”
“You’re an architect. I’ll do the finish work.” I admit it, I was whining.
Matthew reminded me of the “finish work” I’d done in our first house, “You knocked down the walls with a hammer. When you painted the living room, you only made it halfway up the walls.”
“I couldn’t reach! I was pregnant!” I said. But I was laughing, too.

All these years later, I've forgotten which house had the black granite countertops sparkling with chips of gold and which had the French clay tiles, the Kitchen Aid range, and white wooden cabinets. I remember the raised ranch where five Labradors, exiled to the garage, barked constantly; and the turn of the century manor house with six fireplaces and a huge claw-foot tub in the master bedroom.

We were never going to buy the third house, but I'll never forget it. It was built into the side of a mountain between a rock quarry and truck repair shop and the owners, who clearly liked to entertain, had outfitted the basement with a bar, a disco ball and dance floor. There was a heated in-ground pool, wrapped with a redwood deck that filled the postage stamp sized lot to its edges.

“It looks like a brothel,” I whispered as Isabella, our new realtor, led me from one mirrored bedroom to the next. “I know!” she laughed. “I was thinking the same thing.”


Matthew and I keep beginning. We start with a glass of wine; a conversation; numbers scribbled on the back of a flyer from our children’s school. When we pass a home construction site, Matthew tells me about foundations—how they’re poured, reinforced, waterproofed. After 25 years I’ve learned about footings and framing, the importance of southern exposure, ambient light and the avoidance of rot. Yet we seem unable to bring our project off the drafting table into the world of form.

I dream that I’m walking through a long corridor, opening doors and peering inside. From my perspective, as the dreamer, I can’t see what’s inside. I see only a woman who looks like me, standing in doorways, framed in light. I watch her face light up with understanding. I watch her discover what I do not.

Matthew and I walk through Home Depot, past a display of kitchens—back-to-back worlds of cabinet, countertop and hardware options. “These are good,” he says, pulling open a cabinet door and showing me the fancy hinges. “You know what these cost?”

“I like the way this slides,” I say, opening and closing a cutlery drawer. Matthew shows me a countertop he likes, in Architectural Digest.

“It’s concrete,” he says. “They pour it into molds right on the site. They level it with trowels and finish it with a glaze.” Tinted gray-brown, the concrete gleams like warm wood against the stainless steel refrigerator and range. It’s beautiful.

Matthew drives me to a little house beside the highway he’s converting, for a client, into a commercial building. Downstairs, there’s a nail salon. Upstairs, the bedrooms have been turned into offices.

“Look,” he says, pulling open a bathroom door.

It’s like stepping inside a gemstone, its walls painted deep plum, glazed with gold. The medicine cabinet is framed with pearls and mirrored tiles; the white bowl of the sink is set into a colorful mosaic of iridescent tile, broken china, and sea glass.

"The lady from the nail salon did it," Matthew explains. Looking closer, I find, embedded in the grout, a tiny plastic baby, a miniature Ferrari, a sparkly gold earring, a Cracker Jack ring with a bright purple “jewel.”

“The cobbler’s children have no shoes,” I once joked.
“What does that mean?”
“It’s an expression. You know, the architect’s family has no house.”
“What are you talking about?” he said. “That’s not funny. Is that supposed to be funny?”

If people were elements, Matthew would be metal, crystal, stone. He would be a thousand pieces of mirror, shattered and spiky; a floor covered with straight pins, or mercury, split into hundreds of silver balls that skitter away when you touch them, impossible to pick up.

I would be a moss, a forest fern in a damp place with crushed pine needles all over my bed; a warm brook trickling slowly, fish darting this way beneath a blanket of leaves, floating on my surface. I would be sunlight, caught in a perfume bottle and hidden in a silk pouch in the pocket of a green velvet cloak left hanging on a nail.

Matthew has an architectural ruler, precisely calibrated into ¼ inch scale. Lives depend on the precision with which he places those lines on paper—each is a foundation, a structural wall, a beam that won’t collapse.
I measure things like a cat, feeling my way through entrances and exits with a field as wide as whiskers that extends around my body like a glowing cloud.

I spread into the world like steam. He meets the world like an onslaught, as if an army of little plastic men was advancing, pushing him deeper and deeper into a corner.

He walks through the house like nerve gas—paralyzing everyone in his path. “You are polluting the environment with that idiot box!” he shouts when the TV is on.
“I don’t want you to turn out like me,” he cautions the children.
“They should be so lucky,” I say. “You’re a wonderful father… a good person…”
“Stay out of this,” he says. “They don’t need a lawyer. This has nothing to do with you.”

Later, he holds onto me like a life preserver. “I’d be lost without you,” he whispers.
"You would not," I say, bristling. Yet I can't shake the image: My husband tumbling through outer space, trailing a broken lifeline through the vast black night of the universe.

At this point, with Max in college and Katie about to go, too, everyone says, “Why do you need a house anymore? Buy a condo. Invest in a timeshare. Travel.” And by “everyone I mean, my mother and the Benefits Administrator at my office who, though it is none of her business, is curious why I keep taking real estate loans against my 401K.

I tell the children, “Real estate is the most valuable asset you can buy.” I’ve walked them through the whole process: Offer, accepted offer, binder, inspection, contracts, closing. I’ve explained that, in the time between Binder and Closing, they’ll have two months to inspect for Asbestos, lead pipes, and insects. There could be termites, ants, carpenter bees. “Then, contracts are prepared by attorneys,” I explain. “The seller has one attorney, the buyer, another.”
“The last thing is the Closing,” I tell them. “Bring a sturdy pen.”

My mother says, “I keep trying to picture the moment when I actually leave. Do I tell your father, 'Okay, goodbye then,' and walk out. I just can't imagine it… and I'm afraid that I won't be able to do it."

We are standing in her office, once the dining room, in the house where I grew up. We are sorting through a bowl of smooth white stones.

On the table, there are other bowls filled with chalky gray clam shells, skate cases, black as licorice, and necklaces of wampum (the spines of some fish?). She shows me the large trunk, filled with sea treasures collected from a lifetime of beaches: S'conset, Surfside, Tom Never's Head; West End 2, Ocean Beach, Montauk.

"I pulled out every single shell and stone and made a decision about it,” she tells me. “I know it sounds crazy but I had to do it this way.”

“It doesn’t sound crazy," I say. "It’s hard to let go of things when we can’t imagine how. Maybe that’s why it’s taking so long for your house to sell. Maybe you aren’t finished sorting your stones.”

Afternoon light bends into the room and Mom’s collection of bottles, dug out of the hill behind our house, sits on a high shelf around us like a string of jewels, catching light: Blue, green, brown, clear. The bottles, too, are waiting to be divided into groups: Keep, discard, sell.

I feel like an hourglass, sifting sand, collecting what I can—rescuing memories and carting them away in the trunk of my car.
That night, asleep in my childhood bed, I dream that I’m in Greece-a place I've never actually been- walking on a spiraling path on an island. Sun-bleached shells crunch beneath my sandals. White cottages, bright blue skies and lapis lazuli waters, white-capped by wind. I wake suddenly, tumble-tossed by a wave as the dream pulls away. It sounds like the rushing of sand and stones, the backwash of the sea. I open my eyes and, finding myself in my room, in my stupid life, I begin to cry.

“Could my father live here, with us?”
“Where would we put him?” Matthew asks.
I scan the crowded space, trying to imagine a hospital bed and Dad’s little card table squeezed in with our mismatched furniture. “It’s just for a little while.”
“Think it through, Amy. It’s not temporary—just the opposite.”
I sigh. “You’re right. I know.”

“Your father knows he can’t stay here,” Mom repeats. “Even if I wasn’t selling the house, he can’t take care of himself anymore. He can’t afford full-time live in care. And I don’t want you giving up your life to take care of him. I’m selling the house and I can’t take him with me. Your father needs a nursing home.”

"You know, Dad, if you live with me, you'd have to stop driving..." I begin.
“Never mind the whole thing,” Dad says, pulling into himself like a starfish that’s been poked with a stick.
“Dad,” I choke out. “I am trying so hard..."
"I know," he says. "Don't worry about it."
"There's got to be something that will work for everyone--for you, for Mom, for me and my family."
"Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”
“Oh, really? How? You have no money. You have no plans!”
“I’ll work it out,” he says. “It’s really none of your business.”

That night, Dad calls. “Listen, Amy," he says. "I don’t want to live with you. There’s only one bathroom and I’d have to sleep in the living room. That’s not the place for me—and no way for you to live. I’m going to move in with Sara.”
For some reason, I find this hilarious. Even my father, who has no options left at all, doesn’t want to live here.

Matthew and I rent a van and pack it full of Dad’s belongings: A single bed, one kitchen chair, a clock radio, and three plastic milk crates filled with books. We drive to New Jersey where Sara, a Registered Nurse who’s been Dad’s friend for 15 years, has offered to take him in.

“He’ll be comfortable here,” she says, helping us carry Dad’s things into her condo.

“There are so many stairs,” I say, as we face the fourth flight. “Has Dad seen this place?”

“He has,” she says. “He’ll be okay. I put these handles here to help him.” The “handles,” lengths of torn bed sheets looped around the rungs of the banister on the stairs don’t look stable. Sara demonstrates how they work. She grabs hold of the loop of fabric and leans all of her weight backwards, pulling. “See,” she grins, as she pulls herself, hand over hand, up the stairs.

Dad will be staying in the master bedroom on the top floor. There's a private bath. In exchange for rent and a fee, Sara will do his laundry, prepare his meals and coordinate his daily parade of home health care workers.

“We’ll make him yogurt shakes with organic berries and protein powder,” Sara says. “We’ll rebuild his nutrition. He’s been living on Ensure and cookies. We’ll have our theater group meetings at the house,” she glows. “If we work it right, he can still be a part of everything. He can be happy here.”

“This is too good to be true,” I report to my family. With her halo of wispy white hair—tinted with stripes of bright pink—Sara even looks like an angel. “I will keep him here and take care of him until the end of his life,” she promised, holding both of my hands like a prayer sandwich in between her own.

I dream that I’m driving Dad somewhere in a little red car. As we weave through the winding streets of an old European city I describe, with great enthusiasm, the place I’m trying to find: Its wide hallways, arching entrances, velvet drapes and tapestries. Suddenly, a deer dashes across the road and I slam on the brakes. I leap from the car and chase it, leaving Dad behind.

I try to time my visits on Tuesdays, when I don’t have to be at the office. I have my own key so I can let myself in when Sara’s at work. Just inside the front door, there’s a set of stairs to the main floor. Sara's rumpled bed sits in the living room. I greet the cats, who weave in and out of my ankles as I walk through the dining room to the kitchen and set my grocery bag on the counter.

I unpack the glass jar of chicken soup, still warm, that I made this morning; and the Haagen-Dazs Coffee Chip and Double Stuff Oreos that I picked up on the way over. I take out the three jumbo straws that I got at Panera when I ordered his Frozen Mochaccino. Sara keeps asking me to bring her more straws, which, she says, Dad needs to drink his meals. I fold the brown paper bag and stash it under the sink. Then, I go up to see Dad.

Dad says, “When the house is sold, if your mother gives me any money—and I am not going to ask her for any—I will give it to you so you can buy a house. I will give it to you and your sisters. I just want to make sure that some of the money ends up with you girls and right now, I’m not sure that it will.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean.”

(I don’t know what he means. At. All.)

This month, the migraine is a hot nail through my right eye. There is no nausea. Instead, I have half-hearted menstrual cramps—not the searing, clamping, tearing pain of my 20s that made me gasp for breath. This pain is deeper, an inner spelunker exploring the caves behind my hips with heavy shoes and a thick mallet. I watch TV.

The next morning, Max and I go to Albany. He drives—I’m still woozy with a headache hangover. By afternoon, when we’re pulling into the state university campus, I’m not nauseous any more and I can pretty much walk in a straight line.
My niece, Max’s cousin, Margeaux, gives us a tour of her school: the dorm room where four girls sleep, stacked in two bunkbeds like Lego blocks. We walk in the freezing cold wind, past the library, the dining hall, Margeaux cheerfully waving to friends as we cross the concrete courtyard between buildings.

“I don’t like it,” Max says, as we drive away.

Cornell is breathtaking. It’s the archetype for the word University. “Wow!” I say, spinning to take in the stately, ivy-covered brick campus, the cobblestone street. "This place is the archetype for the word University," I say, my heart tossing its happiness hat in the air.

“I don’t like it,” Max says, turning back to the car.

"You know what I think?" I call after him. "I think I’m the one who should be going to college.”

When my parents purchased their next-door neighbors’ house in 1969, they paid $19,000 for the farmhouse cape on a half acre lot, with 3 bedrooms, 1 ½ baths and a sunroom. Last weekend, thirty-five years later, Mom told me, “They’re listing it at $850,000!”

“Wow! How much of that will Dad get?”

Mom blinked.

“But your father can’t have this money,” Martha said. “After their debts are paid, your mother needs every penny of what’s left just to live.”

"You can’t leave Dad with nothing. Didn't he pay for the house? Isn't it half his under New York divorce law anyway?"

"Well, yes," Mom said. "It is his house, too. And I would like to give him something…"

“I don’t think you understand what’s going on, Amy,” Martha cut in. “Your father is going to die. His organs are shutting down. As his spine twists he’ll develop increased numbness, and increasingly reduced capacity. If he’s lucky, he’ll have little pain. As his spine twists, his organs will begin to shut down. He will probably lose control of his bladder and bowel function. Eventually, the kidneys will begin to shut down. When that begins, it will be a quick decline to the end. He needs, more than anything, to be in a nursing home.”

I felt seasick, unmoored. We are all going to die. Why terrify me like this?

“I know it sounds heartless,” Mom said. “But I can’t take care of him anymore and he refuses to get help. I don’t know what else to do.”

“Your father will outlive us all,” said Martha. “He’ll stay alive on pure stubbornness.”

"Well, if that’s true,” I countered, “he’s going to need money to live on.”

"Then, you girls should give him some money. Your mother needs hers to survive.”

“Mom can’t give you any of the money for the house sale.”
“Nothing? She said that?”
“She’ll help you with your expenses, if you need help. But the money needs to go in the bank—and toward her new place.”
He blinked. “I didn’t expect that. I thought she’d give me something to live on… “
“Mom says it’s time for you to move to a nursing home, Dad. She says she told you this herself.”
“She did. I know she feels that way. But I’m…” He blinked some more. “This took me by surprise.” And then, like an Etch-a-Sketch shaken, his expression cleared. “Oh well,” he said. “I guess it’s time to win the lottery.”

In the bathroom of the West 17 Diner, halfway home, there’s a digital scale, across from the sinks. I drop in a quarter and step on. After my weight scrolls by, I get a set of Lucky Lottery Nnumbers I find Max in a booth, scanning the enormous pastel pink and blue, plastic-laminated menu. Before ordering, I write the lottery numbers on a napkin.

“We should buy your mother’s house,” Matthew says. “It’s your legacy.”
“We can’t afford it! It’s almost a million dollars.”
“We can move in there and bring your father home," he says. “We can pay all their expenses and take care of them. If your mother is really set on moving, we could buy her a condo."

“You don’t want this house. It’s falling apart,” Mom says.
“We do want it. Matthew knows how to fix things. He is paid a lot of money to inspect houses. He knows what he’s getting into.”

“Has he inspected this house? If he had, he wouldn’t want it.”
“He does want it,” I try a different tack. “We can buy your condo. You can live there but we’ll own it. We’ll pay the mortgage—we’ll even pay the maintenance. In exchange, we’ll move into this house.”

“What about your sisters? What about their inheritance?”

“They would still inherit the house,” I try to explain. “We would own the condo not the house. You would still own the house.”

“Oh, you don’t want to do that,” she scoffs. “And anyway, the school’s are no good here anymore. The whole town has gone Iranian. It's not the same town you grew up in.”

“You can’t discuss this with your mother, Matthew says. “You have to discuss it with Martha. She’s making all the decisions.” But I don’t want to talk with Martha. I want to be able to talk about it with Mom; I want my mother to be able to understand what I’m offering, to discuss interest rates and depreciation. I want her to understand what I’m saying.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I wish I could be more independent. But I can’t… I’m working on it. I am doing the best I can.”
“Okay,” I’ll talk to Martha,” I say. “She’s making all the decisions…”
“Martha is NOT making all the decisions,” Mom flares. “I have made every one of these choices on my own!”

I dream of a mysterious faceless man. He materializes suddenly, blocking my path as I run through rainy streets at night. In one dream, he whisks me off to an expensive restaurant where I’m handed an incomprehensible menu 40 pages long and asked to choose quickly, while the waiter impatiently taps his foot.
In another, I’m running to catch a ferry in high-heeled shoes that are too big for me. All of my friends and their children are already aboard. They call to me from the top deck. “Run!” they chorus. “Run!”

As the boat pulls away from the pier, I leap, losing a shoe. I limp across the deck—bare foot, high heel, bare foot, high heel— and reach for the stair rail. That’s when the faceless man appears. “Stay below with me,” he entices, hypnotizing me with his eyes. I climb into his bed, forgetting everything. I wake sobbing, torn between obligation and freedom, home and my great, wild adventure.

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