I’d like to spend one last night in my mother’s house. There’s work to be done before we put it on the market, so the electricity has not been turned off. The phone has been disconnected, but I’ll have my cell. If I can’t sleep, I can get up and go into the kitchen and read. I can heat water in the microwave, make a cup of tea, warm my hands around the mug if it’s chilly. When it’s dark and I’m completely alone, I can let my mind wander where it will. I want to be open to whatever sounds I might hear, whatever thoughts come into my head, whatever feelings come over me.
I’ve been thinking about it since before I left Nashville. Now, as we drive through the Virginia countryside, I try to explain to my sister how I feel about this final journey back to the farm where we grew up. “I know it seems a crazy thing to do, to be all alone in the house for a whole night.”
“We’re gonna be there for days,” Liddie reminds me. “It’s not gonna be easy, packing up her things. We should stay together. Anyway, why would you want to stay in an empty old farmhouse? I can’t imagine why you’d want to do that.”
Because I may never see it again. Because the house may have things it wants to say to me. Because I lived there once, and then I left, and now I need to reconnect. But mostly, because after tonight, the house will never be the same again.
I don’t say any of that to Liddie, because it makes little sense, and she’d be quick to point that out to me.
“You’ll be a lot more comfortable at my daughter’s house,” Liddie says, and there’s a tone of finality in her voice. As if the matter is settled. Except that it isn’t.
I sit in the passenger seat of her SUV and I am quiet for a long time. Liddie, six years older than me, has always been able to dominate me, make me do the things she wanted. I pull one knee up tight against my chest, wrap my arms around it. “I don’t think of it as an empty old farmhouse. In a way, I think she’s still there.” I glance at my sister, but she presents a cool profile.
“It’s something I need to do,” I tell her. “Maybe it’s a way of trying to be close to her, closer than I’ve been for a long time.” I watch my sister as I speak, and I see a tenseness in the way she holds her body, her grip on the steering wheel, the tilt of her head. She neither understands nor approves. “I wish I’d come home more often than I did,” I tell her. “These last few years I’ve hardly come at all.” I look out the window at the passing landscape along Interstate 81, wondering what else I can say, how I can explain something that is beyond words. In the end, I say nothing.
We stop for coffee, for lunch, for fuel, and all the while I’m thinking of what it will be like, to be there, alone, in the house where my mother lived the final years of her life.
To stay this night in my mother’s house is no longer an idea. It is something I intend to do.
There’s not much left of the things my mother owned. Most of it has been carried off by health care workers who felt they had more right to her things than did her children. They took care of her, they reasoned. We did not.
I’ll take a pillow and blanket with me. The only bed left in the house is the one she slept in before she died. I won’t sleep there. No, I’ll curl up in the green lounge chair my father loved. I’ve slept there before, in that lounge chair. It’s comfortable enough, unless you want to turn over in the night. The chair only goes back so far, so it’s not possible to sleep on your stomach, or even on your side unless you get into a semi-fetal position. It interrupts sleep, not being able to stretch out and turn over at will. If I wake in the night, I’ll be confused, until I remember where I am. On earlier occasions when I’ve stayed at my mother’s house, I’ve counted the nights I have to be there before I can go home. I yearned to be back in my own bed, a bed with a pillow-top mattress, an electric bed warmer beneath the bottom sheet, 300 thread count bedding, snowy white comforter. It was never easy, being in my mother’s house, seeing what was left of her life after my father died. I have wanted to run from it.
Now I want to be there, alone in her house. It will likely be the last time I ever visit there. I want to absorb whatever of my mother still lingers there.
Because the house sits on the knoll of a hill, cultivated fields and open woodland sloping away from it, it catches any wind that blows. Even the gentlest of summer breezes will pick at tree branches, at loose shutters or roofing tiles, at outbuildings left unsecured, at bits of flotsam caught in fencerows during spring floods.
The house has stood against the night terrors for something approaching two hundred years. I learned of its history in my mother’s safe deposit box, opened a month ago in the presence of Pennsylvania State Revenue officials. I held the old deeds in my hands, leafed through the brittle pages, tried to decipher the faded handwriting. The most recent deed, separate from the others, was signed more than fifty years ago by my parents. They were young then. My mother’s signature was strong and bold. The pages have yellowed during those years. The edges are slowly falling away, adding to the layer of dust inside the metal box. It is a process that will continue.
I took the documents from the box, carried them to a table, and sat down to study them. One of the revenue agents stayed by the door, but the other followed me to the table. I looked at him, a corpulent man of middle age, eyes magnified by the thick glasses he wore.
“Property deeds,” I told him. “Old property deeds. People who used to own my mother’s house.”
He took a seat across from me.
“They have no value to anyone. Only to my mother.” She’d put them in the safe deposit box years ago, tied a pink ribbon around them.
He folded his hands and said nothing.
“There are no stock certificates. No rare coins. No jewelry. Nothing that would interest the Great State of Pennsylvania.” I pushed them across the table toward him. “You want to check?”
He leaned back in his chair. “That won’t be necessary,” he said.
“Then go away.”
He looked surprised. He sat for a moment, blinking.
“Go away and leave me alone.”
He rose from the table, went and stood by the wall. I watched him go, saw him cross his arms over that great chest of his, across that white shirt whose fabric strained against the buttons.
“No rare coins,” I muttered, looking down at the documents on the table. “Just old property deeds.” I untied the ribbon, removed the cord, and spread the deeds on the table.
I glanced up at the Revenue agent. He half-smiled, as if in apology, as if to say, I’m only doing my job, don’t hold it against me.
It’s a lousy job, I wanted to tell him. You should find other work.
I read of the Deardorf family who lived in the house during the battle in 1863. I wondered if some ghostly remnant of those long-dead people would be hovering about, inside those thick stone walls. Will they tell me how they watched the invading Confederate soldiers slaughter one of their milk cows, of building a fire in the yard, of the meat sizzling as they lounged around their campfire, of laughter and drinking and fiddle-playing late into the night?
I’d heard the story from my mother one starless summer night. She sat on the porch swing, urging it ever so gently back and forth, I on the steps, and the night was as quiet as any night in the countryside can be. We heard the occasional slap of wing as unseen birds landed on tree branches, tinkling of cowbells as the herd moved across the pasture, swish of wind through ripening grain fields. My mother told the story, and I could see the fire, the meat turning on home-made spits, the canvas tents that dotted the yard and the fields beyond. I heard the nervous prattle of the soldiers, the splattering of fat on hot coals. I smelled the oily rags they used to clean their muskets.
Sitting at that table inside the bank, I learned of the Davis family whose land and possessions were sheriffed in the early 1900s. I knew no other details, only that the bankruptcy struck fear into my mother’s heart. She worried that she and my father had over-extended when they contracted to buy the house and hundred acres. It was a groundless worry. They paid off their mortgage and put the papers in the safe deposit box where years later someone would find them and know they had paid their just debts.
I wonder: will those long-dead souls resent me for sheltering in the home they once owned and then lost?
What of the later Davises, descendants of the previous owners, who bought the property after the Great Depression. Will they approve of the changes to the house since they’ve been gone? What of the screened-in porch where my parents sat on summer evenings, the kitchen cupboards my sister’s husband built for my mother, cupboards so high she needed a stepstool to reach all but the bottom shelf, the upstairs bathroom installed after the children were gone, the built-in closets that replaced the wardrobes and hooks nailed to backs of doors?
Which of these people dug the well in the basement that my mother feared would be the death of one of us, and my father capped with concrete? Who dug the cave on the north side of the house to store cold-weather vegetables, built potato and apple bins, then cut a door from the basement so they could access the vegetables stored there? When were times so hard that one family lived on the ground floor, another upstairs, a third in the attic, and yet another in the basement.
My mother found evidence of the families who lived in the basement and in the attic, but exactly what it was, I don’t know. I did not listen closely enough, and now the knowledge is gone. I didn’t ask her to show me the messages she found written on walls, the growth charts cut into door frames. Now all of it is gone.
If I can hear my parents’ whispering to each other in those first weeks after they bought the house and moved what meager possessions they had into those cavernous rooms, all painted maroon, I will be satisfied.
If I can spend the night there, alone, listening to the house, to the winds, to whatever life still inhabits this place, I will have honored the thing within me that yearns for some connection to what I have lost.
I won’t be able to visit the bedroom where I slept from the time I was three until I left for college. That part of the house has been rented out. It’s all changed, anyway. I have no desire to go there. It has been off–limits, because of the tenants, since my father died.
Which is fine. That isn’t the part of the house that interests me.
It’s the kitchen where my mother cooked, the table where she served so many meals, the sink where she washed dishes. It’s the chair where she sat so she could look out over the meadow, take comfort in the horses that pastured there, the stream that flowed even in the worst drought, the changing of the seasons, the life that went on and would go on beyond her days.
My sister, still behind the wheel of the SUV, has been quiet for the last hour. Now she begins to talk about the terrible sadness she has felt since Mother died, about the depression that has dogged her for the last ten years. Her life is a mess, she says, her children scattered, involved in their own lives, no time for anyone else. She is afraid for her future. More than anything else, she fears being alone. “We are the final generation,” she tells me. “There is no one between us and the grave.”
I don’t want to hear any of this. It seems not appropriate somehow.
“I really need you to come with me to my daughter’s house,” she says. “We can start going through Mother’s things tomorrow.”
“It’ll be good for you to spend some time with your daughter,” I tell her. “There’s a rest stop coming up. Can we stop? Take a break?”
“What if she has plans for tonight?”
“She knows you’re coming. She’s expecting you.”
“Something might come up, something she has to take care of…
“She’ll leave a key under the doormat.”
A misting rain begins to fall, and she turns on the wipers. The exit sign comes and goes. I begin to count the mileage markers by the side of the road. Once, when we were children, Liddie got so angry with me she tore my clothes off. I had to walk home from the woods holding the torn remnants about me. I was five years old, and I don’t know what I’d done to her. I only remember not wanting anyone to see me, of trying to sneak into the house without being noticed. What should I to do with the ruined dress? What would I tell my mother? Hide it in the cave, I thought. Or bury it somewhere, out in the garden, or in the flowerbed beside the house where the soil was loose.
“It’ll be cold inside the house,” she says. “Surely the heat’s been turned off…”
“It doesn’t matter. I have a blanket.”
“Why do you want to do this? Spend the night in that empty old house? It’s crazy.”
A picture of the overweight revenue officer flashes through my mind. ‘Go stand by the wall,’ I told him. That’s what I want to say it to Liddie.
I need this one night. It’s something I want to do. It takes nothing away from you.
Liddie goes on and on, and often she lets her sentences go unfinished. There are uncomfortable stretches of wordlessness, time for me to jump in and say, ‘I’ll stay with you, I know how hard Mother’s death has been for you, coming on top of all the other things you’ve had to endure.’
But I don’t say that. I stubbornly insist that I want to stay in the house where my mother lived for fifty years, the house where she died, the house that is empty now.
I want this one last night, to be with my mother. I want to be alone with her, and to think of her, and to feel close to her. Then I might be able to let her go. At the very least, I will have begun the process.
“Tomorrow night I’ll stay with you,” I tell my sister. “But not tonight.”
The rain is coming harder now, and the sky has darkened. I pull my sweater close around me and begin to look for familiar landmarks.
We exit the interstate at Chambersburg and head south on the Lincoln Highway. Within minutes we are in the heavily-forested Caledonia State Park. Trees reach across the road on both sides, all but blotting out the sky. The daylight hours seem far behind us, night fast approaching.
This is the land that holds the memories of my childhood: here the place we went for picnics on Sunday afternoons, there the hill that challenged so many truckers in winter, to my right the mountain range that took the life of a pilot somehow related to us, to the left the Buchanan Valley church we attended when disenchanted with our regular church.
The long downhill slide off the mountain flattens as we near the valley floor. We drive through peach, cherry, and apple orchards into the rich farmland of Franklin and then Adams County.
Liddie slows, looking for the turnoff to the farm. I search in my purse for the key to the house. She finds the road and makes the turn. I find the key and hold it in the palm of my hand.
“We used to call this the Sweet Pain Road,” I tell her. “Remember?”
She has no idea what I’m talking about. I glance at her, wondering: could six years make that much difference?
“It’s all up and down, hills and valleys, slow climbs and sudden dips. Mother used to speed up whenever we drove across this road. If she hit the bumps just right, you’d go airborne. Just for a second or two. When you landed, it took your stomach a second to follow you down. We called it the Sweet Pain Road. It was a nice feeling.”
“I don’t remember that,” Liddie says.
Is it possible that Mother only did it when I was in the car? That it was a special thing we shared, a thing she did not share with my sister? “Try it,” I tell Liddie. “Speed up a little.”
“No,” she says. “It’s too dark. You can’t tell what might be on the other side of the next rise.”
I look out the side window, wanting the pain of Sweet Pain Road, but knowing it is gone forever.
“There was no harm to it,” I tell Liddie. “We always landed okay. She used to do it a lot. All during my childhood years. I loved that feeling of flying, of landing a split second before my stomach.”
Liddie, concentrating on her driving, does not answer. The road is dark, and she has not driven it for years.
Then we’re in Beachersville, and I point out the house that was once a grocery and gas station. “Remember the woman who used to ask “whatdayawant?”
“I think I must have been gone from home by then,” Liddie answers.
At the edge of town she turns onto the dirt road that leads to the farm. We cross the bridge over the trout stream and climb the hill and I begin to look for lights from the house where I grew up. There’s always a light. Sometimes it’s one of the upstairs lights, sometimes the kitchen, sometimes the porch light. No matter the season, there’s always a light. I’ve seen it shining out over the meadow, sparkling across fresh white snow, breaking through wind-blown tree branches, shimmering through watery glass.
I’ve never come home to a dark house before. In all the years I’ve been gone, whenever I come home, there’s always a light.
Tonight there is no light. Did you not remember that your daughter was coming home? The words are there, in my mind. But they are from another, earlier time.
“What will you eat?” Liddie asks. Her words are clipped, her voice cold.
“I don’t know. Maybe a can of soup. I’m sure there’s something in the cupboards.”
“There won’t be any coffee. Mom quit drinking it years ago.”
“I know. I don’t have to have coffee.”
She stops in front of the house. “Call me if you change your mind.”
I nod, get my suitcase from the back seat, push open the gate, and walk up the path toward the house. Before I step onto the porch I pause to breathe in the sweet smell of pear blossoms. The Bartlett pear tree my mother planted forty, fifty years ago is in bloom. I turn back to the car, wanting to share it with Liddie. But it’s late, and I know she’s anxious to get to her daughter’s house.
I struggle to insert the key in the lock. Then the door is open and I step inside. I hear the crunch of Liddie’s tires on the gravel and I know she is gone.
The light switch is on my right, past the door that leads to the upstairs of the house, but in the dark it eludes me. I move farther into the room, to the lamp. I touch the brass, and the room is lit. I am safe.
The rain has let up. All is quiet. I walk through the living room, into the dining room, and the sound of my footsteps is loud. Why did I want to come here? What did I hope to accomplish?
In the wintertime the morning sun comes through the windows to my left. Then it begins its slow journey around the house toward the south, and by summer it has found its way to the kitchen windows.
If dawn were breaking, and I could see the sun, I would look toward the east, not the south. Though there are clear signs of spring, the blossoming pear tree, I still feel closer to winter than to summer. The longest day of the year, the summer solstice, is months away.
I turn on all the lights in the house, open cupboards, read book titles, pick up knickknacks off shelves and replace them. I open the china cabinet, remove a cup, put it back. I take a photo album off the shelf and sit on the couch but find I have no desire to open it. I run my finger across the coffee table and note the layer of dust I have disturbed.
I’ve forgotten to bring my pillow and blanket. I replace the photo album, go to hall closet in search of bedding, knowing my mother never kept extra blankets in the hall closet. She kept them in a cedar chest in her bedroom.
The hospice bed is gone. So too the oxygen tanks, the extra linens, the lotions, all the alien things brought into her room by kindly strangers.
I find a blanket in the cedar chest and carry it into the living room. The rain begins anew.
The refrigerator has been emptied. The health care workers, no doubt. The paper bag of medicines stored there has been taken away. I close the door and turn away.
If, inside the oven, I were to find a steaming bowl of mashed potatoes, butter melting in the center, a sprinkling of fresh parsley over the top, I could not eat. The Kashi bar in my pocket does not tempt me. I have no appetite.
In the corner cupboard is a bottle of Jack Daniels. I brought him here years ago to flavor the mince pies my mother used to make. Now I hold him up to the light and see that he has hardly been touched. He will help me sleep. But before I sleep, I have to dust the coffee table. It is much too soon to allow dust to accumulate in my mother’s house.
There’s a house in my neighborhood that has stood empty for as long as I’ve lived in Nashville. Some problem with the title, my sister speculates. I’ve driven past the house hundreds, maybe thousands of times. Mostly I give it no thought. Someone mows the grass. Before the weeds between the patio bricks get too high, a frost comes and knocks them down. The roof still holds the weight of winter snow, still sheds the rains of summer. The windows are all intact, except for the one in the garage door.
One day, a month before my mother died, I pulled into the driveway and sat looking at the house. I wanted to go inside, see what time had done to this place that someone once called home. I got out of my car, walked to the garage door, peeked in through jagged glass fragments that clung to the window frame. Rusty refrigerator. A child’s bicycle. Garden hose curled on the floor. Boxes. Trash cans. Lengths of rope. Old table and chairs. More boxes. A stack of magazines, the top ones tipping onto the floor. A car, partially covered with a cloth, boxes piled atop it. It sat lower than it should. I looked at the tires and saw they were flat.
I turned the knob, stepped into the garage, picked my way though the rubble. The back door of the house was locked, the blind pulled.
The rain is steady, a constant drumbeat on the tin roof, and I am at that delicate moment between wakefulness and sleep. I’m almost there, hovering close to the edge, in a second I’ll drop over the side. I can hear the wind, picking up now, gusting, and I slip into oblivion.
A crashing sound, and I’m out of the chair, standing on the floor of my mother’s living room, not sure how I got here. The room is dark, the nightlight I left burning extinguished at the precise moment I felt the crash. The rain comes harder, the wind stronger.
On bare feet I creep into the dining room, open the door, walk out onto the porch.
The pear tree has gone down. Hit so many times by lightening my mother swore it was immune to it, the tree lies spread-eagled across the yard, its mass of roots obscene in their position in the ambient light. The electric lines that once were attached to the house lie tangled in the branches.
I remember a spring when I was a small child the tree bloomed twice. Once on the side to the tree that faced the east, a week later on the opposite side.
It was a very old tree. It couldn’t have stood much longer. A miracle it stood as long as it has. It was my mother who held it up. When the limbs got too heavy with fruit, and she thought it was about to break, she would prop them with boards. When it lost a limb, she painted the broken spot to keep the insects out. When she discovered the middle of the tree was hollow, she bought Quickrete and mixed it and poured it into the hole. When the cement cracked and pulled away from the inside of the tree, she cut a piece of tin and nailed it over the hole. Now the tree is gone. It withstood many things.
I can still smell the scent of the blossoms. If I closed my eyes, I could find my way to the tree, even in the dark, even in the rain.
When morning comes, I’ll pick some branches and bring them into the house, put them in a vase and set them on the kitchen table. For just a while it will seem like Mother is still here, the house still hers.
This piece moved me in such a beautiful way.
Thanks, Tom, for your comment. It’s always nice to hear that someone has been touched by something you wrote.
What a wonderful story.
Thanks, Michael. My mother’s house is being sold tomorrow. That last link to her will be gone.