The Things That Will Fit into a House

Thirteen years after my mother left, she moved back in. Her return didn’t signal reconciliation between her and my father, albeit they were on better terms than when they had separated. She moved back into the house to be useful.

A year earlier, my father had suffered nerve damage and had become quite limited in his dexterity and mobility. His lady friend of several years, Dorothy, saw his disability an opportunity to solidify their relationship—when he was released from the hospital, she immediately moved into the creaky, three-story bayside home. With some rearrangement of furniture, the first floor accommodated them comfortably.

Meanwhile my younger sister, with a new baby, also had seen the need for someone to care for our father. So she and her partner had terminated their lease and moved onto the second floor. They had more space than in their rented apartment, and there was still an intact kitchen from earlier days when the house had been divided to lodge mostly summertime residents.

As was characteristic, my father allowed others to make important life decisions for him and then claimed his innocence. The price, at least in part, was his having to listen to endless grievances from Dorothy against his daughter and her partner: “Why do they have to slam the door? Why do they have to run up and down the stairs all day? Why isn’t he working?”

Before these rearrangements, my visits home had been welcomed respites from whatever the circumstances of my own life: I had a big house in which to roam with all the privacy I wanted; I had my family and old friends close by; and I had the ocean. Now I had to exercise constant diplomacy with Dorothy, and I walked on eggshells not to interfere with my sister’s life. Still, I had the third floor, left almost untouched from the time it was home to three adolescent girls. And I had the ocean.

Then my mother decided to retire early and attend law school. After years of letting my father slide on compensating her for her share of the house, she decided she wanted her money. Perhaps she distrusted Dorothy. In any case, she pressed my father to sell the house, and he agreed—he could no longer maintain it financially or physically. My mother returned to help with the upkeep, find a realtor, and clean out the house. Other circumstances had changed too—my sister was now on her own with her child and needed help. My mother could babysit while my sister returned to work. So my mother moved onto the third floor. There were remnants of a kitchen there too.

When I went home to visit, my mother, who’d been using my old bedroom as her own, graciously returned it to me. If I closed the door, I could pretend to find some peace. It was illusory. I bounced between my mother’s floor, my sister’s floor, and my father and Dorothy’s floor. Every dinner was a tactical, political decision. “Dorothy put in some turkey legs and made fresh (canned) fruit salad” meant I was to eat with my father and Dorothy. Before my first sip of morning coffee I had to announce, “Sarah asked me to eat with her tonight”; or, more cryptically for dining with my mother, “Don’t worry about me for dinner.” Every hour home I had my choice of insanity. I was there for just a week or so at a time. My sister was there for the duration.

Seemingly fixed, the walls of a house are really elastic, accommodating all sorts of things inside. There must be a limit to their elasticity, though—a tensile strength—when the house becomes a place of stress instead of refuge; when there is discord between the first, second, and third floors; when there are three kitchens in which to eat.

Within eight months my mother went on to law school, my father sat uneasy with his decision to sell the house but held he had no choice, and my sister found an apartment in the neighborhood. Now my visits home were to help clean out closets, sort things, and move furniture.

I miss that seaside house. Through all of its history, it was the place of family. I carry its remnants around with me from dwelling to dwelling. Like a hermit crab transferring its anemones from old shell to new, I arrange my old possessions in new places. I’m still waiting, though, for a house that fits me as well.

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16 Responses to The Things That Will Fit into a House

  1. JoAnn Williams says:

    Beautifully written. I don’t know who said this, “The family without dysfunction are people you don’t know very well.” You captured the essence of this sentiment.

  2. Thank you. It wasn’t until after adolescence that I learned most families had their own “idiosyncrasies.”

  3. preid16 says:

    Wow. Loved that house soooo much. I wasn’t around at the time you describe. But I remember Dorothy sitting at the far end of the kitchen table, black hair, teased upright, tons of eye makeup behind thick black glasses. Did my memory serve me?

  4. Jonah Giacalone says:

    I could feel the stress from your story. I had no idea about what was happening with the family at that time.

  5. Katy Lewis says:

    Oh, the oddities of families and homes and houses that become homes.

  6. Beautifully told….so sad saying goodbye to sweet memories.

  7. So, flexing your muscles to write a memoir?

  8. lmussehl says:

    Just re-read this. I caught the line “Like a hermit crab transferring its anemones from old shell to new, I arrange my old possessions in new places. I’m still waiting, though, for a house that fits me as well.” It reminds me of the Barbara Kingsolver essay “High Tide in Tucson.”

  9. Yes, but I wrote it before I read her book. Does that count? 🙂

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