by guest blogger Renee James, essayist and blogger
If you’ve sold a house or bought a house, you attach a particular meaning to that phrase, “broom-swept.” As a seller, usual contract terms require that on closing day, you deliver a “broom-swept” house, no more, no less. As a buyer, you can expect to take possession of a home free from dust bunnies, no more, no less.
Last week, I played the part of the seller, with broom in hand. So why is it that when I started at the top of the hardwood stairs in my parents’ home and swept my way to the bottom, I felt like I was doing so much more than just prepping for the sale?
Although I know an actual, definite number exists, it’s impossible to know how many times I climbed or descended those stairs over the years. But I do know this: Some trips were more memorable than others. Like the one when my sisters and I were young and my dad complained that we sounded like “a herd of elephants” as we ran up and down the stairs. We were “young ladies,” he insisted. To help us learn what that meant, we had to walk up and down the stairs quietly—almost noiselessly, mind you—for about an hour while he and my mom sat in the kitchen listening to our very muffled footsteps.
The good news for us was that the stairs turned a corner at the top and sometimes two of us took mini-breaks to sit down for a bit while one of us carried on the “lesson” for Dad. I’m not sure we learned anything, but this happened more than 40 years ago and I remember it very clearly. Up and down a staircase? For almost an hour? On those little legs? Isn’t that child abuse? Nah. Call off the social worker. Not one of us needed medical attention. It’s what people used to call raising children.
Here’s another staircase story, although I remember this one with much less bemusement than the “young lady” lesson. One warm summer night, I was sitting on our front porch glider with a date, probably doing exactly what a young couple would do as we sat together on a warm summer night on a front porch glider. No doubt, we were in the throes of as much passion as we could muster on a front porch, albeit a dark front porch. Then, from inside the house, we heard a bit of mayhem, some bumps and thumps (like someone slamming into the wall at the bottom of the stairs, right inside the front door), followed by muffled voices and then silence.
Later that night, I learned that my dad, while drunk, mostly stumbled down the stairs, hit the wall, and was just about ready to confront me on the front porch with as much passionate outrage as he could muster given his state. My mother stopped him cold, and the moment passed. I remember my sister telling me, “Mom saved you.”
Skip ahead about 10 years: I descended those steps as a bride. A young lady in a satin gown with a long train, I posed for pictures with my parents in the living room. No, I didn’t marry the guy from the front porch, and no, I didn’t have to confront my Dad’s alcoholism that day. He gave me the gift of sobriety for my wedding weekend. (A few years later, he made the choice daily to live the rest of his life sober, this time as an unspoken gift to his grandchildren.)
The last night my mother spent in her home included a very labored, exhausting trip up those stairs; one difficult step at a time, she made her way to her bedroom. She left her house the next day via an emergency squad gurney, so she never stepped foot on the stairs again. (For years, every time we talked about downsizing out of this too-big-for-her house, she’d dismissed us: “They’re going to carry me out of this house,” she’d said. She was right.)
Despite the earlier lesson we endured, I’m positive that as outraged teenagers my sisters and I spent years stomping up the stairs, and my brother did his own version of the same. The wall at the bottom of the stairs (and the people in house) somehow held up against a number of drunken bumps over the years. The staircase showcased a few brides, babies being carried up for naps, then older grandchildren (especially three little boys at once, sounding not unlike a herd of elephants) running up and down during visits and sleepovers. This time, the din went unchallenged by Pop-Pop. In the end, it posed a formidable challenge to my mom, who never, ever stopped loving the house she and my dad bought all those years ago, without even looking at the second floor.
I stood at the bottom of the steps next to a small pile of dust ready to be scooped up. From there I looked into the kitchen, then past the living room and the dining room to the doors of the sunroom. The silence felt overwhelming, despite the fact that for me, the life of the house had been seeping away for months, leaving nothing more than a space, a shell, a structure to be “sold and settled,” as the realtors say.
Except for that day, except for that moment at the foot of the stairs. Right then, I gave myself permission to gaze; time to see just about every family moment we had created in that house. Then I checked the lock and pulled the door closed behind me. Walked past the glider—that same one!—and stepped off the front porch. I drove away. I teared up a little bit. To my surprise, that broom swept exceedingly clean.
With my last look, I saw kinder, more joyful, and more comforting scenes than I would have imagined. Slammed doors went silent. Shrill voices sounded soothing. The only tears we shed were happy ones. The piano was always in tune. The cacophony of music and voices, plus the background television and noisy toys, was inexplicably harmonious. Even as I saw that very last morning at home with my Mom—so tired, so tired of everything her illness represented—the lens revealed only the love, not the despair and desperation that crowded my thoughts, and surely hers, that day.
Only the love.
In this empty home, the people are gone. The connections remain. And those can never be swept away.
Renee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and also wrote an award-winning Op-Ed column for The Morning Call, in Allentown, PA for almost ten years. Her essays have been part of two humor anthologies: 101 Damnations; A Humorists’ Tour of Personal Hells and Mirth of a Nation Volume 3, and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. Her blog, It’s Not Me, It’s You, addresses topics that mystify her on a regular basis.
photo credit: derekGavey