By Jean Zorn
Selling an apartment or house, and buying another, are not only momentous in themselves. They are the frequent, if not inevitable, accompaniments – the cause or the effect – of so many moments when life, hugely and often suddenly, changes: graduation, marriage, death, jobs lost, jobs found, spouses lost – and new ones found. Besides, homes are expensive, which in and of itself provokes a lot of life-changing. Next to the price tag on a place to live – even a rental – the cost of a refrigerator, a car, even a university education (well, a state university education) is small potatoes.
For some, there is only one great real estate-related life changing moment. I know people who moved from their parents’ house to one of their own – and never moved again. I am not one of those people. Each of our apartments (my partner’s and mine) has been our forever home. For about five years. And then our lives change in a way that requires a real estate upheaval as well. We finish school. We go back to school. We move to another city, state, country. We move again. The landlord sells the building out from underneath us. We retire. We un-retire. We retire again. The latest New York apartment was to be definitely, finally, absolutely, unquestionably forever. Until this winter when we went back to Florida.
Despite the relative frequency of our moves, each new home is for us a life changer. For some, though, moving is just part of their every day. Many a renter in New York City can reel off a dozen places she’s lived in just the last little while. She may be a perpetual sub-letter or house sitter, moving from one luxuriously furnished short term spot to another, taking care of other people’s cats, plants, and pianos. Or she may be sharing places with those most dreaded of co-tenants, the roommates she met via Craigslist – the roommates who, she discovers, turn the living room into a noisy fraternity row or decorate the kitchen with months’ worth of dirty dishes, Chinese takeout cartons, and semi-chewed pizza crusts.
Some life changes are planned, some spontaneous. Buying and selling real estate usually requires a fair degree of forethought, but spontaneity is possible, even when it involves a six-figure expenditure. I once walked into a condo I’d rented for a couple of weeks and there, even from the front doorway, was the view through French doors of the sunlight sparkling on a canal, boats and boathouses, gracious Southern houses fringed by palms. By the time our stay there was supposed to have been over, we owned the place.
Some real estate transitions are chosen, some are forced upon us. Parents up and move, which pretty much means their kids have to go along, leaving friends, the school, the half-done science project behind. Landlords evict their tenants, usually motivated by the kinds of greed for which capitalism has devised a thousand euphemisms: the profit motive, gentrification, development, the bottom line. “This is not personal.” Divorce, the lost job, or death may force us to downsize or, at least, to find less expensive options. The moves that are forced we do not soon forget, never quite forgive, seldom totally recover from.
And then there are those fortunate enough not to have a life-changing moment. Or unfortunate enough to want one, when it can’t be had. For them, real estate is a way to experience vicariously the heady excitement of change. For them, HGTV and the New York Times Sunday real estate section are the drugs of choice. Every night on HGTV, a couple moves to a new town or a whole new part of the globe, and starts their new life by buying a house. There are – we all know the dance by know – three to choose from, and none of the three is perfect. “Choose the one nearest the beach.” “No, choose the one with the fenced-in yard for the dog.” Why is there so often a dog who needs a yard? Do any of us actually know anyone for whom a dog was the major factor in their choice of a home on which to spend half a million? No? I thought so.
My first great life-changing moment occurred when I flew across the country from my small, homogenous (except for me) Massachusetts suburb to enroll at the University of California at Berkeley, where I made friends with an astonishingly varied group of people; lived first in a rooming house, then in a bunch of sublets, and eventually in a couple of ramshackle Berkeley houses; and read books like the Anti-Defamation League’s treatise on racism and Margaret Mead’s on the alluring peoples of the South Pacific. The ADL taught me that everyone I’d been told is different is actually pretty much the same – and Mead instructed me to relish the differences that do exist between people. And the real estate? It taught me to love where I live – and to say an easy farewell when I move on. Except for that one apartment…
Cinderella, the Slow Learner
to drive his daddy’s Studebaker whenever he wanted
For first love’s sake she made light of his fits of rudeness
his edge of discontent – indeed she thrilled to his
buying cheap hooch for the high school field trip
The dress had been in her closet quite a while
she bought it with her own money and she wanted to save it
palest blue full cotton skirt gathered to a skinny waist
best of all its softly ballooning sleeves
she knew she’d feel beautiful in it
They planned a big date – to celebrate going steady –
driving two towns over on a fine summer evening
in that streamlined two-toned green automobile
and yes she wore her Cinderella gown
and he his button-down madras shirt
his hair greased to a D A the swooping wave in front just so
Somewhere on that road
over mapled hills through narrow valleys
sunlight fading but hours before midnight
she must have said something amiss and the evening turned –
pumpkin gone over-ripe & rats sullen & glass slipper shattered
she just a rag-girl concocting another pitiful excuse
for his bottled-up rage
the ruined evening
She threw the dress away
eventually married him
Instructions for Letting Go of a Marriage
Pick the coldest, windiest day of the year.
Sort through piles of letters, birthday cards, promises, vacation plans, annual couple review and wedding vows until you’re sure he did love you.
Hesitate about whether you can burn this evidence. Wonder if your kids would ever like to read it. Decide absolutely not.
Pull an angel card: courage.
Gather matches. Find matchbook from restaurant where you told your parents you were getting married. Decide to burn that too.
Try not to look at dog as you put your coat on. Decide absolutely not to bring dog with you.
Bring dog to park by river. See large sign: NO DOGS ALLOWED.
Let dog off leash. Watch dog chase geese. Watch dog eat geese shit.
Call dog and tie him up.
Put letters in small BBQ grill. Put rocks on top so they won’t blow away.
Take gloves off to light matches. Freeze hands immediately.
Try to light matches. Gale winds. Won’t light. Keep trying dozens of matches until only few matches left.
Decide need another approach.
Walk to boat club next door. Find debris. Try to build windshield. Doesn’t work.
Find large plastic pail. Put letters in bottom. Light match. Wind makes crazy huge flames. Worry going to burn down boat club. Notice dog trying to eat something under dock.
Watch letters burn to ash. Plastic pail has melted too. Find cup to scoop up ashes.
Walk back to park to throw ashes in river. Try not to slip on slippery rocks. Notice all the ashes have already blown out of cup. Laugh out loud.
Start walking home. See only other person for miles around. Next-door neighbor. Says a perky hello. Notice she’s wondering why carrying empty cup, purse, and dog. Wants to chat. Say need to get out of park due to dog eating geese shit.
Wait to feel something shift.
There were 4 of us kids already, 6 people
including my stepfather in 2 bedrooms
I started to cry, bringing another kid into
this house, another mouth, how would we
I didn’t talk to her for 3 days, glaring
at her, tears welled in her eyes
You won’t have to watch after the
baby, her voice quivering, she lied
I always watch all of them as if they
For 6 months, her belly grew, as I
accepted what I didn’t want to see
or know, another one to watch
another diaper to change, a screaming
baby joining with the other 4 to drive
The day came when my stepfather
rushed her to the hospital, he returned
alone proudly announcing he had a son
his first child, his own, would it be 3
days before my mother and this new baby
I looked from afar as the others gleefully
clustered around her with their oohs
and awes, her eyes staring at me
waiting to see a trace of a smile
would I approach, would it take
Wrapped in a blanket, a blue knit cap
on his head, a tiny yawn as he snuggled
against her breast. I quietly asked
could I hold him, reaching out, claiming
him, instantly falling in love, what more to
“You must come at once. I’m so worried and your brother” (the last two words heavily accented to show how little that member of the family belonged to her even though they’d been married for over three years) “has gone away to work. Again. And left me on my own.” In the pauses I could hear a baby crying. Pat (who only answered to Patricia) sighed down the phone. “For goodness sake, you are Algernon’s aunt. I’m at my wit’s end. Bring a bottle of wine.”
I cancelled whatever I was doing and got into the car. I was pleased that Pat had called me. Since she’d had the baby she had made it impossible for me to visit, citing tiredness, overwork, my lack of knowledge of the stresses of motherhood and my well-known dislike of babies. And the fact that I was the sister of her husband who was failing her in every way. But she had called, so I was keen to be seen to be supporting her. Hopeful of redeeming myself.
She answered the door holding a glass of wine and gestured feebly to the drawing room where the peevish whining was soft but persistent. She followed me and plopped onto the sofa. Algie was sitting in his bouncy chair and squirming, pushing his fist into his mouth, drooling and crying, exhausted. Pat threw her head back and closed her eyes.
“I’ve changed him, fed him, sung to him, given him his teething ring, walked around with him. But he still is doing this.” I opened my mouth to speak. “Just don’t tell me he’s teething. I know he’s teething. There’s some wine in the fridge.” The last said as I’d made a move toward Algie to pick him up.
When I returned she was squatting in front of her son with tears in her eyes “I think God is punishing me,” she said. “I love Algernon so much but I’m a sinner and He is going to take my son.” I started to disagree, but she interrupted me. “You know.” She looked sideways at me, accusingly. Remembering her divorce, the abortion, the suicide attempts before she’d met my brother, I kept quiet. As she stood up I moved towards Algie and softly smiled at him.
“Oh poor Algie,” I said, taking his fist and holding it, “poor Algie…” I brushed his cheek. His eyes focused on my face and he gave me a wide vibrant smile, drummed his feet and held out his palms, making a noise of welcome. Turning, Pat saw his expression and pushed past me to snatch her son to her.
“His name is Algernon,” she stated and gave me a look of searing hatred.
The following year they moved to Canada.
The next time I saw Algernon was at his wedding.
to process it – you, falling to the airport
floor, pulse fluttering in your neck
until someone rolled you onto your back,
and the fluttering stopped –
Loss opened the shuttered door
in my heart, walked through again,
stood next to me, put his arm
around me, and said, “There, there.”
We stood there, Loss and I,
watching as strangers knelt around
you, a perfect halo of helpers.
Grief showed up, lending his warmth
to our little huddle. “Hey, girl,”
said Grief, old friend that he is.
“Don’t watch – or maybe, do.
It’ll help later.”
Then Hope joined us, nudging me.
“Take a picture, honey,” she whispered.
“If he comes back, he’ll ask
if you got a picture.”
That made me smile; Hope knows
us so well. I extracted myself
from Grief’s gentle arms and said,
“Excuse me,” without explanation,
because Grief understands.
I stepped into the glory of humanity
around you, took out my phone and
snapped an image of you there,
a large man pumping your chest,
a smaller one holding your head,
checking your pulse, another arriving
with a machine, someone placing
pads with wires on your chest.
“You know,” Loss whispered, trying
to prepare me, “this doesn’t always
But Hope grabbed my hand and,
though no one else did, sang out,
“Clear!” a second before one
of the helpers pushed the button.
And suddenly, there you were, pale
blue eyes open, eyelashes fluttering,
the throng around you able to breathe again,
you, back on our side.
“Bye-bye,” Loss said, releasing me.
“For now,” Grief said, already fading.
“There you go,” Hope whispered,
as my life restarted with one
When I was seven years old, we had the first Christmas tree in the neighborhood with miniature lights that flashed off and on.
My two brothers and I received more gifts than most kids.
We were spanked more often and much harder, for sure.
Little League football and baseball were our life for ten years, along with church, skating, fishing, and swimming. Our dad might have missed one, two games – might have.
Every year during inventory, Dad worked overtime to provide school clothes for all three of us.
Dad taught us to ride motorcycles, roller skate, and fish. We were not allowed guns or skateboards – fifty years later we are still not allowed.
Our dad read the Bible to us every night.
When the bills were caught up, Christmas came along and the bills multiplied.
Our dad had to rob Peter to pay Paul all the time.
Our dad worked hard all day, but always had time to practice football plays in the den or pitch baseballs in the back yard.
You know how it is – we bragged how our dad could beat up other dads in the neighborhood.
The thing is, we really believed she could.
Look at us there, on a perfect night with a perfect full moon, driving home from a dinner party up the canyon. It’s like a scene from a movie. Background music comes from the radio. We add our voices.
On a cool dawn / Of a good life / In a new world / We’re feeling f-i-i-ine . . .
And we trail off, not knowing enough of the words.
The camera captures the moonlight, carefully placed to pour over the child, exquisite in sleep across the back seat.
I tense and press my foot against the floor on the passenger side. He notices these things. On a good day, he says, “Don’t worry, Toots! I haven’t crashed a car for weeks and weeks.” And I relax.
But tonight, he says, “God, Eleanor, will you cut it out?”
I consider saying, “Cut what out?” but realize how disingenuous it sounds. I don’t say anything.
“It was only two drinks,” he says. “Two.” With index and middle fingers, he waves a victory sign in front of my face, and the car swerves almost imperceptibly. I translate this “two” into the more likely six.
He tries logic. “An hour to oxidize one drink, right? And you figure we were there for what, three hours? I was stone sober an hour ago.”
I don’t say anything.
He tries a diversion. “Shit. Did you see Jason Kramer with that grad student out on the back deck? Now that’s wasted. There’s going to be hell to pay when Sarah catches wind of it. Hell to pay.”
He is hoping that I’ll join in, that I’ll agree, connect, recognize his own rock-solid faithfulness and sense of responsibility, that I’ll say, “Oh, poor Sarah to be in that marriage. She doesn’t know what she’s missing, not having what we’ve got.”
But I have caught that repetition of his. He does that when he gets like this – falls in love with a little phrase and uses it to death, as if it’s punctuation. I stare out the window into the darkness and don’t say anything.
He shifts tone again. “Damn it, Eleanor. I am stone sober. You can stop giving me the silent treatment and doing that thing, that thing with your foot.”
And just like a movie, in which the everyday-ness of a scene presages its opposite to follow, just before the car misses a curve and flies off through the moonlight, he repeats, “Stone sober.”
Grief Affects Us All
The call came at 3 a.m. and after that I was wide awake. Got onto the computer and booked a flight to Singapore.
I knew this day would come. Every time I said goodbye, I held my dad a little longer, hoping that wouldn’t be the last time I hugged him.
The flight took 14 hours. I thought of what I would say to guests at the wake. Who would deliver the eulogy? I wrote some things down. I wasn’t crying yet.
Upon landing, I walked straight out to the taxi stand. Dad would have been waiting at Pillar number 4 if he were still alive. His Toyota wasn’t there. No one was.
Mother was playing the drama mama scene, locking herself in the toilet and wailing. This is her modus operandi. It is the Chinese tradition to wail at death. She did it very well.
When she finally came out of the toilet, she surprised me by saying she wouldn’t be going to the wake. Married for 60 years didn’t count for a thing. She said funeral parlours had spirits that would be detrimental to her health. The rest of us took our chances.
My eulogy was never needed. It was a Chinese funeral – lots of monks chanting, with incense and gold paper burning. Condolences came in the form of tax-deductible blankets advertising the names of well-wishers.
It was just as well Mother wasn’t there. Dad’s mistress of 52 years attended. She was distraught and when I met up with her again a few months later, she was a ghost herself, still grieving for the man who was the love of her life. Mother, on the other hand, was a picture of health, wealth (dad left all his money to her), and happiness.
I lifted my hand and touched the cool marble plaque bearing Dad’s face at the crematorium. It was a hug of sorts. The tears finally came.
Sister Romilda (a name she disliked greatly but hadn’t chosen for herself) was up before dawn that raw December morning, listening to the silence. She had tossed through the night, hot on her mattress, tormented by mental images of personal failings and weaknesses and assorted stupidities. Memories of childhood sorrow. Memories of adulthood shame and regret. Things had gotten to the point where she dreaded climbing into bed, knowing that once she closed her eyes, the horror show would begin and a host of recriminating demons would flay her alive, spooling scenes from her Hieronymus Bosch internal world, informing her with great relish that hers had been a sour, wasted life.
Perhaps because she was almost 80, sharply aware that each breath brought her closer to crossing the veil between this life and the next, with scant hope of making things right again, the taunting reveries seared her soul like steak on a grill.
Under the glow of her reading lamp, she sat alone in her study, earnestly mouthing her morning prayers. She considered the many volumes of spiritual reading that lined her orderly shelves – classic memoirs, daily meditations, inspirational devotions, sacred texts – and plucked her beloved copy of The Cloud of Unknowing. Mystics soothed her. But she couldn’t concentrate. She replaced the book and opened her worn daily missal. “There will be signs in the sun and moon…” her Advent reading began.
In the stillness, she humbled herself. She read and petitioned and praised. She drained a final cup of tea and slipped into the chapel for 7 a.m. Mass. From there, she lumbered along the shoveled cobblestone walk to a low brick building, a school for developmentally disabled children, where she had been a well-regarded teacher since its doors first opened decades ago.
Sister Romilda arrived in her classroom early and opened the blinds. She fussed with the thermostat and straightened a stack of tablets on her desk. The first of her young students entered the room. He was a straw-haired boy with Down syndrome, just turned six, with a bright and inquiring face. His pale eyes were preternaturally direct.
“Good morning, Jeffrey,” she said, then helped him wrestle with the stuck zipper on his parka.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it? Did you see how the snow glittered in the sun?”
“So, let’s say a little morning prayer,” she began. She traced the sign of the cross over her starched, black-robed body. “Let’s do this together, Jeffrey.”
“I think I’ll just smile,” the child said.
The Boy Next Door
The boy next door killed himself fifty years ago. He went down to the basement and hanged himself. He was sixteen and a nice-looking boy. His hair was dark brown as were his eyes. He had a lopsided smile and a small purple scar above his right eye. He often sat in his backyard reading.
He had the reputation of a loner, but had some close friends. We met them at his funeral: three teenage boys somber in navy blue suits and a slender, blonde girl, all bowed in grief.
His mother and father were the usual upward bound couple living in our suburban town. They espoused liberal causes while purchasing the latest model cars, televisions, and upper-class gadgets. Their children, they boasted, would go to top colleges.
In the fall of 1969, they went to Washington to march against the Vietnam War. His younger sister, Susan, went with them.
They’d tried to persuade him to go but he refused. He was a junior in high school and too old to have a babysitter. Finally it was agreed that he could remain home if had no more than two friends over at once.
We spoke to him the day before he killed himself. He was reading the poems of Robert Frost as he sat in his back yard. My husband and I asked if he would join us for a cookout that night. He said he had a date but thanked us, almost too profusely.
When I replay that afternoon, I wonder if he had already made his decision or was in the process of doing so.
His parents found his body on their return from Washington. During the aftershocks of grief, I can imagine them blaming themselves and each other. We blamed ourselves.
Why hadn’t we insisted that he come for dinner? Why hadn’t we realized how very young he was? Why didn’t we ask him who his date was and would he like to bring her too? Did he actually have a date? Why had we been so casual about our invitation? Why hadn’t we realized that something within him was hurting, was terribly wrong?
His parents divorced the following year.
We stayed together although we had our problems.
After a while we moved to another town. I think of him every October.
I remember clearly that the leaves were dropping golden-red and brownish upon our manicured lawns. His name was Bernard. Not many youngsters have the name Bernard these days. It’s an old-fashioned name, a name that resides in the imagination after all the currently popular names have disappeared.