My mom called right before Thanksgiving. “I sold the house,” she said. “But there might be another box in the attic.”
“Might be another box” was shorthand for “do another once-over of the house.” I didn’t mind; the shock of selling had lifted since my mother made the decision last year. The place had gotten too big for someone with failing eyesight living alone. Moving into a nearby senior community made perfect sense for someone who didn’t drive, who didn’t need a garage, three bathrooms or an outside fridge. She could enjoy more time with old friends who lived there already, without having to bother anyone for rides to Publix, the doctor, to dinner, to anywhere.
My folks built the house in 1968, after my old man left the Air Force and they returned to Tampa. It was nothing special, a single-story, cinder block that developers were spitting out by the gross to attract young families to Temple Terrace.
The front door opened into a foyer. The living room was to the right. You weren’t allowed in there. Straight ahead was the kitchen, and to the right, the dining room and Florida room, that catch-all space where we spent most of our time. The bedrooms and bathrooms were down the hall. My folks later added another bedroom suite. We had a grapefruit tree out front, and a sour orange tree in back that yielded nothing but painful puncture wounds and rats. The house was safe and full. We kids had our chores, cleaning my dad’s pipe and raking the shag carpet before company came. On Saturday nights, my brother and I would open a bedroom window to hear the cars racing at Golden Gate Speedway.
Temple Terrace grew as we did. There were boys for me and Jim, and girls for the girls. We rode our bikes to school and the pool, and the parents at Corpus Christi Catholic School were as close as the kids. The house buzzed every weekend, with people coming and going through unlocked doors from swim meets, Little League, birthday parties, rehearsals or a grapefruit fight at the ditch. Our Christmas Eve parties drew hordes, with the grownups downing Canadian Club and olive dip before tottering off to midnight Mass.
Over time, the house’s rhythm changed. We attended high school a half-hour away, meaning new friends and new routines. Slumber parties gave way to night and weekend jobs, and the home stretch of preparing for our own, separate paths. The only house my parents bought is also where the marriage unraveled. When things got tough, my dad headed outside with the hose. We had the greenest yard on the block.
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One by one, the bedrooms emptied. And the pictures of Trish, John, Jim and Laura moved farther down the hall, making way for cousins, brides, husbands and babies, new generations that needed the wall space. We still had Christmas and Easter and Sunday dinners at the house. My fiancee, Sue, got dressed here the day we got married. But life was moving on inside and outside these walls.
My mom took the evolving cycle with her usual sense of practicality and command. She bought new furniture, changed the carpet and put in a pool out back where we used to bury our hamsters and cats. But over time, even with help from her brother and my brother, she tired of maintaining the American dream. The housekeeper cleaned bedrooms that hadn’t been lived in for decades. My mom never regretted giving up the car keys, but she felt isolated and needy, two things alien to her. We came to realize what she knew already: The house that held us together was holding her back.
So back to that box in the attic. I met my brother at the house on Sunday and poked my head into the opening above the garage. There wasn’t another box up there, just a couple chemistry books, our old baby crib and my dad’s snare drum from high school.
We took the few remaining boxes of stuff to the street and cracked a last beer in the driveway. The rain picked up as a junk man came along and stopped his truck at the curb. He waved and started throwing a stranger’s junk into a trailer already crowded with somebody else’s from yesterday.
John Hill is an editorial writer with the Times.