Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Sign

The sign is actually quite simple, just the realtor’s name, his company, and contact information. It stands to the right of the stairs that lead up to the front porch. Because it's a windy day, the sign sways, but the post that anchors it, remains steady.

The sign must’ve been planted when I was elsewhere in the house because this is my first sighting. From my window view, I see that the message is printed on both sides. Good idea, I think, that way passersby coming from either direction, can learn that our house is up for sale.

I say "our” house because I can't yet bring myself to omit my husband from its ownership. And perhaps that's one reason I hesitated in allowing the sign to be erected in the first place.

"Can we put it on the market without a sign?" I had asked my realtor.

"If that's what you want, that's fine," he said.

"I'm just not ready."

"No problem."

I'm not sure why I balked. After all, my neighbors have followed my life and Tommy's illness with steady concern and support, and are all aware of my decision. "We hate to see you go," they had said, "but we understand."

Nearly 13 years ago, when we first bought the house, these neighbors came to our door bearing a flowering plant and a plate of cookies. "Welcome," they said, and then handed me a flyer for a block party that was scheduled later that month.

One by one, I met nearly everyone on our street. I’ve been witness to pregnant bellies and adoptions that brought forth children whom I’ve watched sprout taller every year. And, I’ve seen puppies grow from wild frolickers to snoozers on front lawns.

The block parties continue as annual events, and each year spread further up and down the closed-off street as new young families discover us. "We've blossomed into a small-town square, straight out of Norman Rockwell," is how I described our last party.

Perhaps Tommy’s and my entry into the neighborhood all those years ago was made easier because of our own Golden Retriever, for this is a dog-addicted neighborhood. There’s a park at the end of our block that attracts early risers who meet daily to release their pets to delirious chasing of tennis balls, and one another.

After our dog died in June at the age of 14, I'd still return to the park at the morning light and imagine Buddy in the mix. He was just 1-1/2 years old when we chose him from a shelter. For a few weeks after he was gone, I'd return to the park with my jacket pockets still filled with treats, a tennis ball, and a plastic bag. I'd sit on a bench and chat with friends while watching the dogs play. Eventually, though, I deposited a half dozen balls on one neighbor's porch, and boxes of treats on another's.

As I think of it, perhaps I didn't want to put up the for-sale sign because I thought it would break Tommy's heart, even if he might be too remote to notice. "Feet first," he'd say whenever anyone would ask if we'd ever leave.

Lately though, I believe my husband would approve of my decision to sell and move to a rental apartment. He knows I'm useless with a hammer, am terrified of a power mower, and need more than a stepladder to change a lightbulb. These were his tasks, and I’m certain he’d rather I keep my hands off them.

Because of the way he cared for me during our 16 years together (2 as sweethearts, and 14 as wedded), I don't think Tommy's keen on me living here alone, despite the safety of our neighborhood. In fact, as I do the nightly security check: lock windows and doors, turn on outside lights, and draw the drapes, I can sense him in my shadow, double-checking my work.

I realize that in the morning, when I do the reverse of the nighttime check, when I open the drapes, turn off the porch lights, and unlock the front door to retrieve the newspapers, the first thing I'll spot is the sign. Perhaps I should brace myself for the expected pang.

But it could be, that after a night’s sleep, I’ll see it in a different light -- not as a prompt of old memories, but as guidepost to my new chapter.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Without A Trace

"It might be best if you stash some of the family pictures," the realtor says. "People coming through want a clean landscape; no traces of the current owner."

I realize he's trying to be gentle for he's aware of the circumstances that led to my putting my house on the market.  I'm not offended by his suggestion. We’re a team with the same goal: sell my three-bedroom house, which has become too large and too lonely without my husband. If successful, then move me into a rental apartment that will better suit my budget and solo life.

"I guess I could de-clutter," I say. My gaze travels around the rooms on the first floor. The dining room table holds a framed photograph of Tommy on his Schwinn. I love that picture because it's testimony to his amazing spirit. Despite my husband's challenges, he'd hop on his bike every afternoon, while I'd stand watch at the window and pace until he returned.

I hit pause on my reverie and promised the realtor, "I'll handle it before the showing."

"Take your time," he says, and puts a hand on my shoulder that tells me he sympathizes.

When he leaves, I move to our upright, its top decorated with photos of two different Golden Retrievers, beloved pets who gave us 9 and 14 years of sweet companionship. Where to hide these temporarily? The piano bench! I open the lid and place the three pictures on the Rogers and Hart Songbook.

The second floor is the real challenge, for it's not only Tommy and the dogs hogging every surface and shelf, but daughters, grandchildren, and my brother and his family. All smiling back at me with memories of our younger, innocent, hopeful selves.

I slow my task because each photo must be studied. Their backstories flash in front of me, like the crawl at the bottom of a TV screen. Instead of sports scores or weather advisories, the line that enters my vision reminds me: This one must've been taken 16 years ago because my oldest grandson is just a baby here. My daughters and their partners, Tommy and I, and Sasha, the first of our dogs, are sprawled across our queen-sized bed.

Everyone in the scene gleams. The joy of a new grandchild and the feeling of family togetherness are palpable. Now that I think of it, I believe some of Tommy's happiness in that photo was due to this new family he has won. With no children of his own, my second husband relished his sudden role as stepfather to my vibrant daughters.

Without a piano bench to use as storage, I find a carton to hold the second floor's larger collection. I lift a photo from a book shelf. It displays my husband and me and my brother and sister-law. We are at some party that I can't recall, but it must've been special because the men are in sport jackets and the women in fancy clothing. "Is anything wrong with Tommy?" is the line that this photo generates. "He seems to be repeating things."

"It's not Alzheimer's," I tell my brother. "He forgot to take his thyroid meds for several weeks and he's a bit muddled." Wishful thinking, I realize now. Not Alzheimer's, but the first evidence of a brain degeneration as miserable as the better-known illness.

There are wedding photos everywhere. Tommy and I posed as newlyweds; smiles nearly as bright as the Las Vegas lights in the hotel we've picked for our venue. Here's a crowd photo of my daughters, their partners, my grandson now a toddler, my brother and sister-in-law, and friends who could fly in for our January 13, 1998 wedding. I gather all of these testaments to our happy union, then open a dresser drawer to tuck them in.

On the nightstand next to our bed, I not only have another framed photo of my husband, but also his watch, wallet, and wedding band. I've set them here as a makeshift alter -- my last stop for a goodnight chat before heading under the covers. One-by-one, I place  each totem in a drawer. But once strangers traverse my clean landscape, I'll  retrieve and return his beloved possessions to their rightful spot.

When I am finished de-cluttering, and my home no longer bares traces of my old life, I head out the door. The realtor is due soon with a prospect. I hope they have children, a dog, and, please, a camera.