I notice he has thrown away some color slides — family pictures. The bag breaks and they spill out. I don’t say anything, just pick them up off the driveway and put them in a new, untorn bag.
We go to the dump in the rain. Many trips. My 87-year-old uncle’s dump car is the vehicle. Dad canceled the trash pickup too soon: “They’re thieves,” he says, commenting on what they charge to haul other than household waste away.
We show no mercy. Everything goes. But first we have to separate it. Metal goes into the back seat; wood into the trunk. We pile the garbage bags on top of both. The car is an Army-green 1973 Catalina — itself a candidate for the dump. On the way, we pray it won’t fail us. At stop lights my father guns it.
It’s July. My mother’s birthday comes along, a day or two into the work. My father mentions it, saying we should visit the cemetery. Visit Jo is the notation in his appointment book. But I dissuade him — there is too much to be done; besides, not being the cemetery-visiting type, I haven’t been back since the funeral, this same time last year. I tell him, “We’re doing this in her honor instead.”
I meet the man, named David, who has bought the house. He wears a polo shirt, baggy shorts, and Docksiders. There will be a Volvo parked in our driveway hereafter. He has brought his sons, Daniel and Brian, who head for the old sporting equipment. I anticipate a basketball hoop over the garage; a baseball through a window. David will pay $4000 a month for the privilege of living in this house my father built, in 1952, while he was working as a carpenter, before he became a building inspector for the town. David tells me his wife collects birdhouses, and they’re going to make the bookshelves in the den a showcase for her collection. He says they certainly noticed the birdhouse nailed to a tree on the property. My father’s handiwork, it comes with the house. Reasonably priced houses here in Greenwich, Connecticut, are easy to sell, but after David and his boys leave, I tell my father I’d wager the birdhouse had something to do with this sale.
My sister arrives for the day, from Pennsylvania, just back from sailing in the Caribbean. She doesn’t look happy to be here. Neither do her son and daughter. Laura went to bed at 2:00 a.m.; John, not at all. Laura lies on the couch, languidly reading her yearbook. John schleps a few large things but otherwise is scarce.
My father and I are selling the big pieces through classified ads; the little stuff will go at the yard sale — called tag sales in our part of the country. At lunchtime I sell my father’s bed to a hard-bargaining Haitian grandmother, her daughter, and granddaughter, who have come from Stamford, the next town over. My father will sleep on the floor. I myself am sleeping on the floor in my old bedroom upstairs. We agree that floors can be comfortable. The threesome buys the kitchen table, too, which Janet and kids are using for lunch. I sell it right out from under them.
African-Americans from over the New York state line buy his bureaus and nightstands. Many brothers arrive to carry them away. Our load is getting lighter.
Every night one or the other of us makes dinner, often going out to the garage to get a needed item — say, the colander — with its price tag on it, ready for the tag sale. We eat the ancient canned vegetables and things from the freezer.
We take walks. When he huffs and puffs up an incline that I barely notice, I remember his heart attack ten years ago. Trying to gauge its severity, the doctor prompted him with the classic simile: “Did it feel like an elephant was sitting on your chest?” “A small elephant,” my father conceded.
We watch movies that I pick out at the video store. It’s difficult making a selection that I think we’ll both enjoy. Bridge Over the River Kwai is a good choice; Nixon, less so, although together we feel sorry for the Anthony Hopkins president.
He looks for his glasses. I suggest he get a cord for them, to wear around his neck. “I don’t want to look like Mrs. Doubtfire,” he tells me. I say, “You won’t! You’ll look like a boomer. We’ve all got them now.” He remains unconvinced.
He will be remarried in two months’ time. Her name is Darlene. “A nice, nice person” — always his highest compliment for anyone. Niceness: the true test of character. When he said he thought it was too soon, I told him the Arthur Rubinstein story. As I heard it, Rubinstein met his future wife, fell in love, and three days later married her. “Wasn’t that foolish?” someone asked Rubinstein. “Yes,” he said, “I wasted three days.”
At the tag sale the tools go fast. A man on his way to his dishwashing job at the country club, on foot, buys a table, walking away with it balanced it on his head. At the end we count the money. It’s something like $700. In a surprise, symbolic move he hands me half. We’re partners.
September 10, 1997 — 45 years after our family moved in, he spends his last night in the house. The following morning he flies to Chicago, Darlene, his new life. I’ve always been proud that he built the house we lived in; now I’m proud because he could walk away from it, with little more than his toothbrush.
I’ve been back to 27 Morningside Drive, seeing from the car what I could. The shutters have been painted hunter green; there is a new front door. I am sure that if I asked for one, I would be given a tour. I would see the birdhouses where books used to be; the boys busy with their balls and bats. But what would it mean to me? That’s another story.
This article is part of the Father's Day issue. To read additional articles from this issue, click here.