My Parents’ House

little dress edited

The car slides smoothly off the transport trailer. I tip the driver, scribble my name on a clipboard, and slide behind the wheel of my Dad’s 2005 Grand Marquis. When I turn the key, it starts right up. I adjust the mirrors and the seat and maneuver it into my driveway.

This car is the last tie to the place where I grew up. Until yesterday, it was sitting on the street in front of my old house, even though the house doesn’t belong to us anymore. Inside, it smells like my dad’s dental laboratory, a sweetish blend of chemical aromas. Stored inside the trunk is the piano bench, destined for my sister’s house: the piano bench I sat on to practice my scales, the bench my sister and cousin shared at every family Thanksgiving, the bench I hid behind that time I came home with an unfortunate report card.

It is late in July when I cross the sidewalk to the house for the final time. A young family has bought it, and they are eager to move in. I take an Uber from the airport, and it reminds me all over again that Dad is gone—rain or snow, sleet or sun, my father would always pick me up. But now his car is parked in front of the house, the handicapped permit still swinging from the rearview mirror.

I wriggle the key in the lock and push open the door. The house looks neglected, a thin film of dust settled on everything and gathering in corners. My mother, who cleaned it herself, would be horrified.

I want to visit my mom’s favorite hiding places one more time. I search the back of the liquor cabinet, the eaves in the attic, the sub-basement. As any child of Holocaust survivors will tell you, they hide valuables, just in case they have to make a quick getaway. Squatting in the squashy cement bunker under the kitchen, I notice a couple of beer bottles left over from an epic party my brother threw three decades ago, but none of Mom’s signature stashes. With justifiable fear, I climb the rickety ladder to the attic. Hanging bags and dusty bridesmaid gowns obscure the yellow glow from the naked bulb, but it throws just enough light to strike paydirt; I discover my father’s army uniform and my brother’s long-lost varsity jacket. But if there is a jar concealing money or jewelry tucked away, I don’t find it.

In the dining room, moving boxes already line the walls, awaiting the shipper. I uncover a few more treasures: black and white photos of my dad in the army, my brother’s Dungeons and Dragons guide. The sequinned tutu I wore to my first (and only) dance recital. The milk glass bowls we set out every Pesach filled with Seder staples, salt water, parsley and potatoes. Lovingly, I surround them in bubble wrap and nest them in some towels. With regret, I leave the 1920s sewing machine. It’s just too heavy. And where will I put it? I pack only two boxes.

When it’s time to leave, I don’t look back. The house isn’t the home I remember. In the backyard, the colorful patio tiles where we rode our bikes and threw barbecues look faded and chipped. The garden where Mom and Dad grew green beans, tomatoes and cucumbers has been overtaken by weeds.

It used to feel like the house was waiting for my parents to return, but not anymore. Now the kitchen feels abandoned. My mother’s Chabad calendars are gone, the baby photos of me and my siblings, gone, the drawings my children sent her, gone. The smells of chicken soup and gefilte fish, all gone. The walls are bare, shadowed with faded rectangles where pictures used to hang.

As I lock the door, I wish the house goodbye and good luck. I am excited for the family that will move in here. I hope they will be happy. As the Uber whisks me away, it strikes me that this is probably the last time I will drive down this street.

A month later, our boxes arrive at my sister’s house. Her dining room table disappears beneath my mom’s precious collections; cut crystal decanters, porcelain plates from Bavaria, a riot of jewel-toned champagne classes. A silver besamim holder in the shape of a miniature castle with little flags, glass vases blown and pulled like taffy. The heavy goose-down quilt my grandmother ordered in Germany, sternly watching the merchant stuff it to ensure that she was getting the weight she had paid for. Things we jokingly fought over for decades, claiming dibs, not really believing that the era of having parents and a house to go home to would ever pass.

My emotions take me by surprise. I thought this occasion would be sad, but it feels more like a celebration. We eat, we tease each other, we laugh, we retell old stories. It’s good to see Mom and Dad’s possessions here, with us, and not sitting dusty and unused in a china cabinet in Chicago.

Rosh Hashanah begins tonight. A new year, a new chapter in our lives. We are created by our pasts, but we are responsible for our own futures. As I find places for my parents’ collectibles, I think of the joy they took in coming to visit us, from spending holidays together, in playing with my children. I think of what I learned from them. And I vow to do better this year.

About the Author
Helen Maryles Shankman is an artist and author. Her book, "They Were Like Family to Me," originally published as "In the Land of Armadillos," was a finalist for The Story Prize in 2016 and won an Honorable Mention for the 2017 ALA Sophie Brody Medal for Achievement in Jewish Literature. Her stories have been published in many fine literary journals, including The Kenyon Review,, Gargoyle, and Cream City Review. She is a columnist at The New Jersey Jewish Standard.
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