What do you take, what do you leave behind?

My father-in-law is moving.

Last Tuesday, as I drove various kids home from afterschool activities, navigating the traffic clogging Routes 17, my husband was wandering through the house he grew up in, noting down lists of his favorite things. His father is moving to an apartment, and has begun to deaccess. Already, the chest of drawers in Jon’s old bedroom is missing, the cheerful primitive paintings that lined the hallway, gone. One sister-in-law would like to keep her mother’s china; another sister-in-law wants books. My husband stuffs his car with objects packed with emotional meaning; a vintage hat collection, the Navajo rug from his room, the nineteenth-century train poster that hung over his bed. On his list, he jots down sentimental favorites; a beloved tufted couch, a collection of buttonhooks, a Civil War sword. A statue in the backyard of a boy holding a rabbit, a stone salute to the boy my husband used to be.

Though we are reluctantly beginning to deal with the reality of aging parents, I still think of myself as the mother of little kids. My calendar is marked with sleepovers and carpools, book reports and Lego conventions. The hope that my parents or my in-laws will invite us home for the holidays still lingers, the ghost of a time when I could surrender all that planning and preparation to a responsible and comforting adult. Robert Frost wrote, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” The fact that we have parents who are formulating plans to move out of our childhood homes—homes that were our whole world when we were tiny and from which we sallied forth into the world when we grew up–is nearly incomprehensible.

My father-in-law’s home is a lovely and peaceful refuge, a place of filtered light, sparkling crystal, luxurious fabrics, and the glow of polished wood. When I picture it, my charming, gracious, majestic mother-in-law leaps into my mind’s eye, greeting us at the door, draped in one of her Egyptian kaftans, welcoming us in as the smell of something wonderful cooking on the stove wafts through the air. The living room is a microcosm of the world she created; lacquered wooden boxes from places like Spain and Czechoslovakia, an intricate Persian rug, Japanese Imari porcelain, framed Russian Constructivist posters, a ridiculously comfy silk velvet couch. Photographs of my in-laws with household-name politicians. Displays of treasures and doodads and memorabilia collected from far-away lands, when they used to travel.

But Mom has been gone for a while now, and Dad has made the decision to move to a smaller place.

What do you take, what do you leave behind? How do you cram a lifetime of memories into a one-bedroom apartment?

I don’t want to think about any of this. Remember, I still occupy the world of car pools, little league baseball, themed birthday parties. Some buried part of me is still waiting for that phone call, inviting us home for Thanksgiving.

However, I do have to think about it. Since I lost my own mother, my father has grown increasingly frail and dependent. He still lives in our old house in Chicago, the city he adores, though my siblings and I migrated to the east coast after college. One of these days, we keep reminding each other, he will have to move closer to us. The question of “where” is a loaded subject, still to be determined. But the subject of emptying the house is unthinkable, a virtual no-fly zone.

How do you downsize a house full of happy memories so that it will fit into a one-bedroom apartment?

Jon says it’s simple if you think of it this way. If your house was on fire, what would you grab first?

And then it’s simple. The pictures.

There may not be room in my father-in-law’s new dining room for the table that once sat twenty, but there will be room for that photograph of our family milling around it at Thanksgiving dinner, laughing together. There may not be space in his new living room for the model boat collection, or the hat collection, or the antique cane collection, but there will be room for photographs of his grandchildren posing for pictures in his top hat, his derby, and his World War I helmet, wielding his antique walking sticks, the Persian rug under their feet, the model boat collection in the background.

It’s not about things. It’s about memories.

When the time comes to move my dad out of our old house, I know it won’t be easy. But I also know this. I won’t be clinging to the couch, or the dishes, or the furniture from my bedroom. I know what I want.

The photo albums.

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," is a finalist for The Story Prize. Her stories have been published in many fine literary journals, including The Kenyon Review, Jewishfiction.net, Gargoyle, and Cream City Review. She is a columnist at The New Jersey Jewish Standard.