It’s been almost a year since Aunt Val died. Though we were all promised that her house would remain in the family, it has been sold, and there are many things to be picked up and moved out.
My dad has asked me to help him pick up a china cabinet that is intended for my mother. I wonder why he didn’t have my younger, stronger brother help out, but I don’t ask. I’m always happy when my dad wants to do things together.
We ride in comfortable silence. I’m lost in thought, wondering what I could talk to my dad about: baseball? the kids? my family? work? We end up talking about them all and the drive passes very quickly.
As we drive down Aunt Val’s street, it hits me: this is it. I will never make this drive, this drive that I’ve made since I was in a car seat, again. I’ve been asked to help my dad move furniture, but I’m really here to say goodbye to this house that’s been part of my life since I was a child.
A tremendous sadness consumes me as we back into the driveway.
I exchange polite hellos with Aunt Val’s daughter, who is responsible for the sale of the house, and walk inside.
It’s the first time I’ve been here since her death. The house feels cold and empty. The furniture is gone, the walls are mostly bare, and Aunt Val’s warmth and love is missing.
Certain things remain strangely untouched: her bookcase, filled to overflowing with pictures of the family. Children’s artwork . . . some of it mine . . . still dominates the side of the living room, the recliners where my great grandparents spent the last ten years of their lives opposite. I remember sitting in my Papa’s chair while Aunt Val sat next to me, watching Love Boat and Fantasy Island, thrilled that I was staying up past my bedtime, watching shows intended for grownups, putting one over on my parents who would often drop my siblings and me off for the weekend.
I loved those weekends. When we spent time with Aunt Val we were loved. We were the center of the universe and though she was well into her 70s, she would play with us, walk with us to the corner store to get snacks, let us stay up late. It was wonderful.
In the living room, the table where Aunt Val would put the artificial tree at Christmas is gone, though its footprints still mark the carpet. In my mind, I put it back, fill the space beneath it with gifts, warm the air with the laughter and love of the entire family gathered around it, singing songs and sipping cider.
I blink and the room is empty again. The warm light of memory is replaced with the harsh sunlight of the fading afternoon. Aunt Val’s dog Missy noses at my hand, asking to go outside.
I lead her toward the patio doors. Aunt Val’s dining room table, where the adults would sit at reunions and holiday meals, is still there, covered in paperwork and trash. Her daughter’s ashtray overflows. It’s a little obscene.
When I was little, Aunt Val would always sit at the card table – the kids table – with us, and when I was 14 or so I was moved to the adult’s table. The next year I begged to be granted a spot with her at the kids table again.
Missy is impatient. She urges me through the kitchen. I look at the cabinet where my great grand-parents kept their Sugar Corn Pops cereal. Regardless of the time of day my brother and sister and I would arrive at her house, we were always hungry for cereal.
Aunt Val was always happy to oblige.
This cabinet, which I couldn’t even reach, which held much mystery and wonder, is now empty, and at my eye level. I am sad that my own children will never get to look up at its closed door and proclaim themselves starving with a hunger that can only be cured by a trip to the Honeycomb hideout.
The kitchen counters are littered with dishes and glasses. Notes written in Aunt Val’s handwriting still cling to the refrigerator, surrounded by my cousin Josh’s schoolwork.
They say that when a house is passed over by a tornado, it can do strange things to the things inside. They say that sometimes a whole room can be destroyed and the table will still be set, candlesticks standing, untouched by the violence of the storm. As I look at the refrigerator, unchanged in nearly a year, I wonder why some things have been left alone, while others have been completely dismantled. It’s like a half-hearted attempt has been made to honor her memory.
I walk onto the patio. Missy runs after a bird and disappears around the corner of the house, leaving me alone.
I stand there, knowing that it will be for the last time. I see the backyard through the eyes of a child, a teenager, an adult, a parent. I look at Aunt Val’s pool and remember when I was so small, riding around it on a Big Wheel seemed to take all day. I remember playing with my cool Trash Compactor Monster in the shallow end, before I was big enough to brave the deep end and its mysteries, with my older cousins. I remember being unable to ever successfully complete a flip off the diving board and reflexively rub my lower back.
I look at the slide, and the sobs which have been threatening since I walked into the house begin.
In summer of last year, I took my stepkids, Ryan and Nolan, to spend the day with Aunt Val. The three of us sat with her on the patio, eating hot dogs she’d grilled for us, drinking punch she’d made. The kids talked eagerly with her about their plans for the rest of the summer and the upcoming school year. I watched her listen to them, the same way she’d listened to me say the same things 20 years earlier, happy that they were getting to share in her unconditional love the way I had.
We went swimming, Nolan and Ryan both doing cannonballs and flips, Aunt Val always giving them an approving, “Good for you, kiddo!” after each trick.
God, I can hear her voice as I write this.
When they grew tired of diving board tricks, they took to the slide, going head-first, on their backs, on their knees.
Ryan was sitting at the top of the slide, waiting for Nolan to get out of the landing area, when he screamed and raced into the water. I immediately knew something was wrong, and rushed to the water’s edge to meet him.
I got him out and saw that he’d been stung by a wasp.
I dried his tears, patched him up with baking soda and some Tylenol, and prepared to spend the rest of the afternoon inside, watching TV.
Aunt Val wouldn’t hear any of that. She picked up a broom and some Raid, and marched out to the nest of angry wasps, which we now knew was just beneath the upper edge of the slide. The wasps were pretty pissed and beginning to swarm, but I couldn’t stop my 84-year-old great aunt from wiping them out so the kids could continue to play.
I look at the slide, and remember how scared I was that she’d get stung and would go into shock. I remember how much fun the kids had with her.
I recall a thought I had back then, watching her battle with those wasps: Aunt Val isn’t going to be with us forever. Some day I’m going to stand here and she’ll be gone and I’ll cry.
So I cry. I miss her. I miss her. I miss her. I miss her. It’s not fair that she died. It’s not fair at all. I miss her. She was in perfect health one day and the next she was gone. It’s not fair and I miss her and I have to say goodbye to this house and that’s not fair either.
The finality of her loss takes hold and refuses to let go. I cry until my sides hurt and my throat is dry. My cheeks are soaked, my nose is running. It’s fitting that as I bid farewell to the house and person who played such an important part in my childhood, I sob like a child.
After several minutes, I pull myself together, take a hard look at the backyard, run my hand along the slide.
“Goodbye,” I say.
I walk back into the house, and I help my dad load the china cabinet into the car. It is heavy and cuts into my hands as I lift it. I’m nervous about dropping it.
Aunt Val’s daughter comes out of the house. I want to scream at her for selling off this enormous part of my childhood, but I don’t. I continue tying down the cabinet, tell her goodbye and get into the car.
We pull out of the driveway and drive down the street for the last time.
I speak effusively with my dad on the way home. I talk about the kids. I talk about work. I talk about the Dodgers, and I ask lots of questions about when I was a kid. I want to cherish this time with him, make the most of it. I don’t want to waste any of the time we have together.
When we get to their house with the china cabinet, my mom asks me how it was being at Aunt Val’s house.
“Tough,” I say.
We unload the china cabinet. My dad hugs me tightly and thanks me for helping with him. I tell them that I love them and I drive home, silent and alone.