We rent. Most of our friends own. And sometimes I think one quarter of my brain power is dedicated to agonizing over whether, when, or how to buy a house. It’s the topic all casual conversation eventually devolves into sooner or later when you’re living in the San Francisco Bay Area.
When my mother died, she left our childhood house to my sister Alice and me. As representative of her estate, I agonized over what to do with it. “Live in it for a while,” friends advised, “and save money for your own house while it appreciates.” I would like to save for a house, for Zoë and Cleo’s sake, but I couldn’t imagine living back in my little hometown, Martinez, surrounded by oil refineries and a 40-minute drive from the Berkeley community I love. I considered renting it out, but I had nightmares about insurance, taxes, and basement meth labs. Meanwhile, a local guy had grown fond of our strange little fixer of a house. Recently divorced and looking for a pet project, he came recommended by a trusted friend and gave us a reasonable offer. It made sense to sell the house to him.
But I had to weigh that sense against the feel of our place: the cool morning air, a soft breeze off the Carquinez Straights, the mockingbirds scolding squirrels in the nectarine tree, the thump of a green apple dropping into the dry grass. I had to weigh reason against the familiar crack in the concrete side steps, where I first learned to sweep and Ma praised my hard work when I was ten, against the fern I rooted in a glass of water and planted next to those steps when I was 12.
I stood for a long time looking at the big, white peace sign Ma painted on the center pane of the front windows decades ago. I knew this was more important to me than obtaining appraisals and comps or calling my real-estate friend for help with a sales contract.
So I sat on it. I sat in it. I watered the yard, trimmed the trees, and wandered from room to dirty room, peeling up a corner of carpet here, a scrap of wallpaper there. Again and again, I returned to a particular patch of wall in the small room that had once been the nursery, though it had doubled as Ma’s library and bedroom for several decades since; the paint had peeled away to reveal the pastel blue and soft pink stripes of our childhood room. Seeing those colors in that particular pattern pulled at my heart in a way I sought out over and over again.
From time to time, my sister, Alice, called from Seattle.
“How’s it going with the house?”
“Oh, slowly. It’s hard to get a lot done, what with the kids and all, but you’ll get some probate papers to sign next week.”
It would have been harder to say, “I cried all morning, sitting beside that Myer lemon tree.” The kids wouldn’t get to pick fruit at Gram’s house any more, once I sold it. They would forget why we went to that place, forget all that was once inside, forget Gram. Maybe, I thought, I should photograph the wallpaper, the cracks in the side step, and the place in the back of Ma’s closet where one of us kids clumsily scrawled the F-word about a million years ago.
But what would be the use of that? Zoë and Cleo would inherit boxes of unlabeled photographs of strange people and things, just as I have. They would probably feel the same helplessness and despair I now do, realizing that though the photos are not that old, the faces are already forgotten. Of these bones piled upon bones, the only meaningful record is not in the nameless photographs but in the nuclei of my daughters’ cells, the genetic pattern of our ancestors carried within them, unconsciously, through life. Maybe I wanted to hold onto all the details of home because in letting go, I, too, could be forgotten.
Place connects us to our past through a cord of memory. We go home to pull the cord, thinking we can retrieve our past, but what we get is only a memory, and even that is malleable. The act of remembering revises the memory as we add to it the context of our present lives. I worried about what probate did to my memory of Ma, about the paper entity she had become in my mind: court case P04-00797, a number I’d typed into so many forms that it was as familiar to me as a surname. I was afraid that she and Daddy and the life we all had in that home would become two-dimensional, paper-thin.
I needn’t have worried. Ma is not trapped among the papers in my accordion case file; she’s still here. Once, about a month after she died, I was writing at my desk when she appeared, standing on the street below my study, arms folded, looking up at me full of fierce and protective mother-love. This was the long-ago, young, and capable Ma, the one who’d been in charge of Alice and me when we were little. I saw the slight flex in her calf muscle as she stood rooted to that spot. I saw her eyes reflecting the light of my window. I saw her blink and stir, in the unique way of my Ma. Maybe that’s what a ghost is: a memory so vibrant you can hear the rustle of the wind in her dress. In the end, the accuracy of that memory is irrelevant; it’s the fact of it that comforts.
A full year after Ma’s death, I finally gathered the comps, got the appraisal, and completed the forms required to sell the house. Acceptance is the flip side of fear. I had had to sit there and love my family, love my past, and absorb the feeling of that home. It had taken a year of weekly visits to come to peace.
Monday morning, I went to court, where a commissioner gave me permission to distribute Ma’s assets. In a sense, I was almost finished putting her to rest. After my court appearance, I drove past the house. I was intending to merely peer in like a stalker from the safety of my car, but the new owner, Mark, was there laying bricks in the front yard and invited me in for a tour.
The scraggly front roses and the oak tree I received as a high school graduation gift, which had grown to dominate the front yard, were all gone, replaced by a smooth, green lawn. He had scraped off all the old wallpaper and repainted, and the air flowed easily through crisp, clean rooms.
“I’m replacing the front windows,” Mark told me, “but I’m saving that peace sign.” Then he repeated an offer he’d made before: “You still have full lemon rights, always.”
I knew then I had chosen the right buyer, no matter what the selling price. And with the closing of Ma’s estate, Pat and I will have a welcome windfall. Maybe we’ll put a down payment on a house.