The woman who lives there now has five children. On the afternoon I arrive at her door — flanked by my best high school friend Amy and my partner Dan — she’s busy cleaning up after a big family party.
“My house is flying,” she apologizes, as two of her boys zoom past us in flannel pajamas. “But if you don’t mind the mess, go ahead and look around.”
And so we do, starting in the bright kitchen where our hostess Devorah goes back to filling the dishwasher. I place Dan’s hand on the familiar dark wooden breakfront and matching cabinets, feeling amazed and giddy over the fact that we’re standing in this very house. My house, from the time I took my first steps at age two to when I walked out the door toward my own adult life at twenty.
The back porch, built by my father, has been renovated into a bedroom. The room where my mother proudly displayed her antiques on a marble table has grown, having absorbed the enclosed front porch where our dog lived so her dander and hair wouldn’t get into the house. In our time the room, carpeted in a rich dark red, housed a pair of velvet divans no one ever stretched out on. “It’s a 4-D picture,” I used to joke. We referred to it as the living room but where we lived was the adjoining TV area with its tiled floor and vinyl easy-clean couch.
Now the two rooms are indistinguishable and I can tell by the boxes of board games and discarded sweatshirts that kids move freely between them.
“You used to sneak into the living room sometimes,” Amy reminds me.
I flush at the memory. “I’d walk in on my knees so I wouldn’t get in trouble for stepping on the rug,” I explain to Dan.
Even as a child I sensed that this was strange. None of my friends’ houses contained rooms that were off-limits. Mine was also the only house where you had to take your shoes off to come inside. It was as though my mother actually feared the dirt and debris of daily living. She ushered my sister Angie and me out of the house every day to prevent our little messes. This worked out fine on Sunnyside Street where there were always other children to play with; but before I turned two we lived in a converted bungalow on a street, near the beach, which was deserted in winter. I’m told that before I was born and when I was a baby, our mother sent my sister out, even in the coldest months, for whole afternoons while she cleaned.
The three of us head down the hall past what had been my parents’ bedroom to the one my sister and I shared. In its current incarnation it’s a boys’ room, our pale yellow walls painted over in blue, the floor spattered with action figures and trucks where it had once been clear.
We often laughed at my mother’s obsession with cleanliness. (Once, she vacuumed up a Barbie Doll dress while a friend and I were in the middle of playing.) Fortunately, she could laugh about it too. She loved a poem called Dust by Sidney King Russell:
Agatha Morley/All her life/Grumbled at dust/Like a good wife./Dust on a table,/Dust on a chair,/Dust on a mantel/She couldn’t bear…/She bore with sin/Without protest,/But dust thoughts preyed/Upon her rest../Six feet under/The earth she lies/With dust at her feet/And dust in her eyes.
“That’s me!” she burst out when we first read it together.
“My house is flying after this party,” Devorah tells us again as we say goodbye. “Actually my whole life is.”
My house is flying. It’s an expression I’ve never heard before but I know what she means. Minutes zipping past until whole afternoons escape and you fall into bed with half your to-do list still undone. My mother devoted herself to never feeling that way. Yet Devorah, who let us tromp through her messy house uninvited, looks serene.
Back out on Sunnyside Street we find Amy’s husband Warren patiently waiting in the car with Dan’s guide dog. The four of us drive around Bayswater, the neighborhood in Far Rockaway, Queens where Amy and I grew up. Thirty-two years post-graduation, we stand at the entrance to our old high school posing for photos. As I smile for the camera, a heaviness begins to descend on me. Not only my mother but all of us sacrificed so she could keep the house on Sunnyside Street spotless. Yet, sadly, she never invited anyone in to appreciate her efforts. Neither of my parents ever entertained. In our time the house was like a gated community, though of course community is the exact wrong word. I think of Devorah opening her door to us and of her big family party. Not once did we have a family party when the house was ours. In fact I barely knew any of our relatives.
Our last stop in Far Rockaway is the beach. Dan steps into the water though his guide dog pulls back, unsure of what to make of the unfamiliar waves. Amy and Warren laugh and snap photos, but I’m remembering my old dog, Sammy, shivering and dirty on our front porch. I also think of my sister who, as a little girl sat alone on the front steps of that little bungalow. In my mind she has a thick sweater under her coat, a hat tied beneath her chin, a baby doll clutched against her for warmth and company.
Cleanliness, in its extreme, is not next to godliness. It’s too unkind.
Sighing, I look out at the horizon where I can just make out a line of lockers at Silverpoint Beach Club.
“You know why we joined a beach club?” I ask as we pile back into the car. “So we’d have somewhere to shower off the sand before we got home.”
“That’s brilliant,” Amy says. “I hate when sand gets in the house.”
“Brilliant?” I repeat, startled by her response. But as our hometown fades into the distance, I let myself look for a moment at how hard, and even ingeniously, my mother worked to give us the very experiences of childhood her need for order and cleanliness pulled against. True we never had gatherings inside the house, but we had wonderful birthday parties with the neighborhood kids in our backyard. And, though clearly she shouldn’t have, our mom found a way to not say no to a dog. Most importantly, we weren’t so isolated that we couldn’t invite a friend over, as long as she left her shoes by the door.
Unexpectedly, I find myself missing my mother. I think of Agatha Morley spending eternity surrounded by dust. In choosing cremation my mother did her one better, becoming the thing itself.
When Dan and I get back to my apartment in Hoboken, Ethan and two of his friends are there, sprawled on the couch, their backpacks and jackets having taken over the kitchen table.
“Careful,” I tell Dan, guiding him around the pile of sneakers the kids have, ironically, kicked off.
“This place is flying,” he says and I laugh, glad to be home.