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Family Matters

Lost, and Found: Rediscovering a subterranean kington of memories

By Roberta Israeloff

My mother and I sat in her kitchen. “Daddy told me not to sell the house,” she said.

I waited a beat to drain the exasperation from my voice; to remind myself that she’d lived in this house for 45 years, that moving is a major traumatic event for anyone—more so for those as change-resistant as my mother. “He meant don’t sell it right away; not right after he died,” I said. “He didn’t mean not to sell it when you’re 85.”

“I guess,” she said, which only meant that she’d heard me, not that she agreed. I assumed this conversation had dead-ended, as so many before had when the subject of selling the house and moving to a nearby senior housing development came up. But she surprised me a few days later by telling me she’d engaged a real-estate agent who was coming over on Saturday.

Red-haired Ruth, friendly and perky but all business, younger than my mother but older than I, strode into the house with an almost military bearing—even her cream-colored scarf accenting her navy blue pants suit looked crisp. She exuded confidence that the three-bedroom suburban ranch in an excellent school district would sell in a heartbeat. “It’s practically market ready,” she said, inspecting each room, my mother and I, lowly sergeants, following in her wake.

“Put the tea canister in the cupboard,” she said in the kitchen, “and get rid of that basket. Keep the detergent under the sink....” My mother wrung her hands; I jotted down her every instruction, trying to hide my dismay. If she found fault with my mother’s uncluttered house, whose kitchen and bathroom floors you could literally eat off of, what would she think of mine? What would I have to throw away, hide, or rearrange to make it optimally saleable?

“Now, what about the basement,” Ruth asked. “Finished or unfinished?” I knew this moment would come, but I dreaded it, as did my mother, who audibly groaned and said, “I’ll wait up here.” The basement was the last place either of us wanted to see.

“I’m going downstairs,” my father would say. After 40 years, I can still hear him. He tried for a neutral tone, without feeling, almost as if it had just occurred to him, but we all knew that this was the moment he’d been waiting for, the reward he’d counted on all day, ever since he dragged himself out of bed at 6 in the morning to get to work—he was an engineer—and then come home to sit through a family dinner. He’d imagined it all the while he had to hear his daughters tell him that he had no idea how hard it was to be a student, that suffering through history and having to prepare for tests was much, much harder than anything he did at work. He waited for it as he talked to his parents on the phone, and supervised our homework, and sat in the living room with my mother as they read the newspaper or watched TV, until he finally felt that he’d earned his reward, and could give in, drawn downstairs as if by a mistress.

“It’s a mess down there,” I said, opening the wooden door off the kitchen.

“I’m sure I’ve seen worse,” Ruth said, leading the way. At the last step, she stopped in her tracks. “Wow, this is even bigger than I thought.”

“I was 12 when we moved here,” I told her, as she shone her flashlight into the crawl space and examined the boiler. We’d been living in an apartment in Queens. My parents, children of immigrants, house-hunted for years—long enough for me to realize that they were more in love with the concept of home-ownership than with any particular house. Yet something about this house struck a chord with both of them, almost from the moment we first walked in the door. I remember my mother as she stood in the spacious kitchen, not believing how much distance separated the fridge and the stove; my father got lost in the basement.

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