Good-bye to All This

by Rebecca McClanahan


"It's a lot like dying," Donald has begun telling our friends. "Except you get to see where all your stuff goes." He's referring to the state of our rapidly emptying home. Each week another room is decluttered, swept free of its past, its stories. I box up books, dishes, paintings, photos that house our history. Then, with a black marker in hand, I make my selections, dividing the goats from the lambs: Urgent. Goodwill. Garage Sale. Store. No Rush. Attic, keep dry. Breakable. The emptying is partly for our benefit, an attempt to sweep the path clean for the journey ahead. We'll be leaving in a few months, perhaps sooner if the sale goes quickly.

The emptying is also for prospective buyers, the strangers who will soon walk through these rooms. "It's time to start wearing buyers' glasses," our agent has advised, "to see your house through their eyes. Your house should look occupied by someone, just not a particular someone. Do you understand?"

Yes, I understand perfectly. We want to give the impression that somebody still lives here—no desperation sale, we're in no rush, we won't take just any offer. On the other hand, if we continue to fully inhabit this place, we will leave no room for the buyer's dream. A buyer must be able to imagine himself as the inhabitant—sitting at the dining room table, filling the bird feeder, stoking the fire. Our home is a stage to be set, everything polished and gleaming, all the props arranged for the upcoming show, or showing, as the Realtor calls it. "Your house shows well," he says as he walks through the rooms carrying a clipboard. "Except for. And maybe. And you might consider. Nothing drastic, you understand. Just."

"Certainly," we say. "We'll get right on it." Since the money from the sale of the house must support us for the next year or two, we can't afford sentimentality. First we remove all that might offend: incense burners, the photograph of two nude men embracing, the sculpture of bare-breasted crones dancing in a circle, the Buddhist quotes over my writing desk. Then, item by item, we hide traces of ourselves, anything that might keep a prospective buyer from inhabiting his own dream: the cat's bowl, my grandmother's moth-nibbled afghan, Donald's brandy snifter and pipe.

What is left is tasteful, the way chicken cutlets are tasteful. Or fish that you buy because it tastes like chicken. A house prepared for the eyes of others allows only what is tasteful. A home, on the other hand, is like a family member or a trusted friend, the kind you don't dress up for. A home has seen you at your worst: morning breath, worn corduroy robe, feverish head hanging over the toilet bowl. As you've seen it: cluttered, dust-bunnied, bare-mattressed, smudged. Why then this sadness, this longing to stay? A week before the showing, I cry, I scream, I rant, I kick boxes, I sink down onto the floor of the tasteful, gleaming room and cry.

Donald knows better than to try to console me. "I wish I could do that," he says, "let it all out, say good-bye. Months from now it will ambush me, I'm sure of it. I'll be walking in midtown, maybe getting into a taxi or standing in line"—"on line," I correct him, translating the phrase to its New York equivalent—and it will hit me," he says. "What have we done, what were we thinking? And it will be too late to go back."

Lazy Afternoon
Lazy Afternoon, Art Print
Zhen-Huan Lu

To leave a place you love, you must be willing to go the distance. Once our home is listed, the contract signed, there will be no going back. Our leaving, for the past few months a mere hum on rumor's vine, will be public knowledge. Strangers will call, real estate rubberneckers will slow to stare, voyeurs will walk through our garden and peek into our windows which, the Realtor is advising, should glisten, every room ablaze with light.

"You know you're ready," the agent is telling us, "when you can call it a house, not a home. Are you sure you're ready?" He doesn't want us backing out at the last moment, after he's taken the photos, printed the brochures, registered the property with Multiple Listing Service, planted the For Sale sign in my azalea garden. The garden, I mean. The garden that borders the street. "You're lucky," the Realtor says. "It's a well-traveled street. Lots of eye traffic."

This is not our first house, but it is the first one we've called home. In the other house, where my husband and I lived for thirteen years, our feeling of tenancy went beyond the fact that we didn't own the property. More to the point, we didn't inhabit it. Inhabit, rooted in the Germanic ghabh, implies both giving and receiving; it is attached to the Old English forgiefan, meaning to give up, leave off, forgive. To inhabit a place, you must move in fully—body and spirit, heart and hand. You must give yourself to it.

When I first met Donald, he was living alone in that first house, paying rent to his parents, who owned the property. He had shared the house with his wife and young son, and though he and his wife had been separated nearly a year, some of her clothes still hung in the closet. That was fine with me. I was barely a year out of a disastrous first marriage, one in which I had given everything and received, or so it seemed at the time, almost nothing. To inhabit another marriage was the last thing I wanted. I was content where I was, subletting an apartment one hundred miles away in the university town where I was pursuing graduate studies. One hundred miles seemed just the right amount of distance.

We dated for over a year, spent weekends together at his house, and cautiously began to consolidate our possessions. (A strange word, possessions. Shades of demonic powers, exorcisms. Do we own our possessions, or do they possess us?) Then, out of the blue of a bright November Friday, we drove separate cars to a justice of the peace halfway between our towns, quickly drew up an agreement promising as little as possible, and signed a marriage contract. We did not have a honeymoon, we had a weekend. Monday morning, very early, I left to drive back to the city where I would live from Monday through Friday for the next few years. When my graduate studies were completed, I moved into Donald's house, and for the next several years we substituted a safe psychic distance—separate checkbooks, separate lives—for the physical distance that had once sustained us.

A stranger looking on might not have been surprised that such a partnership would eventually coax its partners, fearful of habitation yet needful of it, farther and farther apart. Now, nearly ten years later, we mark the time line of our marriage at the point of its breaking. "Before the separation," we say. Or, "After we got back together." Our home, the one we are about to leave, marks the place where our separate pasts collided and our life together began. Also the azalea garden, the diamond ring (my first), the cat, and the neighborhood restaurant, Carpe Diem, which we've come to think of as ours.

Home is a space you inhabit fully, a place where body and spirit dwell. For some people, home denotes—even requires—ownership. My father is one of those people. During the course of his career he moved with his wife and children nineteen times, but the only places he called home were the five or six houses he owned. As a child of tenant farmers, he'd been aware that the cramped farmhouses he shared with his parents and siblings did not belong to them, nor did the fields they worked from dawn to dusk.

Which may be why he reacts so personally to the news that Donald and I are selling our home in Charlotte, North Carolina and moving to, of all places, New York City. Home, to my father, is a place where you put down roots. You do not pull up those roots unless you are forced to. Or unless a larger, more beautiful, place awaits you. An apartment in Manhattan (any apartment, whatever we can find, even if it belongs to someone else, we've decided) is not what my father would consider home.

Now that the listing contract is signed and the stakes of the For Sale sign securely planted, the phone is ringing off the hook, the mailbox is full, and people keep dropping by—friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, each with his own take on the news of our upcoming move. Each person seems to react to the news based on his or her own relationship to leaving, or to change in general, or to heartbreaks that are currently mending, or those that will never mend. A former writing student, a man just shy of middle-age, sends a letter with a red stop sign centered on the page and don't go emblazoned in huge block letters. (I learn, a few days later, that he and his wife have separated and that he is now living alone.) My best friend, who has known her share of endings, leaves tears on my answering machine. "Life is change," says my sister Lana, cheerfully offering a dream catcher to hang in my window. "Follow your heart."

My mother's reaction to the news is calm, accepting, exactly the reaction I'd expected. "Moving isn't easy," she says, "but you'll make a home wherever you go." To my mother, home is the people in it and the life lived within its walls: That was the kitchen I painted Chinese red after Uncle Dale died. Or, That was where all the kids had the mumps at the same time. That was the year I made matching Easter dresses for the girls. That was the house where Tommy jumped off the garage roof. My parents' first home was in Jacksonville, Florida, where she'd joined my father at the base where he was training as a fighter pilot. They lived there two months, in a single room in a boarding house. They weren't supposed to cook in the room, but my mother, intent on serving warm meals to her new husband, used a hot plate, warming canned soup and frying eggs. Since they had no table, they knelt on the floor beside the hot plate to eat their meals. "The food always tasted so good," she recalls. "Those were two wonderful months."

Because, to my mother, home is where the stories are, the nineteen houses are remembered not as addresses but as serial installments in our family's domestic drama. She moves into each new story fully, heart and hand, and when the time is up, she leaves as fully as she once entered. Never regretful—"the past is the past," she says—and never fearful of the next move.

Every move I've ever made has begun the same way. I wake in the night, my flesh goose-bumped with sweat, my chest thumping as if a small bird were trapped there. This isn't the way I want to be, aligned with the nay-sayers, the friends and family members who keep calling with advice and warnings. They can't believe, after twenty-five years in this town, that we're going to pack it all in. ("Sell your house?" they say. "Leave your business?" they ask Donald. "But what if?") I'd prefer to side with the cheerleaders, the small band of coaches standing on the sidelines, urging us on. "What courage," they say. "At this time in your lives, to make such a change. Most people move to New York when they're young. How brave of you."

The thumping in my chest continues, a rhythmic What if, What if, What if. What if we can't find an apartment we can afford? What if we find the apartment, put money down on it, but can't sell the house? What if we sell the house but can't find an apartment? What if we can't find a home for the cat? What if we can't find work? What if we hate New York?

Donald's night sweats began years ago, but they had nothing to do with moving. And though he didn't voice his feelings of anxiety and sadness, I sensed them. Finally, when I insisted, he spoke them aloud. He couldn't keep on doing what he was doing. He couldn't see himself, ten or fifteen or twenty years down the line, still driving hundreds of miles a week, hauling lighting and sound equipment, setting up stages, pulling the same puppets out of the same trunks, lifting his arms to perform for the hundredth, or thousandth time, the kinds of shows local audiences would pay to see, the shows he would have to perform to keep his company afloat and pay the mortgage on our home. He'd long ago disengaged himself from his work. During shows, he felt as though he were lifting above the stage, above himself, watching his hands perform movements that no longer held any surprise. In the meantime, all the shows he wanted to build—experimental shadow plays, quirky table top shows, toy theatre, object theatre—stayed locked in his head. And he wasn't sure how long they'd hang around.

"Plus," he said. He hesitated, then looked up at me with that half dreamy/half guilty expression in his eyes, the one he always gets when he's visiting the home he carries in his head, his childhood dreamscape. Ever since he was a boy visiting his grandparents in Washington Heights, he has been trying to go back.

"I love our home, you know that," he said, his eyes scanning the lofted ceiling, the crown molding, the oak mantle and the gold-leaf mirror.

"I know," I said.

"There's just one thing wrong with it."

"I know," I said. "It's not in New York."

Do all people carry inside them, like a dream wallet snapshot, the image of a place that feels more like home than any place they've ever lived? Why else do we draw dream houses, design blueprints of a space that doesn't yet exist, walk the rooms of model homes, our heads brimming with plans. Let's see, this wall here will be coral, and we'll put a round table in the corner, with a satin tablecloth and stained glass lamp. We can almost see ourselves in the small rocker by the window, a leather-bound book in our hands. No matter that we've never owned a leather-bound book, that our daylight self prefers the casual intimacy of a dog-eared paperback. In our dream house, things will be different. We will be different. Those unused parts of ourselves, the places we've as yet barely touched, will come forth—our pasts, our memories, our future selves. All the lives begun years ago but never nurtured, will find their way into this home, even if the home is a studio apartment, a room so small that your bed pulls out from the wall, and your dining table folds down each night to make room for that bed, then opens in the morning to become the desk where you write your as yet unwritten stories, your poems.

In a dream room, everything fits. In mine, there is room for my farmhouse past, for Grandma Sylvie's and Grandma Goldie's wicker baskets filled with "makings," the strips and squares of cloth they will weave into rugs and stitch into quilts. Room, too, for Aunt Bessie's magazines and books and seed catalogs and Grandpa Arthur's hammer and milk bucket and rubber hip boots and Grandpa Clarence's big black Chevrolet and rusting tractor and wire-rimmed glasses and the ashtray that was always within reach, the metal tray weighted with sand and covered in plaid corduroy.

And because I now fully inhabit a marriage, the dream home allows for my husband's past as well. It is a crowded room, half Midwestern farmhouse, half Washington Heights one-bedroom flat, Sylvie and Goldie and Clarence and Arthur and Bessie sharing a table with Donald's Uncle Alex, on leave from his travels, and with Donald's Russian grandparents, Boris and Ria.

Donald's young parents are at the table, too, having made their twice-yearly journey with their son and newborn daughter. Like his brother Alex, Donald's father could not wait to get out of New York. When they were old enough to leave home, both brothers signed away their Russian surname and adopted an Americanized version, each setting off on his respective dream—Alex to the merchant marines, and Donald's father to a ranger's station in Oklahoma. "What were they running from?" Donald wonders aloud to this day. "Why did my uncle go to sea and my father to the woods?" Maybe, I'm thinking, home is the place where we begin. The center of the compass, the fulcrum that spins us out.

The dream room is swirling with smoke—my grandfather's Camels, Boris's unfiltered hand-rolled cigarettes. Someone has ordered take-out from the local deli. "Probably my aunt," Donald remembers. "Always the most expensive foods, a real feast, more than anyone could afford but they ordered it anyway," and Boris is getting ready to leave, to pick up the order. But first he must get into his shoes. "It was a big production," Donald says. "Because of the bunions. He had to use a shoe horn, and it took forever."

Later, when young Donald is tucked away on the army cot between Grandma Ria's bed, where his parents will sleep, and the portable crib they've borrowed for his sister, he will lie awake and listen to the grownups laughing, arguing, clinking vodka glasses, talking politics. At this point, I imagine my ancestors, Protestant teetotalers for whom blacklisted and communism are but dark smudges in their local newspaper, excusing themselves, having picked their way through the unrecognizable smoked meats, pickled oysters, thick black bread dipped in olive oil from Lebanon, and bowls of purple borscht dolloped with sour cream.

Lying on the cot with the whole of New York blaring outside the small window, Donald is smug with plans. Tomorrow he will put on his best suit and his parents will take him on the subway downtown for lunch—to the automat, he hopes, where his mother will retrieve from her pocketbook a handful of coins and let him choose from the array of sandwiches and fried chicken platters and slices of fruit pies behind the glass doors. Afterwards they will go to Gimbel's or Macy's, then to Schwartz. Donald doesn't yet know that his father will surprise him by buying a small wooden boat with a battery powered propeller, and that the day will end more perfectly than any day in his life has yet ended—at Central Park, on the bank of Conservatory Lake, where he will wind the propeller as tightly as it will go, then kneel to place the boat in the water and watch as it makes its way through the miniature armada of sailboats and battleships and canoes, each boat followed by a pair of eyes belonging to a child whose dreams follow the boat across the blue water.

In Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Emily, newly dead, asks the other dead ones how long it takes before you stop feeling a part of the other world. A while, they tell her. It takes a while. But that's not what you should think about, they say. You must focus on what is ahead. Besides, one of them says, it wasn't so great to be part of the living anyway. Be grateful it's over.

To leave a home, you must find ways to fall out of love with it. Those minor irritations that have come to seem, at times, almost endearing—the rusty gate, the roaring heat pump, the perpetually leaky faucet, the tiles that don't quite match—must be allowed to grow to major proportions. Thank God we won't have to worry about that anymore, you bluster to friends and family. When we get to New York . . .

And if you must not only leave but also sell the home you love, as we are doing, you must steel yourself against criticisms that might once have cut deeply or roused you to battle. You must dismiss the comments, the offhand remarks from Realtors, buyers, well-meaning neighbors. When you need to fall out of love with your home, there are dozens of people ready to help. Workmen are perhaps the most effective dream busters. No, you tell them, you'd never really noticed that water stain above the chimney. And no, you haven't been up on the roof in years—not since that tree limb cracked during the ice storm. Really, you say. That bad? And the painter, eyeing your faux Tuscan kitchen wall and the plum-colored entry hall, is more than happy to announce how many coats of eggshell white it will take to cover such indiscretions and to provide prospective buyers with a clean canvas.

So by the time King of Steam arrives, you welcome his big cloud-colored truck, the compressor he wedges into your garage between stacks of packing boxes, the thick-as-an-elephant's-trunk hose he unwinds from his truck. You know what's coming. The judgmental eye, the lectures on carpet maintenance and six-month checkups, the Scotchguard recommendations. He's just what you need on this miserable August afternoon in the jungle heat of Charlotte—ninety-two degrees, ninety-five percent humidity, a host of mosquitoes swarming around the bird bath. Come in, you say. What's a little more steam on a day like today?

But King of Steam has a more intimate relationship with humidity. Although the king is already dripping with sweat, is virtually glistening, he refuses the glass of iced tea you offer. He's at least six feet two, and dressed in a checkered shirt and khaki shorts with complicated pockets and snaps, he resembles an overgrown Boy Scout or one of those lederhosened men from cough drop commercials. His calves bulge with thick muscles.

"I see I've got my work cut out for me," he says with a sigh, looking down at the beige plush carpet, which was new when we moved in nine years ago but is not new now. Life happens, what can I say? Now he's warning me that his hose, which he's preparing to wrestle the two flights up to our bedroom, could possibly, just possibly, scratch the wood stairs. "It's my duty to warn you," he says solemnly. When I hesitate, he is quick to point out that it's all my decision, of course, but if this were his house ("And I have a big house," he says, "twenty-six hundred square feet, a nice house,") he wouldn't hesitate to give permission. "Besides," he says, kneeling on the stairway, "there are more scratches here than these hoses could ever leave. Now, with finely varnished floors, well, it might make a difference."

"Fine," I say. "Be my guest." I sign the release form.

"Scotchguard?" he asks, and when I shake my head, he's off, tripping the light steamatic up the stairs, his hose thumping, step by step, behind him. He flips a switch and the compressor in the garage, two flights down, rumbles into action. In an hour or two he will be gone, taking with him the dirt and grime, the stains, our whole ground-in history—the ink I've dribbled, my nephews' crayon smudges, the Carolina clay tracked in from the garden, stray ashes from Donald's pipe, sloshes of red wine from last month's dinner party, the dander and gray fur from the cat I must soon find a home for.

When you empty a home, you start with what you need least, those items you've either outlived or put away toward some future life you've dreamed of inhabiting but probably never will: the hand-tatted place mats, the satin smoking jacket, doll-size espresso cups, the bamboo vegetable steamer. I once went through a period of believing I would actually wear all the hats I'd bought on rainy afternoons while wandering the aisles of musty antique stores. Hats from the forties, the thirties, the twenties. Hats with feathers and black veils. Then there was my natural-fiber year, when I allowed only silk, cotton, wool, and perpetually wrinkled linen into my closet. If you look deeper into that closet, you will find remnants of the six-month period Donald and I were separated. Skinny from grief and dazed with newfound freedom, I bought short leather skirts, Spandex capri pants, midriff blouses, and slinky dresses with peek-a-boo backs.

Next to go are those things that simply won't fit into the life you are about to inhabit. For us, this means practically everything. Though we've succeeded in finding a New York apartment we can actually afford—a miracle in itself—the apartment is a furnished sublet belonging to friends of friends, a couple who are leaving their possessions behind ("down to the plates and spoons," the wife tells us as she leads us from room to room) to pursue the Hollywood dream they've carried in their heads for years. She opens a closet, its shelves stacked with boxes marked Xmas, Winter Clothes, Memories, do not crush. I tell her not to worry, that we'll be careful with her things. "Especially the china," she says, her eyes clouding over. "It means a lot to me."

Our tenancy might last a few months or it might stretch to years, depending on how the gold of their Hollywood dream pans out. This uncertainty as to the length of our stay, coupled with uncertainty about where we will end up—I started to write permanently, but how can you ever be sure—compounds the already nerve-splitting stress of the packing process. What to take with us, what to give away, what to store, what to loan? If our New York dream pans out, we won't be returning to Charlotte or to any space large enough to house all our belongings. I like calling them belongings rather than possessions. They are belongings because they belong where they are, in the life we inhabit in this place.

But if I'm ever going to finish packing, I've got to stop calling everything a belonging. The past is the past: my mother's voice in my ear. What belongs in a three-level townhouse with a garden and two decks owned by a long-married couple with a steady income is not what belongs in a prewar furnished midtown Manhattan sublet rented month-by-month by a couple of terrified middle-aged freelancers. Something's got to give. Almost everything. The garden tools, wheelbarrow, wrought iron bench, patio umbrella, birdhouses, planters, stereo cabinet, television console, twin love seats, end tables, coffee table, bookcases, bedroom chairs, bureaus, lamps, paintings, mirrors, shelf after shelf of books, the dining room hutch and everything on it, the Stickley table that belonged to my parents, along with the seven Stickley chairs ("Somehow, in one of the moves," my mother recalls, "the eighth one disappeared. How could that have happened?"), the dark cherry bed we recently re-slatted to support the queen size mattress we graduated to on our twenty-second anniversary.

And the piano, my first acquisition as a young bride preparing to leave my parents' home. A piano was the one thing I knew I could not live without. Music was my solace, my companion, the keyboard on which I wrote my first wordless poems. Though I could not remember when my parents had bought their shiny black spinet, the one I'd played throughout childhood and adolescence, I couldn't remember it not being there. What is a home without a piano?

So I cashed in my savings account and bought what I could not live without, a used spinet with a Swedish walnut veneer. My father and brothers hoisted it into a U-Haul and unloaded it at the shag-carpeted patio apartment where my new husband and I would spend our first six months ("Are all first years this hard?" I asked my mother) before moving to another patio apartment where we dodged the landlord who kept asking for rent money we didn't have. Despite my husband's protests, the piano went with us to the second apartment, then to his father's house where we lived rent-free for a few months, then to my father's house where I waited out my husband's boot camp months, then to the military base four hundred miles north where he was stationed. After the divorce, the piano went with me to the southern university town where I shared a duplex apartment with a stranger, then to a rent-subsidized apartment I sublet from a single mother, then to a garage apartment, then to the house where Donald had lived with his ex-wife, and finally here, to our home.

The piano is the only possession—the only belonging—that has survived all the moves, all the lives I've inhabited since I first left my parent's home. And three mornings after we sign the real estate contract, I wake up knowing the piano has to go. More precisely, I have to go, and the piano cannot go with me. I briefly consider storing the piano in my brother's basement, alongside the other furniture that we hope, one day, to retrieve. But knowing what moisture can do to a piano, I decide against this. My sister Claudia has always wanted a piano, and I consider loaning it to her, then retrieving it when we can afford an apartment of our own, though instinct warns me we'll never be able to afford a New York apartment large enough to house a piano.

Besides, I've never had much luck loaning things out to people. After a while, they start believing that the ottoman, or the fur coat, or the mirror belongs to them, and when I return months later to ransom it, their eyes widen in surprise. "My ottoman?" they say. "But I thought . . ."

Or worse, they take no possession at all, and the object I care for so deeply gets thrown into the back of a closet or toolshed or barn where it rusts or rots or mildews or sprouts weeds or otherwise languishes. Bessie, my grandmother's older, childless sister, once possessed many beautiful things—chests with inlaid wood, solid wood tables and headboards, a hand-carved Victrola, and a mahogany upright with ivory keys. After her husband died, she sold their home to move into a smaller house, then yet a smaller house, and in the process most of her possessions were either sold or stolen; the remaining items were loaned out to friends and family members. On returning from an extended cross-country visit where she had been caring for an aging cousin, Bessie found that the prized piano she had entrusted to a nephew for safekeeping had been abandoned on his farmhouse porch, exposed not only to the elements but to the caprices of the family cats, dogs, goats, and chickens.

I pick up the phone and dial Claudia's number. It will be a gift, free and clear. No loan, no retrieval. Oh well, I tell myself. The piano would have eventually ended up at her house anyway; it's been written into my will for a long time now.

"Have I got a deal for you," I begin, and within minutes my sister has redesigned her living and dining rooms.

"I can see it now," she says. "It will be the center of our home."

While she's talking, I walk into my living room, stretching the phone cord as far as it will go. The piano is still where it's always been, topped with a dresser scarf that my friend Carolyn, dead now a year, gave me during my last visit to her home. She knew she was dying, knew it would be our last time together. "Take anything you want," she said, gesturing dramatically with one hand as if to include everything—the clothes, the jewelry, the books and the stories in them, her life.

"Oh, I'm so excited," Claudia says. "Remember how it was at Mom's? How we all gathered around it?"

"I remember," I say. "What's a home without a piano?"

Or without a cat. My neighbor two doors down has agreed to take our deck-leaping, mouse-chasing, tree-climbing Mr. Dibbs. It would be cruel, we've decided, to cage him in a New York apartment. Better to leave him to wander his old haunts, to come and go as he pleases. The transition shouldn't be too difficult, we figure, since the floor plan of our neighbor's townhouse is identical to ours. I pack up his bowl, his litter box, his grooming brush, his toys, the igloo-shaped bed he has yet to use—he prefers the pillow where I lay my head—and carry him to my neighbor's door, where she is waiting with cat treats. Dibbs accepts her open arms too easily, and I begin to think maybe this isn't such a good idea after all. We form a pact: In exchange for her generosity, I promise not to allow Dibbs back into our house. "You're right," I say. "He has to get used to his new home. We don't want to confuse him."

The next morning when I open the front door, he is there waiting, curled beside the newspaper. How many of his lives have already passed, pages in a cat's calendar? How many did he pass with us? On habit, I reach to pick him up and take him inside, then, remembering my promise, I carry him down the porch steps and set him down beside the gate.

"Stay," I say.

I hurry up the steps, but Dibbs scurries behind me, close at my heels. I pick him up again, carry him down the steps, out the gate, down the sidewalk to my neighbor's house. My hands want to pet him—fur hunger—but I won't let them. How long will it take until he no longer comes to call? Until he knows we are gone, and lifts his tail and walks toward his other life? I lean down and place him like a package on her welcome mat. "Stay," I say.

This evening, sitting on the sofa, I study the footprints of the couple who, according to the Realtor, will probably buy our house. They must have come again today, during the hours I disappeared. It's what I do now, my new job. Prospective buyers need time alone with the house, the Realtor tells us. They want to look into closets and cabinets. They want to turn on faucets and flush toilets. Some bring their tape measures. Some bring their contractors. How much will it cost to tear out this wall, refinish these floors, repaint these faux Tuscan walls? Where will we hang Mother's antique mirror?

Each time the Realtor calls, I make a clean sweep of the house—wiping down counters, smoothing the bed, emptying the trash cans, spraying something sweet into the air. Then I walk through the rooms, turning on every light. Finally, I step out of my shoes and vacuum the carpet thoroughly, backing myself out of each room.

Then I disappear. Sometimes I visit a friend. Sometimes I go to the library or to the gym. Mostly I just drive around, slowly circling the neighborhood, viewing my home from a respectful distance, wondering how it looks to those who drive by. When the allotted time is up, I cautiously make my approach to the house. If someone is still there, standing on the porch or walking through the garden, I keep driving. When the Realtor calls with his nightly report, I tell him I don't want to know the details—their names, their occupations, how much money they have in the bank.

Footprints provide enough information for me. It's a kind of rudimentary archaeology. Since King of Steam's visit, the carpet is so clean and fluffy that the imprints are clearly visible, down to the smallest detail. I am able to guess not only the size and personality of the ghost guests (spike heels, sandals, tennis shoes) but also the route of their travels. Did they walk to the kitchen twice, three times? Did they avoid the wet bar?

I sit on the sofa and study the prints of the couple, imagining their lives. The larger prints are short for a man's, but very wide, with a substantial heel print, an expensive logo visible in each heel. He has left several trails, round-trip tracks from the door to the fireplace, the door to the balcony, the door to the window, the door to the phone. Was he measuring for new carpet? Was he phoning his bank? The smaller print—the wife's, I presume—was made by a waffle-heeled no-nonsense shoe. The shoe of a waitress, perhaps, or a school teacher. Someone who spends a lot of time on her feet. That's good, I think. The stairs won't be a problem for her. I slip one foot then the other into her prints and stand there a minute. When I step away I can see, centered in her tracks, the fossils of my bare feet.

To fully leave a place you love, you must view it from afar, from across a wide expanse of time, space, or feeling. After a while, the wise ones tell you, you will begin to align yourself not with the old place and those who inhabit it, but to the clean white canvas that awaits your marking. In this way, Joan Didion, having fully aligned herself with California, was able to write, without a hint of remorse or homesickness, of her years in New York City. The title of her essay, "Good-bye to All That," demonstrates the distance she had traveled between then and now, old and new. Good-bye denotes an ending, as opposed to farewell, the word my best friend insists on using for the party she is hosting for me. That suggests a separation; that is a place you've already left.

This morning on my customary walk, one of the last I will take in this place, I am thinking about Didion's essay, and as I round the corner by the neighborhood pub, Didion's phrase is in my head. I try saying it to the air but it doesn't feel right. That is already far removed—the ice frozen over, the wound healed. That is to this as there is to here. I pass the dry cleaners', the fish market, the stylish brick apartment house where my friend lives, a novelist with whom I've shared tea, lemon-flavored cookies, and hour after hour of talk. He lived in New York when he was young and believes everyone should live there at least once. Then why was he so sad the last time we were together; why was I sad? I wind down the path that leads through the city park near the pink-gabled Victorian house and my neighbor's townhouse where the cat I gave up now lives quite contentedly, it seems, at least he looks content there, sunning himself on her deck with a full bowl of food within paw's reach.

Last week, the footprints in our carpet grew bodies and names. The contract is signed and the earnest money is in the bank. According to the Realtor, the couple is already making big plans to tear out walls, put in new floors, new tile. The closing is scheduled for tomorrow. I've cried my last tears, I'm sure of it. A few nights ago, while Donald and I sat at the dining room table eating Chinese take-out on paper plates, I began to weep. "I'm going to miss our home," I said. "Aren't you going to miss our home? How can you just sit there, eating?"

He stood up, pushed his chair away from the table, and walked over to me. He reached out with both hands as if inviting me to dance. I stood up and, still crying, leaned against his chest. When I tried to break away, he held me tighter, and when I finally quieted, he stepped back a little, making a circle with his arms, enclosing me, leaving only a small column of air between us. "See this?" he said, meaning the circle in which our bodies floated. "This is our home."

Now the floors of the house are empty except for a broom, a dustpan, a few packing boxes, a roll of bubble wrap, and a portable radio whose voices keep me company while I work. The npr host is interviewing the author of a self-help book that combines ancient Buddhist teachings with tips for coping with modern-day stress. One of the best coping skills, he believes, is humor, so he's telling jokes: What did the Zen Buddhist say to the hot dog vendor? (Make me one with everything.) How can you recognize a Buddhist vacuum cleaner? (It has no attachments.)

I've saved the hall closet for last. It's filled with boxes, folders, bags, old suitcases stuffed with mementos. Most people mispronounce the word. I used to, too, until my high school English teacher corrected me. It's easy to see why we call them momentos. We link them with moment, momentous, perhaps even momentum, the force of motion propelling us forward. The boxes in our closets—filled with love letters, family photographs, old report cards, school records, awards, citations, obituary clippings—mark the moments of our lives, those brief occasions from which our pasts set sail. "A voyage of great moment," one writer called the journey, and it is indeed a momentous journey, weighted with grave implications.

"No," the English teacher said. "It's memento, as in remember. A memento is a relic, a reminder of the past. Related to the Latin memento mori: Remember that you will die." When it became clear that Aunt Bessie would soon die, my parents moved her from the log cabin she'd lived in as a child and to which she'd returned after the last of her cross-country journeys, into a spare bedroom in their home. They packed all her remaining possessions into a mahogany chest that stood at the foot of her bed.

After she died, my parents cleared out the room to make space for my mother's parents, Sylvie and Arthur. The accumulated belongings of their sixty-year marriage had been culled to fit into the space of one small bedroom. My parents filled the bureau top with framed photos, and over the double bed they hung the monogrammed gate latch— Double S Ranch—that had once marked the entrance to Sylvie and Arthur's hundred-acre farm. Set adrift from their pasts, cut free from the duties and chores that had defined their lives, my grandparents' marriage shrank back to the size of their original union. They had nothing left to do but keep each other company. Which they did quite well, sitting side by side on my parents' sofa like a young couple who are just now beginning to court each other.

It's a mistake, the dead ones tell Emily, to go back. Emily doesn't listen, of course. Had she listened to their advice, there would be no play, no rising and falling action, no final act. She is certain that they are wrong, that if she picks a happy moment to return to, a sunny day to relive—she chooses her twelfth birthday—she will not be saddened by what was. As it turns out, her decision only sharpens the sadness. It hurts as much, perhaps more, to return to a place where we were happy. Especially when we look back on that place, as we must, with new eyes. We hadn't meant to change, we'd thought we could hold things as they were. "Don't worry," I tell my brother, my neighbor, my best friend. "We'll be back for visits, lots of them," and I pull out the calendar to show proof.

"Sure," my brother says. "You know you're welcome any time."

"Dibbs will be glad to see you," my neighbor says.

"It won't be the same," says my friend. Darkness, like a sudden cloud cover, sweeps across her eyes, and I sense that already things are changing, have changed, that a door in her is closing, as it must. In six months, a year, two years, I might revisit the scene, but that's all it will be, a visit.

Home is the place where, once you have left, you cannot return. I used to think you could, I mean why not, there's the road to the schoolhouse, there's the fence post where you sat, there's the garage apartment where you typed your dissertation, why not go back?

"It's never the same," my mother said.

I pointed to the small white house with the peeling shutters, the house where I was born. My mother sat behind the steering wheel. At my request, she had driven me out into the Indiana countryside, forty-five years into my past.

"That's not the place it was," she said.

But the photograph was in my hand. It looked the same to me.

My mother shook her head and turned away, and in her eyes I saw the home she had left, the one we'd never get back. It was larger and brighter and sadder and sweeter, swelled up with context: the morning light across the rain barrel, my brother circling the driveway on his tricycle with the metal wheels, the rich compost smells of hay and dust and washing powder and sun-starched sheets, a baby (that would be me) crawling toward the porch steps, and—in the center of it all—a beautiful black-haired woman holding the sheets close to her breast, her eyes fixed on the scene at hand.

Rebecca McClanahan's books can be purchased at the following links:

Books About Writing

Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively
Write Your Heart Out


Deep Light
Naked As Eve
Mrs. Houdini (Contemporary Poetry Series)
Mother Tongue (University of Central Florida Contemporary Poetry Series)
The Intersection of X and Y

More Nonfiction:
The Grounding | Berry Bounty