A life without love in it is like a heap of ashes upon a deserted hearth, with Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction. – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I pick through the ashes of my childhood, like sifting for gold or hunting for pretty seashells among the dull, uninteresting specimens in the damp sand on a hot afternoon, sorting through objects, papers, photos looking for long-forgotten treasures, slow, tedious work, our perseverance occasionally rewarded with cherished finds. Memories unexpectedly jump out at me from drawers and closets, memories of summer afternoons in the front yard with my brothers, memories of holidays past, memories of schooldays, of friends and family. And I find myself smiling, laughing, crying.
I knew it was going to happen, but I was so unprepared for the jolt when my brother announced the speed with which we would be cleaning out and selling our mother’s house, the house we all grew up in. The shock was a knife to my heart. I suddenly felt like an orphan, or soon to be; who is prepared emotionally for the sale of one’s childhood home, the scattering of the contents and all it stands for to the winds? No matter how many years I have lived on my own, far from Florida, my parents, my siblings, it has still always been home, the place that tethered me to this earth. It has still, no matter where I lived with my husband or raised my children, has still always been home.
I grew up and moved away, but left behind important parts of me and my life, my first baby doll, my Barbies, schoolwork and drawings I did as a kid, photo albums, games and toys, and those things that belonged to us as a family, the old steak knives, an antique orange juicer, cups and mugs we used meal after meal, family artifacts, a lifetime of being a family. Over the years, stacks of letters tied up in string, college textbooks, brown envelopes stuffed full of photos of high school and college friends, then trips to Paris, then a husband and children, and objects left behind each time we visited were added to the dolls and board games and paperback novels. Secrets and treasures were uncovered as I rooted through cabinets and drawers on subsequent trips home, my father’s souvenirs from his years at NASA and before, my parents’ old love letters, coveted cookbooks, pretty little objects, bowls and silver spoons and jewelry that mom collected over the years or brought back from her own parents’ house, some of which migrated towards my bedroom and into my drawers, safe for the time being, safe from being lost or given away. Each object, no matter the value, no matter how insignificant or fragile, has meaning, is a connection to someone dear who lived in that house. It was now time to go through it all.
And I flew to Florida.
My sister and I and then my brother and I sift through the ashes, the boys’ room, the girls’ room, our parents’ room, the kitchen and family rooms, making piles, keep, sell, trash, charity. Day after day we arrive at the house and jump back into it after a night’s reprieve, a heart-wrenching task as I try to salvage our past, our lives. Sitting on the floor, breathing in dust, I flick through photographs and drawings, and letters from Michael, pick through jewelry and comb through cabinets and feel sad and guilty and responsible as if it is up to me to save everything in order to save everyone. From turning to dust. And we discover everything left over from Michael’s life, rediscover Michael’s drawings, paintings, his high school award-winning political cartoons, his portfolios of years working as a costume designer, boxes of photos, record albums and his hat collection saved from the ashes of his life, too precious to give away. And my dad’s high school yearbook and record collection and relics from wartime in the Pacific as I try and remember the sound of his voice, the sound of his laughter. I am my brother’s keeper, and my father’s, and now my mother’s. My brother passed away in 2009, my father 25 years gone, my mother, although alive and well and nearing her 89th birthday, her frail life filters through my fingers as I decide what memories, what memorabilia, what souvenirs will be saved and which will be thrown away.
Such a formidable responsibility, a burden heavy beyond compare. I am overwhelmed with sadness, overwhelmed with the sentiment that I am playing a dangerous game in which my family, with the loss of a home and the objects it contains, will turn to dust if I don’t salvage everything and keep it all with me, within reach.
Onward and upward! This is all business, no job for sissies! my brother and I exclaim over and over again. We must keep the tears, the grief at bay, and we force ourselves to look at things as mere… things, objects of what value? We appraise and calculate quickly and drop things in one pile or another, the better to be done with this as swiftly as possible, like ripping off a band-aid, the pain comes and goes rather than lingering, the only question asked “How much can you carry back with you?”
After the loss of my father and my brother, it is painful and sad to see my mother at an assisted living facility as we pack up her house, the family home, get rid of a lifetime of belongings and prepare it for sale. Things feel so final. I feel her and my own mortality, I feel the final chapter on my brother and my father closing, and it is heartbreaking. As wonderful and reassuring as it is to see her surrounded by kind, caring folks, both staff and fellow residents, to stand in the middle of a room of her new friends, all singing their hearts out, during the first of the facility’s Christmas Parties as mom sips a glass of wine, chats with her new boyfriend, knowing that she couldn’t spend her waning years in a better place, that she is happy and feels at home, it is still a most difficult trip, only less difficult than the trip home to bury my brother.
I know that so many of my friends have lived through the same experience. Somehow, writing about it, putting it down in black and white makes it just a little bit easier to deal with, the simple act of ordering my thoughts and sharing it with friends. Like so many emotional events in my life. I am back in France now and the job is done (although I have the urge to call my brother, to tell him to go back into my old bedroom and save my tattered old baby doll that I left behind), the cartons of objects that I recuperated and shipped to myself are arriving and finding a place in a new home. Separated as I am by the miles, it is a bit easier to face the upcoming sale of the house, but I have taken away with me more than simply a lifetime of things, snapshots capturing memories, family heirlooms and vestiges of a past, a present. Wounds were healed during my time home. Surrounded by memories, sharing stories, sharing meals, we, my brother and sister-in-law and I, dealt with the pain and hurt of all that came between us after the death of my brother, our brother, and the dispersal of his things so many years ago. And this is perhaps the single most important treasure that I brought home with me after those two weeks in Florida.
And I turn the leaf over and begin a new chapter.
Perhaps love is the process of my leading you gently back to yourself. – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I hesitated whether or not to end this post with food, but decided to share an old recipe of my mother’s, a gem I came across in her ancient copy of Our Favorite Recipes, the collection of home recipes put together by her old synagogue Sisterhood many, many decades ago, a cookbook (now stained and crumbling into pieces) of which she was chairman. Ostensibly a recipe from New York’s famed Waldorf Astoria hotel, this moist, dense, delicious chocolate Waldorf Astoria Cake is attributed to her, my mom, the woman who didn’t particularly like to cook and rarely baked. I don’t remember this cake, nor do I have more than a faint memory of her making desserts from scratch other than a banana cream pie (my father was the family baker), but it is, like so many recipes I have come across among our family’s things, dishes and desserts made by my mother or father, a tie to my childhood, to my family, something that links my past to my present, my parents to my sons, and something that, among the emotional upheaval, has the power to make me smile.
- !For the Waldorf Astoria Cake
- 8 Tbs (115 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
- 2 cups (400 g) sugar
- 4 squares (4 oz/110 g) unsweetened baking chocolate, melted and cooled to room temperature
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 1 ½ cup (375 ml) milk at room temperature
- 2 cups (260 g) cake flour
- 2 tsps baking powder
- 1 ½ tsps vanilla
- 1 cup chopped nuts (walnuts or pecans), optional
- 12 oz (340 g) powdered/confectioner’s sugar
- 8 Tbs (4 oz/120 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
- 2 oz (50 g) unsweetened cocoa powder
- 4 Tbs boiling prepared coffee
- Preheat the oven 350°F (180°C). Butter and flour the bottom and sides of 2 x 9-inch layer cake pans (or butter and line the bottom with parchment paper).
- In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together for about 3 minutes until light, creamy and fluffy.
- Beat in the eggs, one at a time, until well blended and creamy.
- Beat in the melted and cooled chocolate.
- Stir the baking powder into the flour, then beat the dry ingredients into the batter in 3 or 4 additions, alternating with the milk, beginning and ending with dry. Beat in the vanilla and make sure that batter is smooth and homogeneous.
- Fold in the chopped nuts, if using.
- Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared cake pans and bake until both layers are set in the center, about 30 minutes or more, if needed.
- Remove the cakes from the oven and allow to cool for 10 or 15 minutes on racks before turning out and allowing to cool, right sides up, completely before frosting.
- In a medium to large mixing bowl, beat the powdered sugar with the softened butter until well blended and fluffy.
- Add the cocoa powder and the 4 tablespoons of boiling coffee and continue beating until well blended, thick and creamy, scraping down the sides as needed.
- If the buttercream frosting is warm or too thin to hold up the top cake layer without oozing out the sides, place the bowl in the refrigerator to chill to desired spreading consistency.