How to Take Leave of Your Family Home

If your life is anything like mine, it might go something like this:

After a few days of crossing multiple time zones + one stopover, you might be greeted at the airport with the unexpected (also overdue, but nonetheless much anticipated) news that a serious buyer has made an offer and we’re thinking about it. The house that’s been on the market for two years – with nary a bite worth considering. Until now.

Then and there, you might recognize the irony of wheels being set in motion while you’ve been en route, coasting along at 35,000 feet. As if the house-sale spirits have been reminded of the distinct probability (accrued from past experience) that your mere presence will ensure that (kicking butt and all), stuff gets done.

But you will not have an idea, much less an inkling, of what awaits you when the car turns left at the intersection where, still decades on, oncoming cars are wont to glide through the stop sign with no cop in sight. You will not have an inkling of the surprises that the universe has in store for you – and your family. Nor for the buyer (who herself is clearly burdened with her own tsoris).

For instance, you won’t expect, even after a price has been negotiated, that the inspector – who will anoint the steel-encased structure a bunker capable of withstanding fires and all kinds of natural disasters – will mention in passing that an oil tank might be buried underground – and that it needs to be detected and removed. You will certainly feel faint – and farklempt.

You won’t quite comprehend how a complicated and pricey excavation – that feels more like an archaeological dig in the backyard of a house where you grew up – can possibly yield anything more than mounds of earth, worms and bits of detritus. But yield it will. Stressloads full.

After a small battalion of men in hats and machines take over a large swath of green grass, dowsing and marking, closing off the area with metal gates and yellow tape as if it were a murder scene, and after a few hit and misses bringing up nothing but mud and broken cable wires, an oil tank the size of a well-fed Balinese pig, or perhaps a capsule that’s taken astronauts to the moon, will be located. Hoisted up by backhoe. Laid down on plastic sheets. Sliced open, carved up into parts and carted off. All to the amazement and horror of your octogenarian father; whose fuzzy memory couldn’t recall burying an oil tank when erecting the house more than 4 decades ago, much less its placement or depth.

Through it all, not for the first or last time, you will feel indescribably grateful that this dig is happening in springtime (despite the perpetual gray, dreary and rainy weather) and not, AmenAmenAmen, in the hoarfrost of mid-January, when you’d be bracing yourself not only against the untold mysteries about to revealed, but just as much against the sheer force of wind chill at minus 20 degrees that you (let alone the workers) would need to withstand as things you’d rather not believe and see, are disgorged from the distant past.

Traipsing through the home, meanwhile, will be an endless parade of non-relatives: real estate agents, lawyers and accountants. Bank managers and notaries – with talk of wills and bills. Estate sale agents. Housekeeper. Handyman (flower beds will still be planted, chairs repaired). Plumber (for the not-so-unexpected breakdown of kitchen pipes). Electrician (for the equally unsurprising breakdown of heat). Garage repairman (because it gets stuck as these things do). Sewing machine repair man (because sewing, like life, still has its place in this abode).

New neighbors might drop by unannounced, bearing gifts and unfamiliar accents. You might have to do battle with an army of ants, quash a small cavalry of moths, trap and dispose of a mouse. You might have to accept being jostled awake at 7 am by what you believe is an earthquake, only to find out that the neighbor’s contractor has permitted the bulldozing to shake the ground inches from your house at that hour. (Take my word for it: Simultaneous excavations make for better neighbor-liness).

Then again, not unlike the big digs taking place in the backyard and next door, unearthings of a different nature will happen indoors. There will be surprises. More heartaches. More unpleasant memories. More arguments of what stays, what goes. More emotional fallout. Discoveries of gems and bills stashed away long ago, covered in cobwebs and begrudgingly revealing decades-old histories herstories.

Somehow, you will find time to hang and fold the laundry, eat meals (even if upright), make phone calls, take showers, watch the news, water plants, listen to music. You will fill out forms, answer urgent emails, obtain necessary signatures, ask for money to be reimbursed. You will take time out for the Book of Mormon – even if the performance is underwhelming and you’re left calculating how many more boxes you might have packed in the time you watched the show. You will even move mountains, if necessary, to get to the osteopath, the hairdresser, your own bank.

Notwithstanding the hectic schedule filled with meetings, calls and decisions to be made, all that will come to a grinding halt for the sake of festivities. A bar mitzvah. Passover seder. The patriarch’s 85th birthday. And bagels. Always, there will be – must be – time for Montreal bagels.

If you’re lucky, and the weather cooperates, you might also squeeze in a few walks around a park with your father, giving you an opportunity to breathe air that isn’t stale, thickened by decades of joy and misery, heightened by a potent mixture of urgency and denial. If you’re doubly lucky, you’ll whisk yourself away for a movie, a yoga class, a spot of shopping, maybe even dinners out with the few friends left over after exchanging pylons and potholes for a life half a world away.

You might have a chance to apply for a new passport (thinking it an easy process, but not before dealing with unexpected security issues that arise at the last moment that no, really cannot, be put off given a departure date fast approaching); and you might have time to get your taxes out before the clock strikes penalty-time. You might even get to see the Chagall exhibition AND the exquisite French Giants who made a pit-stop in town.

On the flip side, since you can’t escape death any more than you shall deny life, you might take carve out time for a funeral; you might have to deal with an accident when the backside of a car digs into the tail light of a bulldozer (wrongly) blocking the driveway; you might have to negotiate your way out of inappropriate advances into your personal space, reason with others about services that should be provided gratis, and pull off a tricky phone call across several time zones. Those too comprise a life in transition.

When the time comes to take leave, until the very last, you will be kept busy making lists of what is still to be done; left to the other siblings, agents, friends, saviors. You will do the last of your own packing, depleting, assigning, marking, setting up, closing down.

Then, after a few strolls around the house and a ritual to take final leave, when your bags are packed and stored in the trunk, and the car drives slowly to the corner of the street, you might turn to look out the back window for a last glance, and for a moment believe that in place of that top clump of a towering tree on the front lawn, jutting up past the rooftop (the very same one you’ve meant to ask about: shouldn’t it be pruned?), against a skyline turning rosy from the setting sun, there sits a fiddler on the roof, playing – perhaps the very same violin that was, somehow, magically, just ‘discovered’ in the house below.

Though the parting will be final and swift, have no doubt that reverberations, rough hands and things left undone, will linger and, quite possibly, follow you to your final destination.


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