When I enter the brown stucco house on Wesley Ave., my childhood home, it seems the air inside the tiny foyer has lost some of its composition. It is as if the chemical compounds of the atmosphere have drifted off, like clouds or mist or ghosts. “Hi Mom,” I say loudly so she can hear.” She walks to me slowly, and greets me with a lingering hug. “Hi, Ceil. How are you?” I breathe in the scent of her hair spray. “You look beautiful, Mom.”
I always find an excuse to go upstairs soon after I arrive; I’m drawn to my parents’ small bedroom with its beige walls and mismatched furniture. It calls me. Or perhaps it is someone else calling me. The door sticks and I have to push it open. My sister, Barbara, had an enlargement made of my parents’ wedding photo, colorized it and framed it as a gift. It’s so large it takes up a good portion of one wall, as it should; it is homage to a marriage that lasted sixty-two years. My mother’s lace, ecru veil falls over her black wavy hair, and my Dad’s image reminds me of the Rat Pack days.
The things my father left behind still clutter the top of his dresser and nightstand nineteen months after his death. They are just things, but when he died the things were imbued with a preciousness not normally attributed to CVS prescription bottles or Visine eye drops, and so we have not yet thrown them away. There are five or six Ace bandages and braces—knee, elbow, wrist, ankle, hand-- an unopened Infinity Razor, antacid lozenges still shrink-wrapped.
Scraps of paper lie scattered about and folded in half, with phone numbers and names of former clients. Someone has unearthed his passport and I open it to see a grand total of two stamps dated 3/91, New York to Roma. Jesus hangs on a wooden cross propped up against the wall, and I don’t understand why no one ever hung it back up after the room was painted.
“I used to come in the room and find him gazing at that cross.” My mother shared this with me after the funeral. “I think he was getting ready.”
The hardwood floor creaks in three different places on my way to the closet. I open the door and turn on the light. The smell is an inconsonant mix of mothballs and Chanel. It permeates the space and feels familiar, as though no time has passed since my sisters and I hid inside with the scarves and fur stoles and hat boxes as children. Most of my father’s clothes no longer take up space in there but we’ve kept a few jackets and ties he’d wear over and over again; I run my hand over the fabric, sift through his favorite ties. The red one is missing because we all agreed he should wear it when he arrived at Heaven’s door. He would want to look his best, after all.
I sit a moment in the worn, red recliner by the window. He had trouble sleeping sometimes, the pain of achy joints forcing him to try sitting up to get some relief, and in the morning he’d go downstairs and make a cup of coffee for my mother. Even when he’d had a lousy night, the ritual of bringing her coffee in bed was important to him. They’d watch the news, she from the bed and he from the chair, until it was time to get dressed and make breakfast.
Someone calls for me from downstairs, where my sister has been making the gravy and meatballs. I’m suddenly starving.
Before I leave, I linger by the bedside table, pick up one artifact after another: Vicks Vapo-Rub, half-empty, one of his business cards--Tony Meloni, Licensed Broker, Sales, Rentals, Notary, a tube of Aspercreme. I purposely leave the best for last. A reminder note written on the back of a faded Lotto ticket. “To Celia—give her a blessing for her to give her our love--#1.” The wording is off, but I know what he meant. I am daughter #1.
I know he isn’t in that room anymore, but the conjuring of memories sustains me. They are bittersweet but lovely. Just like life.