Saying Goodbye

lilies of the valleyI generally prefer being prepared for things in my life rather than being surprised by the unexpected. It therefore helped ease some of the intensity of my parents’ exit from this world when it was a slow, measured process. My mother’s physical incapacitation and my father’s mental deterioration happened gradually over many years. Though hard to witness, this pacing meant that I got to spend time with them through their decline and that I was somewhat prepared for their deaths when they came.

My grief was intense when my mother died, a little more bearable when my father passed two years later. I loved them both deeply and miss them still. There has been some comfort in continuing to feel them in spirit form. Though no longer here physically, they are always available to me in my memories and my heart.

I’ve always known that there would be a third chapter to my familial grief – the selling of the home I grew up in. My sister and her husband had bought our childhood home from my parents many years ago, which kept the house in our family for a much longer time. Though there is nothing particularly unusual about the 1950’s ranch-style house, I have nonetheless loved visiting the place I remember moving into when I was only four years old. Each trip to Ohio to visit my sister has been a sentimental journey. Walking in the back door to the kitchen, sleeping in the bed I had as a child and teenager, and looking out at the back woods where I used to play, have sustained my connection with my childhood and my parents.

But, I knew that my access to this house was on borrowed time. My sister and brother-in-law had made it clear for years that they intended to sell the house and move to Zanesville, Ohio upon Judie’s retirement. So, I knew it was coming, and had been unhappily anticipating the day the house would be sold.

When Judie retired from teaching fourth grade in the Canton City Schools a year ago, the handwriting was on the wall. Her house – our family homestead – would be readied for sale.

Fortunately for me, emptying the house took awhile. As with the process of saying good-bye to my parents, I had a good, long stretch of time to say goodbye to the house. Aware that each of the last several visits I made to North Canton might be the final time I would be inside those walls, I did a little work each time I went to prepare for the loss.

Attending my high school reunion last August, I was already in a sentimental mood from meeting old friends and former teachers. It was easy to extend the process of revisiting my past by digging into memories of the house and my childhood. Of course, the house was different than it had been while I was growing up – it hadn’t been my parents’ house for a long time. Over the twenty-five years Judie and Jeff had owned it, they’d made many changes of d├ęcor, so the house definitely had their imprint. Picturing the carpet color from childhood, the dining room before my dad opened up the back and built a family room, and the placement of furniture were all images I had to reconstruct from memory.

And, memories there were during that August visit! Over there was the corner in the living room where our baby grand piano had stood – the piano I laid under as a little girl listening to my mother play, the piano on which I took lessons and later prepared my college recitals. The sofa had been on the opposite wall. Next to it was the spot for the hi-fi (later replaced by a stereo) that played opera, bluegrass, or rock and roll – depending who had chosen the record. There was my bedroom, my bed in the same position it had stood for most of my life.

I pictured the set of shelves in the kitchen that had held my mother’s cookbooks and the toaster. Down in the basement, I remembered roller skating on the cement floor, swerving to avoid the laundry my mother hung on the lines in the wintertime. I could see the yellow painted walls and braided rug in my parent’s bedroom. Judie’s bedroom, which we’d first shared when we were very young, still had the mirror on the back of the door that had come from my grandparents’ house.

It didn’t take too long on this walkabout to realize what a treasure trove of memories I had stored inside myself. By just inviting them to come to the surface, I could invoke a rich collection of images and feelings that were completely accessible, though they weren’t in the forefront of my thoughts.

Going out in the yard, I remembered the marigolds that had bloomed in one of the flowerbeds, recalled helping mow the large, flat lawn. At the back of the lot was the wild cherry tree that had shaded our dog Betsy’s house.

Eventually, I turned the corner of the house and was excited to see that the east garden bed still had lilies of the valley in them – undoubtedly descendants of the ones that had grown there when I was a little girl. I had loved the lilies of the valley – their shape, their beautiful scent, even the round I’d sung about them in Girl Scouts – “White coral bells, upon a slender stalk. Lilies of the valley deck my garden walk.”

When Mom and Dad died, Judie and I had picked out a design with lilies-of-the valley for our parents’ shared gravestone, precisely because those flowers had grown in our yard our whole lives. I had a sudden inspiration to transplant some of them to my home in Massachusetts, so that I would always have a piece of the land, of the memories, of my family, in my own yard.

It was a wonderful idea, but when the morning came to drive back East, I went out to the flowerbed and lost heart. The flowers, dormant in August, looked pretty bad. Not being much of a gardener, I just didn’t believe they’d survive the trip or my care of them, so I told Judie that I wasn’t going to dig them up after all. I decided that I would keep them in my memory, with all the other images and remembrances, rather than plant the actual flowers at home.

Nearly a year later, my sister arrived for her annual June visit. She brought with her the news that there was an interested family looking at the house. A sale was likely.

But, Judie had brought something besides the news. She pulled out of her suitcase a plastic bag with eight stalks of lilies of the valley, damp paper towels around their roots. She had brought them from Canton, following through on the idea I’d had but let go of. Judie planted them in my yard, assuring me that they were very hardy and should be fine.

I was thrilled. I’d said goodbye to the lilies of the valley last summer, but having the actual flowers in my yard pleased me deeply.

I’m doing my best to care for them. So far, they seem to be taking root and doing well. But, I know that even if they don’t, I’ll always have the lilies of the valley in my memory and my heart – just as I have my Mom, my Dad and the good memories of a happy childhood at 3722 Linda Avenue in North Canton, Ohio.

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