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The Walls Came Down: A Family In Transition

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I have lost track of time in the last few weeks -- the result of moving my father from his home of 52 years to his new apartment in New York City. It is simple to say that it was physically taxing. It is simplistic to say that the move is "over." My sister and I spent eight 12-hour days packing, throwing away, deciphering, discerning, unpacking, repairing, and assembling. Our father's new place is a miniature and revived replica of what once was on a grander scale, yet tired.

The labor was a testimony to our strength of spirit and physical fitness. The emotional component was more compelling and intense as we worked side-by-side, fought and laughed, and forged onward in what truly was an ode to family. Our brother, who lives in Massachusetts, was in constant contact. Although unable to lend his "back," his presence was felt. For the three of us, it was an exercise in separating the tasks at hand from the emotions that all too easily could have gotten in the way.

People say to me, "Well, it's over now." Perhaps it sounds strange that I don't feel quite the sense of completion that one might feel although the nearly herculean labors are finished. Now, there is a post mortem of this episode which addles my brain. It is an emotional autopsy, if you will, of a home undone and an era gone. I continue to unearth endless clues (some probably figments of my imagination) as I dissect the lifetime of two people who are my parents. The dismantling of the apartment was an inadvertent eavesdropping as photographs and love letters (ones not meant for my eyes) became pieces of a puzzle that I still find myself assembling - probably building an inaccurate jigsaw of my parents life and marriage. The latter, perhaps, is the most compelling for me as "marriage" is the generic word for the relationship which lies beneath the public definition.

The notion of the move being "over" is a tremendous misnomer as the curse of my over-cranking brain begs questions and seeks answers. I find myself shaking my head so often that my husband assumes I am shaking my head at him.

On a lighter note, one thing I learned is the importance of writing on the backs of photographs: There were hundreds of snapshots where I longed to know the year, and the names of the people fading into gray from black and white. At the time the photos were placed in boxes or albums, I suppose no one thought the faces and dates would be forgotten.

Last week, on the eighth day (a poignant time frame since it was the day of "de-creation"), we left the apartment "broom clean" and empty. How strange to see the rooms looking as dreary as they did in 1957 when my mother had a vision of an apartment that had been lived in too long by others as our family took it over. Indeed, life is a circle: I picture a youngish couple with small children looking at the apartment in the next few weeks or few months, seeing it in disrepair and empty after more than half a century, and wondering (as my mother did in 1957) "how people could have lived that way." They will not know that once there were lavish dinner parties, birthday and holiday dinners, children who laughed, cried, and played, a married couple who loved and fought, music, and two little dogs who are now long gone. They won't know that once upon a time the apartment was filled with newness, hope, and life. For sure, it was not a place where we ever thought life would unravel... where both our grandmother and mother would die in what was once my sister's and my room.

My father likes his new apartment. He was rather astounded, and at 90, comforted, I think, by the notion that all of his "things" were there - save his 300- pound dinosaur of a television. He now has a flat screen, and although that flat screen was our intended "piece de resistance" for him, he keeps asking for the old TV.

My mother would have loved the new apartment. It is exactly what she wanted when time kept getting away from her and walls crumbled as my father staunchly refused to move. She would have loved the way her belongings "pop" in the rooms with clean lines, fresh paint, and smooth walls. She would have loved the way the sunlight streams in, and the panoramic view of Manhattan from the 16th floor.

Whether it is self-protective denial or truth torments me as my father says he" never liked the old place."

Before I left the old apartment, I vacuumed and washed the kitchen floor with Pine-Sol - although the superintendent kept saying it was unnecessary. I explained, to no avail, that I was doing it for my mother. As worn and dingy as the apartment was, I wanted to leave it the way she would have. I literally mopped myself out the back door - recalling how once I used the long hallway to slide in my socks while my mother cried to me that I was "too wild" and would "break my neck." And then, in stocking feet, I took a small slide for old time's sake...then walked through every empty room while sprites of years gone by danced in my brain. In the room I once shared with my brother, I tore away a piece of shelving, unearthing the pale yellow of the walls that were newly painted in 1957.

How strikingly different from the all-too-dark taupe they were painted 20 years ago - chic at the time, but two decades later, aged and showing every crack in the plaster much like an old woman's hands: once elegant and now veined and spotted. In a final check, I opened the coat closet and picked up an old audio cassette tape lying in the corner, hard to see since it blended in with the beige linoleum. I put the tape in my purse.

I brought home a box filled with photographs and letters to look through the day after we settled our father into his new place. It was my "swan song" as I made large manilla envelopes for my brother, my sister and myself. It was just what I needed: a day to sort through the remainders and collect my thoughts in solitude. And so, it was at the end of that day that I blew the dust off the cassette, popped it into the tape player in our living room, and expected to hear phone messages or dead air. And just when I thought I had salvaged every tangible memory and there was nothing left to discover, there on the tape was my mother playing piano: two preludes by Bach and The Soldier's March by Schubert. Once upon a time she wanted to be a concert pianist, but marriage and children took her dream on a detour.

On the one hand, it was a gift to hear the strains of my mother's once nimble fingers flying. On the other hand, it made me realize what was gone. I have only listened to the tape that one time. I suppose at some point I will again. I just don't know when.

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