01/08/2013 07:51 am ET Updated Mar 10, 2013

Something To Remember

In 2012, we sold my mother's house. My parents bought the house in 1965, a four-bedroom colonial on a quarter-acre lot on Long Island. The "For Sale" sign on the corner was an insult at first, but we convinced ourselves, my sisters and I, that the house would not sell quickly -- we had plenty of time. We were wrong.

My husband wondered how I felt about selling the house. "It's got to be devastating," he said, "to let go of the remnants of your childhood home."

I shook my head. Nonsense! "There's nothing of mine there any more," I said. My room had been turned into a store room, a guest room and then a nursery for the grandchildren. The last inhabitants of my old bedroom were the hired private aides who tended my father. "I don't have any emotional attachments to anything in that house." I claimed. "It's not that big a deal."

Famous last words.

After the closing we had 30 days to empty the house. My sisters living locally did much of the work, emptying cabinets and holding garage sales, packing away the most important collectables and marking their names on the things they wanted to keep. By the time I flew home, the kitchen was empty and every piece of furniture was marked with a price tag.

I covered my rising anxiety with practiced levity: "I am in charge of refuse," I bragged in a voice too sure. "The Big Discard. I will throw out anything that fits safely in a trash bag."

I'd underestimated the true emotional weight of cleaning out my childhood home. After the first day, a full third of my life was out at the street bundled in industrial trash bags, waiting for the solid waste special pick-up. Bits of my identity disappeared with every trip to the curb. My first sewing machine, still in the box. My camp trunk. I found the hand weights I bought for my parents so they would "firm up," the box of mismatched rolling casters my father saved, the reel-to-reel tape recorder, the homemade 400-pound humidifier that used to stand in the hall outside our bathroom. I bagged miles of phone cords, cables, electrical wires and connectors my father stored in his workroom. He was a Mr. Fix It; the house was scarred with his handiwork. He'd threaded phone lines between the walls, rerouted plumbing, wired an intercom system from the kitchen into our bedrooms so he could wake at us all at once: "Everybody up!"

As I tromped from the basement to the curb, bearing the heavy black trash bags over a shoulder, I realized the enormity of this burden. Clearing out the house was an exercise in finality -- it would require some major grieving.

But, there was no time to grieve. We remained in motion, our little broken family. My mother skittered from room to room, holding stuff close to her chest like a tiny mouse trapped in a maze. "What should we do with Dad's first baby shoes?" She deposited odd keepsakes on my bed for my consideration: my cancelled first passport, a pocket watch, two unmatched cufflinks. What about the big box of genealogy notes a cousin sent 15 years ago with the certificates of our ancestors landing at Ellis Island?

There was so much stuff and I was too familiar with it all. I knew every scrap, every trinket. The origin of every glass vase, every figurine. And every item that passed through my fingers hurt.

My mother went to bed early each night, distracting herself with old movies. Her bedroom would be dismantled last, just before the movers came. Until then, it remained an oasis of seeming stability.

At night, I cleaned out the basement. Mold glued photo albums to the wooden shelves, adhering the leathery covers to one another. Boxes of labeled carousels filled with slides, marked in my father's pen, recorded the travels of our family: Grand Canyon 1969. Europe 1975. Niagara Falls. My eyes burned; the sound of my family's laughter was steeped in my tears.

During the days, neighbors arrived in little groups. Some brought flowers to cheer up a saddened family. Some sat with my mother over tea and listened to her remember the great times.

The woman who cleaned my mother's house for 30 years rode over on her bicycle. My second and fourth grade teacher came by with coffee cake and memories of her own. My father, an obstetrician, had delivered all her children. My father's barber came. My sister's music teacher came. As every person readied to go, my mother offered a gift. She's an artist; her paintings covered nearly every wall in our house. "Take a painting," my mother insisted. "It will be something to remember me by."

During the last night, when the house echoed with dust and vacancy, I thought about my own house and my own children, and about my mother's grace in the midst of a heartbreaking process. Compassion ached in my chest; I would not sleep that night.

Downstairs, I moved my mother's remaining artwork into the empty living room. I'd found dozens of paintings stowed in closets, in her studio, in the bathrooms, in corners of the basement. I washed them, smiling at her soft colors, her lovely imagery of beach reeds in winter and the soggy slope of low tides. As I stood each piece against the wall in the living room, the emptiness receded. The room came alive with my mother's art.

When she came down for breakfast, on our last day together in that house, she was immediately embraced by her art: a vibrant history in paintings. And when friends came that day to say one last goodbye, she swept out an arm and said, "Take one to remember me by."