Grace Notes
A hopeful newspaper column ~ by Natalie Costanza-Chavez
* Small Losses > Leaving Houses
Leaving Houses

Grace-Notes #10 – to run on 3/5/06

Leaving Houses

As a child I spent much time cataloging moments: this smell – orange blossoms fallen on the wet bricks after rain – is safety; this sound – ice tinking in glasses, laughter, the thud of children on the landing of the stairs – is holiday; this feeling – salt dried deep in my hair, sand on my calves, the red bright behind my closed eyelids as I turn to face the sun – is summer.

Because of this proclivity, years before he died, before they closed up and sold the house, before any transition at all – each time I visited my grandparents’ house, I escaped alone to the back, walked past the screen doors, the old ice box, the laundry room with the three deep freezes, to my grandfather’s shop.

I’d stand on the second step down, the saggy one bowed from sixty plus years of footfall, and take in the smell of Boraxo and metal and grease. I’d eye the kitchen-rejected lazy susans, reclaimed and stacked to become a spinning-holder of screwdrivers and awls, the orange lidded Sanka jars filled with steel wool, or soap slivers for driving screws, or three pronged plug converters, and the huge cannery jars of what my father later described as “God only knows what” chemicals, their labels faded and curled. I’d take in his welding mask, his grinders littered with what seemed to be silver tinsel until I touched the sharp leavings with my fingers and they bled, his jigsaws and table saws and duck hunting waders. Quiet and still as dust, I’d take it in.

I didn’t tell anyone I was doing this. I feared they would think me crazy, or morbid. But even then, when I was small, I knew that my world could not, would not stay the same. So, I’d breathe in his shop – the spirit of the room alive.

Then, I’d turn back and fade into whatever celebration was going on, sure I’d paused long enough to never really lose any part of what I loved.

I think I spent part of a lifetime saying goodbye to my grandparents’ houses – perhaps it was so I didn’t have to say goodbye to my own.

I am going home this week – to help my parents pack up their house. It is the house I grew up in. They are moving, after 40 years, from Southern California, back to Northern California where they were born and where most of our family stayed. Back to the redwoods, the banana slugs, soil that will grow anything and to a small parcel of land they’ve always known.

I want them to move. This is not a tragedy and not brought on by limitations or illness or loss. This is a move of freedom. Yet, my throat tightens when I think of stepping off the plane in Los Angeles – the palm trees I will notice first, then the almost shocking pink of fuchsias on the hills. The oak trees. The egg white light of southern California just before the sun begins its decent.

I haven’t thought much about the drive up the hill to our house, the big green stucco one with the concrete cracked from earthquakes, the lemon tree and oleander bushes. It is the house I’ve not readied myself to leave.

In a betrayal of something I’ve known since age six, these last few months I’ve tried to convince myself that goodbyes tax us, drain us, and that maybe it is indeed better to stumble upon them and then to consider them only in retrospect, if at all.

Months ago, after a long visit, we were pulling out of my parent’s driveway and my son said “This is the last time I will see Grandma and Papa’s house, the last time I will catch lizards, the last time I will slide down the stairs or swim here or eat ice cream outside in the dark on the deck.”

What I thought of saying to him was sharp and impatient: “Stop that – stop being like me – stop trying to say goodbye already – it’s not time yet. We don’t have to yet. It’s only a house. It’s only a house.”

It was a small betrayal – what I thought of saying to him.

He was braver than I. And wiser. And already getting ready for the hard work ahead. (end)