House of Memory
On the first anniversary of her husband's death, Lisa reflects on the past year and on her living covenant with Gil.
In 1968, I am staring out the back windshield of my parents' car. Our house recedes, its boundaries shrink, the property surrounding it gives way to the street and the trees and the cars that are familiar, and then to another street, less familiar, and eventually to someplace I haven't been before. I am five. My father makes a turn, hand over hand, as my mother opens the map to where we are going. In the back seat, I settle down between my brother and sister. As the traffic light changes, the light of understanding dawns for me: The house is still there, behind us. The trees I know are there. The street is there. We are the ones going away.
Is my life with Gil like that? A home, like the house I still live in with our daughter, that existed before we came to it and persists after we go? Do the houses we empty need our memories to affix them to earth? Or do they fix our memories in place for us? Are we-the ones moving at the speed limit so much of the time, only slowing to obey a stop signal or because we get distracted and our foot drifts off the accelerator-are we dependent on those houses to contain our memories when we cannot anymore?
If a memory we make can exist apart from us, then a ghost might be nothing more than a memory so charged, so indelible-perhaps lost to its owners-that it finds a physical home for its care and preservation.
In the 100-year-old house I shared with Gil for only 18 months, I once walked among the unpacked boxes, myself an unpacked box containing Mona, and wondered who might have died here. I thank God I was in my life's backseat at that delicious moment, unfolding bed linens and musing on the house's history. Because my answer lay ahead, only a year and a handful of months ahead. And now the house is mine alone to tend, to keep or sell, to patch and pay for, to fix up or let go. No matter what I do or whether I move, it will remain the home we brought our daughter to and the home that slammed its door on Gil's dead body. The question for me is, do I stay and honor those memories? Would my staying honor those memories? Do they live apart from me, will they enliven the bones and walls of our house with the urgency of our honest love, the effortlessness of selflessness, the lesson I learned under Gil's husbanding care? In that case, would it be selfish for me to stay on here when I have already taken that lesson to heart? Would I become the ghost in these walls?
Pick a spot, any spot in this house, and I will give you a sampling of its invisible landmarks, rooms in time that open their doors when I least expect them to. I bring home the groceries, and the sound of the key in the lock makes me choke on his name and the bright greeting we always exchanged. Reflexively I might still glance through to the narrow galley kitchen and hope to find him puttering at the stove with one of his ballcaps covering dirty hair. In the dining room, he might just be sitting at his customary place. If it's lunch time, he'll be eating a tuna-avocado-tomato-and-swiss sandwich on an English muffin, the lunch he made almost every day with architectural care and savored with comics he creased and saved specifically for lunchtime reading. Or maybe he is there with the carpenter who helped him fix up the basement as an office for our business. And I come around to distract him or listen in, bumping my hip to his shoulder as he sits, until he absentmindedly loops his arm around my back and pats the side of my growing belly fondly.
By the china cabinet is the empty spot where we stood to let his parents snap a picture of us, coats on, ready for the hospital when Mona was on her way. The green armchair that is now in the living room was moved from room to room in the house as I struggled to learn how to breastfeed; the night I finally got to go out and leave Gil with a bottle, he discovered what a mistake it was to try to sit with Mona in that special chair for the replacement nursing. When I came home, he calmly told me how pissed off she'd been and how he handled it; far from feeling wounded, he was proud of her anger, pleased at her strong will to go hungry rather than settle for what she didn't truly want.