My Ocean of Grief


My grandparents’ house on Toto Loma Lane in Laguna Beach is the only place that has been constant in my 46 years. To know that soon it will no longer be our family home is utterly heartbreaking. They were married for 73 years when my Grandpa Charlie died last summer and had lived in the same house for 51 years when my Grammy Bird died this May. At first it was so strange to enter the house after Charlie died – to not have him there to greet you with a smile and a hug, to not be on the balcony waving goodbye as you tooted the horn on the way down to the street. Then after Bird died, it was such a foreign feeling to not have either of them there. But it still smelled like their house. All of their things – even their clothes – were still there, so it felt like they were still there. We had Charlie’s memorial service in February and then Bird’s just 3 months later in that house. Everything seemed like it was the same. And the wave receded.

But then, we prepared for the estate sale. The amount of things they accumulated between all of their world travels, Bird's ability to see beauty in the imperfect and Charlie's tinkering, was staggering. There were things found stored in the garage and under the house that my dad had never seen before. It was overwhelming to see all of their things laid out on tables with little price tags on them for sale. Even though initially my instinct was to take everything so I could hold onto them forever, I made a promise to myself that I would only take items that would be displayed and honored in my home. I realized, quite simply, we are not our things. There were so many objects that I had to pick up, thank for its service, and place them back only to trust that they would find a home where they would be used, appreciated and even loved. So I took the things I know I would use or display or were mementos for my two young daughters. I packed what I could into plastic bins and loaded them into my car. I took one last walk through the house saying goodbye to each room, inhaling deeply the scent in the office – the only room that still had that wonderful warm smell of my childhood. I took just one look back at the house as I drove away, knowing I most likely never see it again. I didn’t want to see it empty, ready to be sold. And the wave receded.

For just three days.

Then the movers brought the larger items that wouldn’t fit in my car. Some for me, some for my parents to retrieve later. The antique carousel horse with its dulled brass pole that was in their entry on which my girls played on every time they visited. The wood headboard from the guest room with beautiful oval beveled glass that was actually the front door of my great-grandmother’s house. The boxes and boxes of photo albums. Charlie’s beloved grandfather clock. The two antique safes. And the Hoosier cupboard that was the pantry in my great-grandmother’s house. It was this piece that I opened and buried my face and took the deepest breath I could. It was delicious! It was calming and familiar. It was the essence of their house. And I had it in my home!

And then ten days later, another wave crashed.

The realtor photos of Bird and Charlie’s house showed up in my inbox. The virtual tour of the empty house. The walls are empty, but have a frame of dust where every single thing that hung in its place. The original color of their carpet I remember of a child, revealed with the outline of the furniture that once rested there. The darker shade of wallpaper exposed behind the family photos, artwork, and the mementos from their world travels. It is so disorienting. The house seems to make no sense without their things in it.

And then, I am struck by the things that remain – the eyeglass lens lamp hanging in the dining room that my father made, the door knocker in the shape of a hand on the bathroom door, the light switch plate with the little frog on the corner, the plastic pages with shower songs that my grandpa used to sing so loudly in the shower – “Sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. Saint Peter don’t you call me, ‘cause I can’t go, I gave my soul to the company store.”

And then there are my favorite parts of the house. The bar we used not only for cocktails but to dye eggs every Easter, which turned into an alter after Charlie died and then again held the bottles wine we drank to toast each of them at their memorial services. The kitchen, with its yellow counters and crazy pullout-from-the-wall toaster, which after breakfast made their home smell like toasted English muffins. Where we cooked the moveable feasts we brought for Thanksgiving when Bird could no longer travel. The kitchen shelf that held the large yellow Tupperware canister of what seemed like an endless supply of homemade chocolate chip cookies. I can feel every drawer and cupboard pull in my hand still. In the backyard there was a wall covered in ceramic suns from all over the world which now only holds the outlines of the rays that once shone.

And all of the secrets of that house that no one will know. That the reason that the back of the front door has black semi-circle marks is from the hanging sleigh bells that swung with such beautiful music every time they welcomed people in their home - like little smiles made by the bells. That the reason the front door, back door, house numbers and doorbell are purple are because they were Bird’s favorite color. Where all of the good hiding places in the garden are for Easter eggs and hide & seek. That the cement pad in the backyard once had a tree planted there in which my grandpa built me a tree house. That it was in the Living Room that I sat vigil for seventy-two hours with my grandpa as he prepared to release his body. And after he did, I lovingly bathed and anointed his body. And then, ten months later, in the very same room, I did the same for Bird’s body in preparation for her last journey. That it was in the garden that I sang You Are Filled with the Light of a Thousand Angels as I followed their bodies as they were carried through it one last time.

And the wave recedes.


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