We spend every day of the week working to get Cane’s house ready for sale: scrubbing, sanding, painting, polishing, digging, planting, spreading, trimming, hauling, carrying, loving the life we’ve had and the one we have and the one we’re building all day long until we’re so spent we can’t love that way any more.
For breakfast I take my favorite stoneware bowl into the backyard and fill the bottom of it with blueberries. The ones dessicated in the heat dome still cling to their bushes, but all around them are dusk-blue bulbs of sweet bombs that will explode when I bite them. Every single time I taste them I am grateful for the owners before us who planted them, for gifts from people I’ve never known.
Neighborhood boys spend hours in the street, shooting baskets, propelling scooters, laughing and shouting and sometimes crying (the littlest one, mostly). The neighbor across the street puts out a “children playing” sign, though none of the children playing are hers, and I love that as much as their shy smiles when I wave as I drive by to go work on the other house.
The lavender I planted two summers ago has quadrupled in size, and all day every day the bees work it like a factory. The trumpet vine’s blousy instruments blare bright red, a siren song for the neighborhood hummingbirds. The patio is a full, busy place and I try, repeatedly, to capture the wonder of it with my camera, but I fail every time. I’ll have to be satisfied with snapshots of memory.
Friday afternoon I reward myself for painting the tediously twirled iron porch railings by filling the planter boxes Cane built a few days earlier. We choose a stippled coleus, dusty Daisy Millers, red begonias, potato vines, and Sweet Alyssum so sweet it feels a little wrong to stuff them in around the edges of those edgier plants but I do.
Our neighbors two doors down have been fixing up their house all through the pandemic: new windows, new siding, new plants, new paint. They are a young family, and it made me happy to watch their progress until I saw a For Sale sign go up this week. I thought of the boys who will no longer play in our street, and then of our own labor on Cane’s house. “Why do we wait until we’re getting rid of a house to do all the things to it that would help us enjoy it more while we have it?” I ask. “Next summer,” he answers, “let’s pretend we’re moving and do all the things we put off doing.”
We paint all the floors and have to stay off of them for three days. There’s plenty to do in the yard, but I have to keep hydrated to keep migraine at bay and now there’s no bathroom I can access to relieve my bladder gone weak from childbearing and aging. We drive to an antique mall and use theirs, then walk through as if we’re there to shop, in our paint-spattered clothes and dusty shoes. We spy a quilt we weren’t looking for that will look perfect in the bedroom we’re staging. It’s new, but made from vintage fabric, with hand-stitching. It feels like a metaphor for us and we buy it, happy at the idea of incorporating it into our home later, and I feel less guilty about coming there only to use the bathroom and pleased at the gift of serendipity my bladder has given us.
We go to the neighbor’s open house and realize they’ve flipped it, that their labor was never about making their home nice for themselves. Not really. Everything old has been stripped away, replaced by vinyl floors, white cabinets, new appliances, subway tile, white paint in every room. We see the ghosts of features that still live in our house, built the same year as theirs. From the backyard, we see our bedroom window across the fence tops. Later, I stand in the bedroom window and for the first time in three years really see their backyard, the side of their garage. Later, I appreciate even more than I usually do the things that make our house home: the old oak floors, the worn brick fireplace, the floor tiles from different eras, the blue I painted the laundry room walls, the kitchen cabinets installed before I was born, with their large doors that extend to the ceiling. We talk about how it makes us love our home more, somehow, having seen that other one that’s supposed to be what everyone wants now.
We drive to my childhood refuge, Bellingham, where my grandparents lived and I spent summer weeks when weeks felt more like months than days. My last grandmother died just over three years ago, and I haven’t seen her beloved house since it was sold to a young family who’d been renting a house in her neighborhood because it was the only one they wanted to live in until a house came on the market that they could buy. I wonder how it will feel, to see it and know I can’t go in, but then there we are and I see the front door wide open, a pair of chairs on the front porch, and a badminton net in the front yard, and I remember how happy it made my grandmother when families with “young people” moved to her block. I remember my grandparents sitting in folding chairs on that porch more than 40 years ago, drinking coffee and reading the newspaper and waving to me as I rode laps around the blocks on my bike, and in that moment on the street, knowing all I could take away with me now was a photo, all felt as right in the world as it once did when I pedaled around the corner and saw them sitting there, a touchstone I could return to again and again, even as my bike ventured further and further away from their home.