Each Time I Set Foot in That House
by Jan Stinchcomb
I can’t ever leave my childhood home. Something always pulls me back. Many people feel this way, I realize, but my family is in a special situation. Our house is different from all the others.
At a glance it appears to be an ordinary tract house. Three bedrooms. Nice, but nothing fancy, built for an America that had an easier time capturing dreams. It should resist haunting. No attic, no basement, no dark corners, no shadows in the big backyard. We don’t even have white sheets for laundry line ghosts. No Ouija board. No Magic 8-Ball.
It’s the people. They mark you. They stick to you. Don’t start a family if you don’t want to be haunted. Don’t fall in love. Don’t get pregnant.
Don’t be born.
• • •
Your loved ones will get to you by way of small comforts. Strong coffee, See’s Candies, greasy tacos. They will seduce you with objects, like that one sake set, but when you have it appraised, you learn it isn’t valuable at all: the power of stories, incessantly repeated by your parents, has imbued it with an unearned charm. They will enchant you with wallpaper. Our kitchen wallpaper is magical, a Mediterranean scene in sun-bleached blues, greens and reds, forever transporting the viewer to a fantasy of Italy. All through my childhood, visitors would comment on the wallpaper. Everybody admired it, from little kids running through the house to my parents’ cocktail party guests.
The wallpaper was there when my parents inherited the place from Dad’s family, and they never took it down. The pattern: the exterior of a building, trailing vines, a few cobblestones. A Juliet balcony spilling flowers. I could draw this street scene from memory, and when I went to Italy for my honeymoon, I kept looking for it everywhere. I didn’t realize what I was doing until my husband took me aside. “You keep getting distracted. Is it the jet lag? Are you dehydrated?”
“No, sorry. I promise I’ll stop.”
“Is something wrong?”
Nothing was wrong. Nothing. I was simply learning that I could not escape my childhood kitchen. I tried to explain this in halting Italian to a nice older woman who served us in a dark restaurant, but she did not understand me. Her face lit up and she started talking about the sacred nature of what one’s own mother cooks. The taste of it. The love of it.
No. That was not what I meant.
I would never turn my back on my family, but I learned early on to be careful with visits home. The most disturbing things happen. It can be dangerous.
I always think it’s going to be okay. Everyone seems fine at first. My dad is busy, comedic, athletic. Rarely home. My sister Molly is eternally young and pretty. My mom breezes in and out, her days full, her schedule crammed with so many activities she can’t possibly accommodate all of her friends. I’m the lazy one, the kid who is going nowhere.
But this can’t be true. I was the star. How do they forget this every time?
After the first round of hugs and greetings, nobody says much to me. This is typical, I tell myself. They can’t stop thinking of you as the baby. You’ll stay for a week and then you can pack your bags and drive off. You’ll have had your visit.
The days go by. It’s like I never moved away, like I’ve just graduated and they’re waiting for me to announce my plans.
Like I have no life outside this house.
• • •
It is twilight when my mother comes to me. I am sitting in the living room, the formal room for entertaining guests, instead of the family room, where the TV is. I know Mom wants to talk about something. I have felt it building for days.
Her heels click against the wood floor and startle me. I put down the old magazine I’ve been flipping through. “Look at you. Why are you dressed like that?”
She is wearing a plain white wedding dress, sleeveless, hitting just above the knee, and basic white pumps. She has a white headband in her auburn hair, which is flipped up at the ends. It is a good look, an advertisement for the simplicity of the 1960s, much more casual than the clothes she usually favors.
I can tell she is a bride by the little bouquet of lilies of the valley she carries.
“What’s the occasion? Are you going to a costume party with your friends?’
“Of course not! This is my wedding dress.”
“No, it isn’t.” I rise to get the wedding album, but she blocks me.
“You don’t show enough respect.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, though I’m confused. “For what, exactly?”
I don’t know what 1968 means to her. I mentally scroll through an old college syllabus and find student protests, Bobby Kennedy and a space mission. I try to remember what her actual wedding dress looks like.
“You will always have a home here. You know that, don’t you?”
“Yes, Mom. I know. I come home whenever I can.”
The sake set rattles gently inside the china closet.
And then it’s over. She walks away. In the morning there is strong coffee. Breakfast tacos. As we sit at the table in the glow of the Mediterranean wallpaper, I am the only one eating. I try to catch Molly’s eye but all she does is cradle her empty coffee cup and retreat into herself.
I wait all day for the chance to be alone. Dad disappears with his golf clubs. Mom and Molly go outside to garden, but I plead headache. When I hear the back door shut, I tear through all the closets. I search the bookshelves and the trunk at the foot of my parents’ bed.
I can’t find the wedding album anywhere.
• • •
If I can get my sister to some natural setting, a beach or a hiking trail, it will be easier to talk.
We take the winding road out to our favorite beach and by the time we get there, the place is fogged in and freezing. “What a great idea you had,” she says.
“Sorry. I thought you could use some fresh air.”
“Don’t worry about me.” She spreads out the beach blanket, then kneels down and hands me one of the sandwiches we brought along, hot pastrami from the local deli. She pops open a cream soda but doesn’t drink. This has been our beach meal since we were little. “Honestly Meg, you’re the one everybody worries about.”
“Seriously. You keep coming back here like you expect things to change. It’s not fair to me, and it’s certainly not fair to Mom and Dad. The accident was too much for them. They’re unable to navigate time. Dad is stuck and Mom is flailing, grabbing onto random dates.”
“Are you saying you don’t want me to come home anymore?”
My sister won’t ever answer this question. Some rule must bind her, or maybe she doesn’t want to hurt me.
A huge gull lands a few feet away from Molly. I jump up to scare him away. “Watch out! He’ll steal your food.”
“He can’t see me, Meg. You’re all alone on the beach.”
My sister flickers, then disappears. The sun comes out for a split second but it does not warm me.
• • •
I don’t bring my family to the house. My second family. I tried once, when the kids were little, and they didn’t last long. About an hour. They wouldn’t stop screaming, and they became so feverish they were hot to the touch. My daughter ended up with a ruptured eardrum. After we got in the car and drove away, the crying stopped and both kids fell asleep. My whole body relaxed. The further north we drove, the better I felt.
“That was weird,” my husband said. “I’m so glad it’s over.”
• • •
What I wouldn’t give for survivor’s guilt. I’m not sure I believe in the five stages of grief, but I am stuck at anger. It is not anger related to a fateful day, or to one painful decision. It’s anger about everything: how my father is largely absent, how my mother is self-involved, how my sister has made an art of erasing herself. It’s the shameful sensation of being forever stuck in one particular summer each time I step through the door. I’m a grown woman with a job and children but my family is somehow incapable of knowing this.
A golf ball rolls down the hall, makes a left at the kitchen and then continues on to the family room. It loses speed as it crosses the rug and finally knocks against my foot, where it stops. My dad is not far behind.
He is glorious, a champion, in adorably retro golf clothes. “Sweetheart, there’s something I need to talk to you about.”
Pretending surprise, I give him my full attention.
“There has been a tragedy. Your mother and your sister. Meg, I don’t know how to say it.” His face falls as he collapses onto the couch.
We’ve had this conversation many times before. “I know, Dad, I know. The car accident. When you were driving home from Hailey’s wedding. I didn’t go because I had a sore throat.”
He looks at me with a mixture of amazement and relief that devastates me every time. “You know! Oh, I can’t tell you what a comfort that is. I don’t ever want to hurt you, Meg. I can’t stand to see my children hurt.”
“It’s fine, Dad. I understand. I have something to confess. I didn’t have a sore throat. I lied because I had a fight with Cousin Hailey. She’s such a snob. She actually wrote me this bitchy letter, on pink stationery, about why I couldn’t be in the wedding.”
My confession bounces back to me, meaningless. The connection has broken. For a second my father doesn’t know who I am or what I’m going on about. He is frozen in that one day, his last. The terrible task of delivering the news is too much for him and is not alleviated by repetition. I can see the precise moment where he reckons with his own death, and though it cuts to the bone, it brings a sliver of clarity.
“You should empty this house,” he says, looking around. “Empty it and sell it.”
“But Dad, you love this house.” I imagine our love spreading through the room. It is my only hope. “Besides, how else will we find each other?”
By way of response he is gone. I did not even look away and somehow he is gone. The whole house is empty. This is a rare moment of total abandonment. The temperature has dropped and the dust has risen. I know Mom is not in the yard. Molly is not in her room. Nobody is home.
My body turns to stone as an enormous weight crushes my chest. I shake. My head aches. I should run out the front door, but I don’t have the strength. I should make a fire. I should turn on the TV. Instead I wrap myself in an old blanket and curl up on the couch. I close my eyes, drifting in time as I wait for my family to come home.
• • •
The very first time they returned I was alone in the house. Although I had made a good effort to clear the clutter, I knew I would never sell.
We still have an old turntable in the family room. I always liked to play my parents’ records. There’s a lot of cool stuff, but that day I dug deep into the archives and found some albums that must have belonged to my grandparents. Burt Bacharach and Herb Alpert. Embarrassingly old-school, but I liked it. I was sitting there humming along when the garage door opened and scared me to death. Something must have malfunctioned, I told myself. It was a good thing I had come home because I definitely needed to call a repairman. My heart was still pounding when I heard voices in the garage.
All it takes is a word, a syllable, and you know it’s your family. Your mom’s sigh. Your sister’s laugh. Your dad’s cologne.
Then: the familiar sound of keys in the doorknob. I started crying. I could feel something happening inside my brain, chemicals coursing, much like I experienced when I’d first heard the news. The door opened and my family entered the house. It could not have been more natural. My father greeted me in his buoyant way. My mother smirked and asked about my symptoms. Molly tossed me one of those little ribbon-bound bundles of Jordan almonds.
They were still dressed for Hailey’s wedding.
I spent most of my time standing and watching in silence. I followed them from room to room, afraid to disturb the spell. I thought, maybe this happens to a lot of families. Maybe this is another secret aspect of grief, one that must be guarded. I did not want it to end. In fact, I wanted to go all the way back to childhood, if possible. I wanted to keep the four of us at home forever.
They had been dead for nine months.
I learned how to keep them in my life. I can’t stay away for more than three months without experiencing a paralyzing yearning, and I can’t stay with them for long. By the time a week has passed, I can no longer tell the difference between the living and the dead. I begin to forget the details of my own life and find myself settling into their death year. I lose my appetite and sleep most of the day.
I have always lied to my husband. After we married, I told him we would rent out my parents’ house when I was ready. I explained how I needed to check on the property from time to time, and he would allow me to disappear. The house evolved into a kind of office space for me. I have a proofreading job, but my husband thinks I am writing a book. Whenever I take off to “write” in my parents’ house, his mother comes to help with the kids. It is an ideal arrangement.
People no longer mention the property or tell me what to do with it. My friends in real estate have stopped pestering me. Old neighbors, happy I am maintaining the place, nod and wave when they see me drive up.
• • •
“There you are,” Molly says to me.
I am sitting in the backyard but I don’t know how I got here. As soon as I start losing time like this, I know I should leave. I need the anchor of the home and family I built after the accident. I toss my head back to study my sister’s beautiful face. She looks younger than me. She always will.
“Where are Mom and Dad?”
“Inside.” Molly sits down next to me and lays a cold hand on my knee. “Do you want me to help you pack?”
“It’s okay. I don’t have much.”
“Meg, I want you to do something for me. Tell me your children’s names.”
Panic. The light shifts. I feel like I’m drunk at a party. The answer to Molly’s question is on the tip of my tongue. I try to brush her off. “How do you even know their names? They were born after your death.”
“I know because you told me. Because you keep talking to me. Visiting us. Coming home. Otherwise I wouldn’t know anything about your life. Do you understand what I am saying?”
I glare at my sister. Why am I in trouble? Did I do something wrong? Everything I did, I did for love, I swear. “Look. I’ll go, okay? I’m sure their names will come back to me when I’m driving. I know they both start with M.”
“Hurry, please. Hurry so you can find your way home.”
“Give me a break. I’ve lived in this town my whole life! I couldn’t get lost if I tried.” This is a real sister fight: quick anger, quick tears. “It’s so nice here. Molly, please. This is my home.”
Molly is done talking. The champion of staring contests, she was never one to lecture. I always thought her stubborn silence was a big sister trick, but now I wonder if it is the way of ghosts.
In a blink we are inside, walking down the hallway. I see Molly carrying my suitcase out to my car; I have seen her do this a million times.
My parents say goodbye to me without looking up. Dad is watching golf on TV while Mom busies herself in the kitchen. You would think I was only running to the store. You would think no time had passed at all. The wallpaper glows, casting a sunset light across the whole house.
I try to leave but my heart stays behind.
When I step back into the house for a second, Molly whirls around. I want to see Mom and Dad one more time, to fix them in my mind, but they’re already gone. Everything is silent. Before I can get to my car, Molly disappears. I am lightheaded as I start the engine and put my foot on the gas. I have to be quick now before I lose everything. The race is on.
Copyright © 2022 by Jan Stinchcomb