For many years, my parents’ house was a center of neighborhood activity. The kids would knock on the door to ask if my mother was coming outside or if the resident grandchild could come out and play. The neighboring ladies would stop in to borrow a stick of margarine or share a bit of gossip. During the daylight hours and especially on the weekends, the house was never still.
The front doorbell, reserved for Dad’s TV repair customers, would frequently ring followed by Ma calling to us to, “Go get the old man.”
During the week when the children of the neighborhood returned home from school or on fair-weather weekends, Ma would sit on her front stoop overseeing the children that almost always included a grandchild.
The children loved her. She bestowed upon them the time and attention their parents either were too hard pressed to give or simply didn’t have the capacity to share.
Next door in the rental home were Ma’s second and third cousins on her mother’s side. A family of six lived in the house that included four children, their mother, and occasionally their alcoholic father. When there was domestic chaos in that household, Ma would loop her soft, warm arm around their shoulders in silent comfort and compassion.
When my son and I moved in, taking over the upstairs front bedroom in 1973, the house was packed with a person sleeping in every room with the exception of the kitchen and bathroom.
In spite of the seams bursting, the interior of Ma’s house was always in order. There weren’t any dirty dishes in the sink. Floors were swept and washed with regularity, and dust was never allowed to collect on freshly polished surfaces. She would often say that being poor did not mean one had to be dirty. Her home smelled of Pledge and Red Cap Refresher. Her curtains were changed seasonally. Upholstered furniture was relentlessly vacuumed. The bathroom was hygienically clean and always fresh in spite of nearly constant use. Ma kept a very tight ship. We, the crew, ensured it stayed that way.
Yet the ambient sounds were constant. The telephone rang, TVs were on in at least three rooms, the teakettle whistled, the washing machine chugged, the back door snapped shut, the children’s voices squealed. It was a symphony that played in the background between 8:00 am and 9:00 pm for years.
After supper if the weather was agreeable, my son would return to the street games joined by the other kids. Taking up her post on the stoop, Ma would watch the children, refereeing their games and insisting that everyone get their turn. Cheating wasn’t tolerated.
For Ma, those were her glory years. She governed her home and the neighborhood like a benevolent dictator, one that everyone loved, paid attention to, and wanted to please.
The fact that Ma never stepped outside her property line was an open, unspoken secret we all shared. The world came to her. Confined as she was, it was easy to keep secrets that we thought might otherwise unsettle her emotional balance. She was insulated from life beyond that singular neighborhood.
But everything changes, and so too did Ma’s world.
With every year that passed, the house became increasingly quiet. The neighbors that had ebbed and flowed through the house either moved away or no longer took the time to stop by. Eventually Ma moved on, too. She found the internal wherewithal to break the bonds of severe panic attack disorder and get in a car.
She enjoyed a few years free to travel where wheels and a willing driver could take her. Those golden years were too few. Mobility issues would rob her of that hard-won freedom. Time was taking its toll.
Unable to sit on her stoop, she took to sitting on the front porch that had once been part of Dad’s shop. From this vantage point, she could survey the entire street from end to end. But there was nothing to see. The people she once knew seldom stopped by. All the neighborhood children were gone, the grandchildren grown. Ma’s season in the sun was ending.
When she first entered the nursing home, she believed it would provide her with the social interaction she had been missing at home. She came to realize, as humble as it might have been, there’s no place like home. The nursing facility became a new sort of confinement. With surprising grace she bore it.
Entering that house after Ma was moved into nursing care was extraordinarily difficult. I’d call to Dad from the side door. My voice seemed small, barely able to penetrate the years that hung as invisible doors through which I had to walk. Dad would call back, “I’m still here.”
The house, once so filled with sound and movement, so vital to the neighborhood and its inhabitants, now seemed to sigh, seemed to be exhausted, and was silent except for the clock measuring out the remaining hours.
By Marilou Newell