I’m heading down to spend the 4th of July holiday with my children and husband, my mother, and my sister and her family, as we do every year. We crowd into the house, which has at least one too few bathrooms for all of us. We watch and cheer at the town’s old-fashioned parade. We line the kids up for group photos, which used to feature at least one person crying and now feature at least one person being a little surly. I used to dress the children in matching 4th of July pajamas, but that’s no longer happening.
This year there’s an echoing hole in the center of our experience.
We spent last weekend at Mum and Dad’s rambling house by the ocean, where we’ve spent so very many weekends. I have been expecting the summer to be full of landmines and memories, and last weekend that proved true. His absence colors everything in that house. Sure, his absence colors my experience in general, but it is never more true than in that house.
That house where I brought Matt to meet my parents for the first time, a month after we met, in January 1998. He and Dad were reading the same book (let me assure you it wasn’t an airport New York Times bestseller – rather a textbook-style book, about two inches thick, about the history of Europe). After that weekend, Dad said to me, “Well, if he had only lived in Europe for a stint, I think he’d be perfect.” To which I replied, “Did Matt not tell you about the two years he lived in London before business school?”
That house where Dad glanced at me as I walked downstairs in my wedding dress and turned back to the US Open. Sampras was in a fifth set! “Dad,” I remember saying with a sign, “We do have to go.” To his credit, he turned the TV off then.
That house where Mum and Dad hosted Thanksgiving for over 30 people for more than two decades. Where Matt and I pulled up, with a sleeping Grace in her carseat in the backset, on Thanksgiving morning 2002. I have intense, vivid memories of that drive, arriving in front of Mum and Dad’s house, leaning against the headrest of the car, looking into the front windows through which I could see Dad in his bowtie. Matt’s father was still in a coma after his heart transplant. I was deep in the weeds of post partum depression. The rest of the day is a blur, but I do recall with crystalline detail looking through the windows from our navy blue car as we parked.
That house where Grace and Whit lived with Mum and Dad for several summers, growing into themselves, developing their own relationships with their grandparents, learning to sail and playing tennis. Where Dad and Whit took the boat out alone, where Dad and Grace went out to dinner alone, where we spent more nights around the dinner table than I can count. Where for many years, Mum blew out birthday candles with all four of her grandchildren as Dad looked on from the other end of the table.
That house where, very often on a weekend morning, Dad and I were the first people up. I’d bring him a cup of black coffee and he’d glance up and say, “well, thank you!” before turning back to his book. I sat in the other room, reading, and could feel the pulse of him in his red leather chair. The same red leather chair where he held Grace and Whit as infants, and where he later read to them.
That house where I had my last conversation with my father. That house where I talked to him, hugged him, and saw him for the last time. It was another Thanksgiving with over 30 people there, including this year’s foreign student (my sister and I have long maintained that it is the presence of someone we’ve never met before is what makes a Thanksgiving truly real). That house from which we went for our usual after-dinner walk on Thanksgiving, which wound home through the boatyard, Dad and I walking in silence among the boats, up on stilts for the winter.
That house where we gathered for Dad’s funeral. Where a few special family and friends gathered the night before to have dinner, solemn and laughing at the same time, where memory swelled into a present, tangible thing. Where Matt and I retraced that same walk, the one we always do, early on the morning of the service. Where Tennyson ran through my head, as he often does. Where the old sailing friend of Dad’s quoted the same lines from Ulysses as he struck the canon as the crowd gathered for ceremonious colors in Dad’s honor.
And tomorrow, back I go to the same house, for the week with everyone together. It will be the same in many ways and of course wildly, terrifyingly different in one enormous one. All we can do is hold onto each other and proceed. Red and blue and white. Fireworks and memories. Ghosts around every corner, as well as memories of laughter and joy. It’s still Mum’s birthday. We are still together.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides.