My mother’s house has been conquered by barbarians--my own family, squatters who refuse to leave. To sell this house in DC while living in New York, I have to engage in a little self-promotion: master of the house sounded good. The hitch is that the youngest daughter is often the easiest to ignore.
Inheritance, too, seems to cast quite a binary. While I have to muster everything against my nature to become a manager to these squatters, I realize that I’m becoming a servant to this house.
My brother isn’t ready to sell yet. “I need more time,” he says. “Don’t even worry about it. Everything’s under control.” He buys modest gadgets--a vacuum sealer, a butter making machine--with our mother’s life insurance money, and runs a home business from the suburbs.
My father begins staying at my mother’s house during the weekdays three months after she dies. The commute to his IT job at Geico is much shorter now, and he can also keep an eye on my brother, the 33 year old who had never moved out of his mother’s home. He is stocking the cabinets with Yorkshire Tea. His monogrammed LLBean dopp kit hangs from the bathroom hook. My brother and my father go out to dinner each night, and line the fridge with take-out containers of pasta and half-eaten hamburgers. He is moving in, not helping to move out.
We set up an altar in the living room. I pour my mother’s ashes into her favorite Chinese vase and set it in the middle of the mantle. My mother’s middle sister says she has always loved that vase, and asks if she can have it. “Mom’s in there,” I say.
I explain that ancient Roman families each had a household altar, a shrine to the spirits that they can interact with personally each day. A lararium! I say. Your older sister, she’s like a Roman god! She says it’s getting late and she really must head back home.
I need to get everything out, but it’s hard to say goodbye to each square foot. A piano once served as the entryway’s tabletop. She had bought it in the hopes her children would pick up the skill, which would train our minds and help us grow to be wealthy lawyers. After a few years of growing dust, it was sold to a more musically ambitious family. What’s left is a heavy oriental rug that needs cleaning, four feet of a piano still imprinted in the wool.
We lived with the house’s original 70’s campy interior design for most of our time there. The kitchen countertops had been bright yellow linoleum. The bathroom mirror was ringed with light bulbs, as if we’d be going on stage after brushing our teeth. Only recently did my mother start fixing it up, knowing she wanted to get married, sell it to retire into something grander. My mother spent years researching the perfect marble kitchen countertop replacement, asking my opinion between slabs every time I visited. “Earth green? Or mother-of-pearl?” she asked, shoving the rock samples in my face. She finally settled on a bright white marble, and from then on, followed her guests around with a cloth to ensure no rings or stains were ever left behind.
The first floor of the house is small but warm, outfitted in rich Roman reds and golds. Bulky raw silk curtains line the windows; frames of Audubon birds, regattas, and English castles line the walls. The den hides the TV, as well as a large salmon pink couch. The three of us would pile on that couch together, ignore whatever late-night show was on to joke around and catch up.
The house was in its tip-top DC socialite prime when she died--no expense spared for the engagement party she hosted for me just a few months before.
“You’re stressing her out. You’re killing her,” my brother had said, calling me from the car as the two of them scoured Bethesda for new couch covers. “She should not be stressed out right now, and you’re making her have this party.”
It was a good party. My mother picked up a magnificent chocolate ganache opera cake from a patisserie in Georgetown and served it to a mix of my worlds: my future in-laws who flew in from the midwest, the ex-co-workers who still talked to me, her book club friends. We decided to repeat the party’s model for the funeral. My future in-laws rebooked the same flights.
“Look at her white couches! Look at her marble countertops,” I said to the funeral guests, among them an interior designer or two. Come, sample the cheese plate, and marvel at my mother’s furniture. They didn’t know my mom was looking on from the lararium.
We have to decide whether to repair the deck, or sell as-is. One of the deck’s planks had buckled under the weight of all the guests who came back to the house after the service that sunny funeral afternoon. “Woahhhhh!,” the crowd cried as the plank snapped beneath. I jumped up to find my father--what had he done now?
My father was yelling all day that day, yelling before the service even began. He paced back and forth on the church’s front courtyard, screaming into the air as the guests streamed inside.
“ICE! I asked you to get ICE, and you ignored me! We have two hundred people coming over and there is no ICE? Are you both insane?”
My brother and I tried to calm him down. We were nervous for our eulogies, and thought the ice could probably wait. I talked him through the idea that the first round of Heinekens might not be cold, but people would be understanding.
My monthly routine after the funeral becomes consistent: a four hour bus ride down, a cab to the house, whipping out the garbage bags, getting right down to business. I throw out our childhood artwork, our skis from the 80’s, my mother’s swimsuits. I heap my grandmother’s boxed-up house that we never dealt with, my mother’s piles and piles of paperwork that she never dealt with, and my American Girl dolls that I never dealt with into a giant dumpster. My father is only there on the weekdays, we just miss each other each time. My brother is filled with promises, but also always disappears as soon as he smells work. I paint the unfinished basement and sweep a dead bird from the rafters. I try and sell her fanciest clothes to various consignment shops but I am told they have too strong a certain smell. Then I hug a massive cup of white wine and cry all the way back up I-95, thinking about how much I’d lost. The routine lasts a year and a half. Dealing with death is life.
I put my brother in charge of the utilities. He resents my self-promotion to house manager--after all, he is the one living there. I am the sister badgering him with phone calls about “next steps.” He whirls around the broken deck on his new hoverboard--his newest gadget--cell phone under his ear, smoking a cigarette, talking to Pepco. “Let’s say, like, hypothetically, I don’t pay this electrical bill… how long would I have before you guys shut it off? Oh, really, that soon? Okay, say word, say word. Well… question, how can I pay a bill if I don’t have, like, an account, like a bank account?”
Each trip finds fresh horrors.
I call Pfizer. “Hi, um, my mom passed away and I was checking in on her pension? She worked there for twenty years.”
The voice on the other end asks me for the date of death. “Oh, wow, so she really recently just passed away,” the HR rep says. “Don’t you think it’s a little early for you to be calling about money?”
“Can’t you dust? Can’t you at least clean the bathroom every now and then?” I ask my brother, exasperated after one of the more spirit-crushing bus rides. Toothpaste cakes the sides of the sink, hair is everywhere, my mother’s monogrammed towels lay on the floor.
“We clean. You could clean,” my brother says. “Everything is under control.” He takes a long pull from his vape pen.
The year before she got sick, my mother and I met in Rome for a long weekend. We spent the first morning looking down at the ruins of two patrician villas, an excavation site that the city had converted into a museum. They had installed a glass floor over the site, allowing us to walk over the dining rooms, bath houses, and gardens, and peer into these ancient Romans’ ways of life from on high.
A new estate was built right on top of the ruins a few centuries later. We looked down into the spaces between the interior walls, where the new family had built a unique form of insulation. The tenants threw any recovered Roman busts and statues between the walls, padding that space to make their rooms warmer. Augustus’ cheek now hugged the wall, his feet wedged to just graze the head of a shrouded Apollo. These newcomers were truly medieval--the excavators found remnants of food scraps, and the cracked plates themselves, tossed into a gigantic garbage pile in the alleyway. The Dark Ages had descended on the beautiful ancient villa, trashed its stone tributes to bow-happy Diana and winged Mercury, and wouldn’t even run the dishwasher.
Upon exiting the museum, I made my mother sit through a ninety-minute video about Trajan’s Column. I wanted to take the train to Ostia to see the ancient fishermen’s stalls. My mother would’ve rather flown to Tarquinia for tea. We compromised and went shopping.
She led me into a Ferragamo store with high hopes. Surrounded by silk scarves, leather purses, and the brand’s legendary black patent mid-heel pumps with the bright gold buckle, she was ready to invest in the goods needed to propel her daughter into the upper echelons of sophistication.
A saleslady sat us down and served shots of Nespresso in white cups and saucers. “And what size shall I pull for the Vara pump?”
“Oh well I don’t know. I’ve got really big feet.”
“Sweetie, this is the flagship store. They have a wider selection here.” She patted my hand.
“Well I’m American size 12, I’m not sure of the conversion?”
The saleslady didn’t bat an eye, and brought out their biggest pair.
They didn’t fit. I got flustered. “I’m a monster!” I said, plodding around the showroom bow-legged, my heels sticking out the back of each shoe. “Rawrrr, I’m a big-footed monster!”
My mother blanched, quickly yanked my feet out of the shoes, thanked the staff, and rushed back outside to join the bustling tourists at the foot of the Spanish Steps. She recovered next door at Acqua di Parma, ignoring me and taking her time, testing each scent on her forearm before purchasing a bottle of the magnolia perfume for herself.
If we sell the house, I could go back to Rome, maybe even special-order some size 12 Ferragamos. I have to convince my brother to finally “get with the program”--our mother’s phrase. My cab pulls up to the walkway, which is now covered in brown stalks. After stooping down to inspect, I realize the brown thrush is the previous year’s dead tulips, bowed at their bases.
The key is still under the mat.
The house stinks of men.
My brother has moved the Tiffany candlesticks off the dining room table to set up a Playstation.
My father had set up a new queen sized mattress to replace my lumpy twin from high school--he is too scared to sleep in the master. He bought a big-screen TV to watch from the new bed.
I am trying to get everything out, and they are still trying to keep everything in.
Spilled coffee beans cover the marble countertop alongside stacks of dirty dishes. I take a big black trashbag and start going at the cupboards. Rusty cookie cutters, vintage mixers, a dozen half-empty boxes of dried pasta. For some reason, the spices in the spicerack have already been cleared and replaced with stacks of jumbo jars of coconut oil, Jello packets, and a mysterious herbal liquid.
To be an effective manager, sometimes you have to turn off your emotions and throw every fucking thing in the garbage. I pour my brother’s edibles solution down the drain, and recycle all the coconut oil jars.
I walk into my mother’s bedroom, surveying the scene. There are still a few items of clothing I needed to reckon with or give away. My mother’s tray of perfumes had once been the focal point of the room, an impressive display topping her tallest dresser.
In her last year, medicine took priority, and she had dismantled the perfume tray. I watched her store the bigger bottles, the Hermès and the Chanel, in her underwear drawer.
Picking up the bottle of Acqua di Parma, I asked, “Hey, wasn’t that fun in Rome?”
She shuddered when I sprayed the air.
“Perfumes make me nauseous now.”
“Oh. Well then can I have it? It’s not like you’ll use it.”
The room got heavier, darker. Why did I say that? Give me everything you’ve got, allow me to pillage your last remaining pleasures in this life. My natural instinct shining right through.
That was the first moment--the moment Death got his foot in the door. My daughter can’t even wait until this was over?, she was probably thinking.
She didn’t answer. I put it back, the last tall perfume bottle on the tray.
A year and a half later and the tray looks as if it hasn’t been touched since. I’ll take the Acqua di Parma home on this trip, I decide. Everything out.
My mother’s bedroom is the last room in the house that still smells right. The colors are still right. The dresser, the four poster bed, the makeup bench is still right. Everything’s under control, my brother promised.
Placing my bag down on the floor, I gasped. A dead, puffy sparrow lay on the hardwood floor in the middle of the bedroom. The bird’s twiggy feet stand straight up in the air. Another dead bird, who had flown in from God knows where, God knows when.
Our cousin is a realtor who helps us put the house on the market. He has been asking about our timing all year. I point to my vaping brother and shrug. He warns us that he is going out of the country for his honeymoon in June--it’s the first time he’s ever been out of the country, and they’ll be touring around Italy for a week and a half. My brother and I put the house on the market the week he leaves.
A recent divorcee snatches the house up right quick. He needs to be near his kids and the price is right. He’ll uncover our mound of cigarette butts in the ivy over the fence a few months in. We threw them in abandoned despair while taking breaks from upending the house.
The house is emptied of all furniture but I need to sleep on the floor of my childhood bedroom for the final night. My cheek rests on the cool wooden floorboards and I stare at the robin’s egg blue painted walls I had applied twenty years prior. I breathe the dust particles off the floor and into and out of my nose, and I can’t sleep. I feel each final minute of each final hour, and the insomnia lingers from there--it is the last thing I take from the house.
Caroline Henley is a writer and a social media marketer, with a career that has spanned book publishing, tech startups, and higher education. Her essays and fiction have been published in Mockingbird Magazine, LoftLife, and The F Word. She is at work on a memoir, Havishamarama, about losing a parent while planning a wedding.
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