Once a year I fly down to South Carolina to attend a board meeting for my family’s shared business (a country house and garden now turned tourist attraction, basically). We all converge on the property in question, and those of us coming from out of town stay in a little cabin my uncle built off in some woods on one edge of the property. The house my grandmother lived and died in is down the river a bit, about half a mile from the cabin, on the far side of the gardens and petting zoo and snack shop where the tourists mill about. This particular meeting was doubly fraught; on the one hand, my mother and uncle and siblings and cousins and I were hashing out the end of various unnecessarily contentious and prolonged estate issues that go all the way back to my grandfather’s death a decade ago; and on the other hand, we were all back there and back together for the first time since my grandmother’s funeral.
I dreaded the meeting. I didn’t want to face any family upheaval and fighting. And I couldn’t imagine being on that property without the magnetic pull of my grandmother’s house, down a dirt road I know every inch of. I assumed I’d ask for a key at some point and wander over and let myself in and, I don’t know, just feel what the house was like without her inside. According to my mother, no one has sorted through or catalogued or sold or boxed up or given away any of her things. Apparently the house is exactly the way it was the day my mother and uncle paid someone to come change the locks the very week she died.
Last spring I went through all the letters she’d ever written me, boxes and boxes of them. Then I read my journals, looking for stories about her, and finally I read all my letters to her (snitched from her desk the week she died) that she’d saved. I looked at her pictures in all my photo albums and I tried to find the books she’d given me over the years so I could read the dedications she’d written inside. I was greedy for every tidbit I had of her, and there were many times I wanted to go back to her house, the one house that never ever changed throughout my entire childhood, no matter how many times my parents moved and I switched schools, no matter how much I grew up.
And then I got there and I couldn’t even fathom it.
I was too scared even to go near her house. I didn’t once set foot on that dirt road I’ve eagerly trotted or biked or driven down for my entire life. The thought of going inside, of walking through room after room, terrified me. Did I really read dozens and dozens of letters last spring? The very thought strikes me as superhumanly courageous, or possibly insane. The letters are boxed back up now, and I’m scared to open the boxes. I’m even scared to look at them. The thought of accidentally glimpsing her handwriting makes me queasy and afraid.
My sister drove by the house, she said, late one night. I didn’t dare ask her if it looked exactly the same, or whether she peeked through the windows, or what it felt like to be right there and know there was nobody living inside.
For months I’d been imagining what it would be like to walk through her house again, with everything so familiar and yet so empty and strange. Now I wonder whether there’s any point at all, or whether I ever will. Several close friends have lost parents this year, and all of them have told me both how wrenching and how cathartic it was to go home and clear everything out, divvying up some of their parents’ possessions, selling or donating or throwing away the rest. It does seem like a necessary rite of passage, and I assumed my family and I would talk about it at some point, would decide how we’re going to undertake whatever difficult tasks come next. It pissed me off that my mother and uncle hadn’t dealt with it already, truth be told. It seemed like they were neglecting their filial duties.
But now I realize I can’t really blame them. After all, I myself was too chicken even to go near the place.