by Laura Davies
About a year and a half after they were married my brother and sister-in-law did what many married couples do, they bought their first home. Except, unlike most married couples, the home they bought was inhabited by my mother and father who had no intention of leaving…oh yeah…and my mother was dying of pancreatic cancer.
Although my brother and his wife Laura’s names were on the deed, it would never truly feel like their family home. The house had belonged to my mother, and the six children she raised there would never see it as anything but their childhood home.
For six years after my mother’s death my brother and Laura had to subtly and strategically decide when it was okay to change photos, paint rooms, and stow away my family’s old belongings. Quietly and delicately they weaved the evidence of their young family in, out, and over the reminders of a family who had long since grown-up and dispersed.
After having a conversation with my sister-in-law about her experience, I asked her to share it here with you. I think anyone who’s lived in a house after a family member has died or who knows what its like to deal with the death of an in-law will be able to relate. Plus she’s a writer, so I figured anything she came up with would be a good read.
When a woman gets married, she not only becomes a wife. She also becomes the woman of her house. Her dishes fill the cabinets. Her curtains dress the windows. She decides where the loveseat sits, how the towels are folded, and what knickknacks line the shelves of the china cabinet. Though some may brush off these little things as trivial (and my domestic depiction of women as horribly unprogressive), I think there’s some truth in idea of “the woman of the house.” Sure, the man may wear the pants, but it’s often the woman who decides, the woman who is the heart of the household.
I think that’s why bridal showers are so important. Those gifts you get as your married life begins help define the spaces you’ll create and live in together. As a kid, I remember how sacred my mother’s wedding china and silver were. We set the table special with it for birthdays and holidays, and we never soaked the knives or put the gold-rimmed plates in the dishwasher. Technically, they were my dad’s special things too, but I have always (and will always) associate them with my mother. Her bridal and wedding presents are there in my childhood memories.
My own bridal shower was nine years ago, but it took a long time for me to make the gifts I received part of my own family’s life, mostly because I became the woman in another woman’s house.
Let me tell you my story.
It happened in October.
My mother-in-law, a remarkable woman who loved children and music, died on an October morning in the house she’d lived in for twenty-five years. When my husband and I heard the diagnosis she’d been dealt – Stage IV pancreatic cancer – we decided to come back home. We bought the house from his parents, and because his parents, brother, and sister all still lived in the house, we moved into the finished attic. They were the Downstairs Davies. We were the Upstairs Davies.
For ten months, our upstairs/downstairs lives ran mostly parallel, only sometimes intersecting. Up in the attic, John and I clapped as our one-year-old took his first steps; we watched our newborn drift off to sleep in his bassinet; we celebrated John’s new teaching job and my acceptance into grad school. Downstairs, my in-laws decided on drug trials, weathered through chemo and radiation, and saw their youngest graduate from high school. We all tried to honor each other’s dibs on the food in the fridge.
I think – no, I know – it was a lot easier for John to shift back to life in his childhood house. The only time he hadn’t lived in those rooms was the first year of our marriage, when we lived in New Hampshire. Figuring out how – and if – I belonged, though, was tough.
I didn’t want my presence to feel like the grim reaper, like I was taking over for my mother-in-law because she was dying. Our names were on the title of the house, but it wasn’t really our house. It was hers. I didn’t want it to be my house either. I wanted her cancer to be cured so we could sell the house back to them, and then John and I could buy a little house for our little family and live our own little life.
But that wasn’t going to happen.
John and I would wait for Tuesdays to clean, because every Tuesday my father-in-law drove my mother-in-law three hours west to Buffalo for a chemo infusion. It didn’t feel right to clean in front of my mother-in-law: it seemed too judgmental or pushy. We vacuumed the stairs and scrubbed the toilets, and when she came home those nights, exhausted, I think she was happy to see the shiny kitchen floors. When you live with someone with a terminal illness, you try to strike the balance between helping as much as you can and not making that person feel obsolete. We kept trying.
For the last few weeks, my mother-in-law rarely left her bed. The house was neither hers nor mine: it was handed over to the siege of family who came, visited, prayed, mourned, and stayed through that Indian summer of a fall.
Then it was November.
Quiet permeated the house. The endless lasagnas – the official food of the bereaved – were turning old in the fridge, no one left to eat them.
John’s dad told us we should move downstairs. It was getting cold, and the space heaters up in the attic weren’t really adequate for central New York winters. Plus, our three-month-old was getting too big for the bassinet, and we needed more space to move our toddler into a big-boy bed.
After my mother-in-law died, my father-in-law, in his grief, stopped sleeping in their bedroom. Instead, he pulled a futon down to the dining room and slept under the table. John and I didn’t want to move into his parents’ bedroom. It would be too strange, we decided, for his siblings to come home and see that we occupied that room, that I had literally taken her place. So, instead, we made that bedroom the boys’ room. We went to Home Depot to pick out paint colors, to put a coat of new life on the walls. I started cooking in my mother-in-law’s well-worn pots and pans, rooting through her mountain of spice jars.
My own pots and pans, dishes and silverware, and special casserole dishes and crystal bowls – all my bridal shower and wedding presents – stayed taped up in carefully-labeled cardboard boxes in the basement. How could I possibly start replacing her things with mine? The thought of it was tantamount to kicking my husband and all my in-laws in the gut. Even though I was preoccupied by what my in-laws would think of any small woman-of-the-house a
ction I took, I knew deep down that I couldn’t start taking over because the house was still so full of her.
We waited weeks for John’s dad to clean out that bedroom, the room he had shared with his wife for over two decades. I’d go off to school, and when I came back hours later, he’d be staring at the same twelve shirts hanging in her closet. Sometimes he’d look up at me and ask something like, “Her shoes? What do I do with the shoes?”
His paralysis frustrated me. Terminal disease is ugly, but even in the midst of its horror, I found myself thinking it would end with a miracle. Now that cancer had won, though, I wanted the story to end as finitely as lowering a casket in the ground. Our life was still moving, and I needed this house that I had lived in for almost a year to become our home.
John finally got fed up with his dad’s inaction. Everyone was coming home for Christmas, so we wanted to get our downstairs move settled so we could set up beds and futons for the rest of the family. One afternoon, when his dad was out on one of his six-mile walks through the neighborhood and circling up to the cemetery, John folded his mother’s clothes, placed them neatly in boxes, and moved the boxes down to the basement. Not thrown away, just moved, he justified to his dad. The boys needed a room, not a tomb.
My father-in-law loves boats, so we made the boys’ room a blue-and-white boat room. John framed pictures of boats cut out of an old calendar, and my mother and I stenciled happy sailboats on the walls. We set up the boys’ crib and bed and put up a bookcase filled with both ours and my mother-in-law’s children’s books. The morning sun was always beautiful in that room.
And then it was December.
I filled almost two grocery carts the day before everyone arrived for Christmas. You could count on my mother-in-law to stock the pantry with everyone’s favorite foods; she always had an unopened box of Quaker Squares waiting for me when we came for a visit. I tried to do the same for Christmas that year, thinking that even though their mother was gone, my brother-in-law and sister-in-laws’ sadness would be partially assuaged if the right snacks were in the fridge and cabinets. I didn’t want to trigger a grief-induced fit because there weren’t any boxes of Italian bread pizza in the freezer.
Decorating the Christmas tree was a big deal for John’s family. I remember, in previous years, helping out on tree-decorating night. All the ornaments were spread out on the dining room table, and everyone helped to fill every branch and crevice on the tree. There were really too many ornaments for the tree, but every mismatched one had to be hung up. The ornaments had souls, my father-in-law liked to say. You’d crush that little soul if you left it off the tree.
This Christmas, I pulled the boxes of Christmas ornaments out of the basement and laid them out on the dining room table. John untangled the lights and set up speakers to play Christmas music. I kept my own ornaments – my ballerinas and rocking horses from childhood, our “first Christmas” ornament we purchased on our honeymoon, the matching bride-and-groom snowmen I got at my bridal shower, our son’s first Christmas glass ball – locked up in our trunk of Christmas decorations. I set out my mother-in-law’s nativity set and nutcrackers, not my own. Part of the reason I didn’t take out our ornaments was because I thought they might be seen as alien invaders on the dining room table, as one more change since my mother-in-law died. The other part of my decision, though, was because I didn’t want my things all jumbled up with theirs. This Christmas – the food, the traditions, the decorations – was not really mine; it was theirs. I wanted to stay out of the way. In the kitchen, doing laundry, and shoveling snow off the steps, not in the spotlight.
I didn’t feel bitter. Actually, staying off stage was more my thing. I was a theater junkie in college, and I spent all my free time building and painting sets, adjusting lights, and running dress rehearsals and performances from the wings and the control booth. I liked setting the props and making the show run smoothly. That often-invisible work gave me joy.
That Christmas morning, though, I did mess up one thing. In my family, my mother made her grandmother’s cinnamon rolls every Christmas and Easter. Grandma Lou’s cinnamon rolls are a labor of love: the yeast dough is made from scratch, and the whole process – from rising to sprinkling on the sugar and cinnamon to slicing and baking – takes about three hours. Grandma Lou’s cinnamon rolls are Christmas to me. Since John’s family always had cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning, too, I figured I’d wake up early and make my cinnamon rolls for everyone.
My primary mistake was not fully appreciating how important goopy white Pillsbury frosting was to the Davies Christmas morning cinnamon roll experience. I put the casserole dishes full of hot-out-the-oven Grandma Lou cinnamon rolls on the dining room table (I had even made a double batch), and then, one of my sister-in-laws walked into the room. “Where’s the frosting?” she asked. I had no response except to go upstairs, shut the door, and cry.
Traditions, I’ve since decided, aren’t exercises for the present. We make them so that in the future, we can try to recreate our past.
In the months and years after that first Christmas, I slowly started opening my boxes in the basement. When you leave things in boxes for a long time, as anyone who has moved understands, you forget what’s in them. So, for me, it was like having a mini bridal shower each time I peeled away the packing tape on a box. I moved my plates into the cupboards; emptied a shelf in the china cabinet to put my wedding champagne flutes; propped up our wedding portrait on the mantle. I packed up everything of my mother-in-law’s that I had replaced, neatly labeling the boxes. But the transition was slow, and I was always acutely aware of what my in-laws said or how they reacted when they visited and saw some of the changes. I knew they needed the house to still be, in some way, their mother’s house.
John and I lived in his parents’ house for six years, and our four kids quickly filled the place with legos, train tracks, and non-washable crayons. I always felt, though, that our life there just existed on the top, the surface of it all, never permeating through and through. And I was envious of my friends and sisters and sisters-in-laws when I visited their houses, because those houses were theirs and theirs only.
Seven months ago, we moved halfway across the country, and when I stepped into our new house for the first time, I was astounded by its emptiness. It was a blank canvas. It could be our house.
This Christmas, I spread all our Christmas ornaments on the dining room table, and we hung up every single one on our ten-foot-tall tree. Ornaments have souls, you know. Christmas morning, we watched the kids open presents, our Christmas plates piled high with Grandma Lou’s cinnamon rolls and breakfast casserole (our new Christmas tradition, which will probably cause no end of heartache for our children in the future.) The morning was perfect and seemed so far removed from the sickness and sadness and loss that had shaped our first few years. Not that our life was perfect – we’ve had our own sickness and sadness and loss to overcome, but it’s easier to cross through all that when you’re in charge, not a spectator. John and I finally had our own little house and our own little family, and I think – no, I know – my mother-in-law would be so happy for us.