It was a fairly simple real estate transaction, as these things go: Price set and met. Nice young buyers all lined up, mortgage approval in hand. Attorneys but no Realtors and, thus, no open houses or other stressful shenanigans. So why did selling the house feel as if I were aboard a scary thrill ride without a safety strap? Why was it hard to sleep? Why was my Weight Watchers group leader, of all people, cautioning me to put some of those shed pounds back on?
Maybe the answer is that there are no simple real estate transactions, not really. But I think the likelier explanation is the doorjamb.
Our kitchen was painted yellow and white. On one doorpost, we'd marked our daughter's height since the month we moved in, an ascending column of inked notations. Emma, pint size at 3, leggy at 8. Emma growing past the mark labeled "Mommy." (When Mommy is 5-foot-1, this is not such a big deal, but we made a fuss anyway.) Then that big jump at 14, after spinal surgery left her suddenly two inches taller.
The record grew spottier from there, teenagers being less inclined to stand against a door while a parent musses their hair with a ruler, but continued past high school graduation to her college commencement. She'd just turned 23 when Jon and I decided that we'd really like to let someone else come up with $15,000 for that overdue new roof. "Gutter cleaning" and "housing bubble" had become two of our least favorite phrases. It was time to sell.
"A doorjamb is easy to replace," friends advised when I confided that the undertaking was making me teary, angst-y, overwhelmed by the lengthening lists and notes in my red spiral notebook labeled HOUSE. "You can just pick up a doorjamb at Home Depot and take the old one with you."
But I didn't really want to transport the thing to our new apartment. The idea of what we were leaving, not the chunk of wood or even the house itself, was the achey part. We were walking away from the place where Jon and I had raised our child and grown into middle age, the only house Em could recall, the repository of 20 years' worth of history and memory and a staggering amount of stuff that had once seemed important. We were selling the family home.
Leaving it proved more than a daunting amount of work; it packed an emotional wallop. At times, with the family scattered, the old house emptying and the new apartment mostly an idea, I couldn't figure out where home was. At others, something unexpected happened, the start of that role reversal that will probably culminate at an assisted living facility in another 20 years: The child who'd depended on us for so long became an ally and helper, the one assuring me it would all be okay.
It was a comfy old house, a clapboard colonial built around 1920. From the first, we liked the big oaks that shaded the front porch, the stained-glass window on the stairway landing, the yard we could fence for kid and dogs. So what if there were no doors on the garage and the kitchen needed a major upgrade? It felt like home.
We painted and puttered, fenced the yard, set up our home offices with these newfangled things called computers. We swapped our daughter's crib for a big-girl bed.
Even the junk had associations. That border of hot-pink palm trees that the buyer will no doubt strip from the bedroom wall? It's what Emma, at 7, thought cool. The black trunk in the basement that no one had used for years? She took it to sleep-away camp in Vermont, along with the adjacent backpack that no one had used for years, either.
Year after year, we'd celebrated holidays and birthdays, hosted sleepovers, acquired a succession of gerbils and cats, retrievers and border collies. I kept, out of dopey sentimentality, some of their collars and name tags.
The house took better care of us (just two frozen pipes in two decades; not a bad record) than we took of it, however. Drained financially by career shifts and college bills, plus the purchase of a rural retreat a few hours away, we never really embarked on major renovations. Next year, we told ourselves, concentrating meanwhile on repairing things that might invite lawsuits, such as rotting front steps. After a while, we stopped saying next year. Jon wanted to spend more time on the farm in Upstate New York; Emma had moved into the city; I was often alone in too much house that was growing too dilapidated. Time to pay off the mortgage(s) and move on.
That friends of friends wanted to buy the house, even before we'd listed it for sale, proved both a godsend and a reason for panic. We were lucky to have a deal so quickly. We were lucky simply to have a house to sell in this seller's market.
But we also had just 90 days to get the place in shape, pass various inspections and dispose of its contents. Someone had to comb through the drawers full of financial papers, the shelves of vinyl records, the unoccupied childhood bedroom that still contained a lifetime of books, a chiffon prom gown and a tribe of dusty stuffed animals. Since this was all happening faster than expected, and my husband needed to stay upstate with his flock of very pregnant sheep (it's a long story), the someone was mostly me.
Faced with an attic and a basement stuffed with detritus -- cracked Play-Doh sculptures of yore, stacks of statements from banks that no longer exist, a veritable graveyard of aged, semifunctional computers -- I sold and donated and tossed what I could, then located A Guy With a Truck to haul the rest away. It ultimately cost me more to get rid of what I didn't want than to move what I did.
I also hired -- see how American capitalism can rise to any occasion? -- a company specializing in destruction. Health insurance claims, 401(k) updates -- virtually all documents more than a few years old, I discovered, contain Social Security numbers. We've all heard too much about identity theft to feel easy putting sacks of such papers out in trash bags, but buying a shredder and feeding it canceled checks for hours on end was an equally unappealing prospect.
Enter Shred-it. "I'm calling to discuss your shredding needs," said the manager who returned my phone call. For a mere $95, someone in an official-looking uniform would make a house call, with a shredder aboard his truck. Much larger and speedier than the home-office variety, it would chew through mountains of paper right on the spot.
So it did, in just 10 minutes, and Mr. Shred-it handed me a certificate attesting that my paperwork was now confetti. I don't know how legally significant it was, but it made me feel better.
But some jobs can't be farmed out. Those piles of photographs, way too many to stuff into albums, lots of them duplicates or just lousy shots -- only I could whittle them down to a manageable boxful. So I sat and sorted for most of a day, remembering Cape Cod vacations, and puppies we'd raised and later mourned, and the Halloween that Emma went trick-or-treating as Barbara Bush. It was a tough day.
Women get this. I was surprised to discover that selling a house and moving are, as a sociologist might say, "gendered" activities. With a few exceptions, notably my husband, men offered their congratulations and then immediately wanted to know how much we'd sold the house for.
Men: real estate transaction. Women: psychological milestone.
It was women who looked concerned, who said things like, "That must be so difficult emotionally" and, "How's Emma taking it? This must be hard for her." It feels petty to want sympathy during this process -- you are, after all, about to receive quite a large check for your pains -- but, well, it is difficult emotionally.
And coming out on the train to purge her room of childhood tokens and treasures was something of a wrench for Emma. Two years past college, she was launched, but not fully fledged. She accepted with equanimity the possibility that on overnight visits -- increasingly rare these days, anyway -- she might have to bed down on a sleep sofa. Still, when I found a flat with a spare room just big enough for her single bed, a rag rug and a bookshelf, she was relieved. If she were between jobs or apartments and had to come "home" again, she could, though not to the home she remembered.
Meanwhile, she had a lot to throw away, too. One evening, as I sat in my office filling bags with old newspapers, she discarded CDs (the Gin Blossoms and Counting Crows had become embarrassing) while boxing up an eclectic assortment of Nirvana and Aretha Franklin, and many books by P.G. Wodehouse and Berkeley Breathed. Aside from one lop-eared white rabbit, she ditched the stuffed animals. Then she lugged everything to the staging area for the Guy With a Truck and came to see how I was faring.
Not only did she gracefully handle her own sense of loss, she propped me up as well.
"Let me know when you schedule the move," Emma had said when we first told her our plans. "I'll take a few days off work and come help."
Sure, we agreed, not really paying much attention. But she made a point of regularly reminding us.
"This is really nice of you," I said, when she arrived to spend the last two nights in the old house, then the first in the new apartment. "Thanks, sweetie."
"Are you kidding?" She was practically insulted. "Think how many times you and Dad did this for me. Every fall when I went to school. Every spring when school was over. The first sublet in New York. The second sublet in New York. I could do this 20 times and never make it up to you."
"Don't forget every summer at camp," I added, because I didn't want her to see me choking up. I was doing that a fair amount.
Appreciation is not what you expect from a kid; it's what you expect from a grown-up. When did she gain so much perspective?
I'd expected mostly her companionship through a fraught few days, but what I got in addition was tangible assistance. Not only did Em play a last game of Scrabble with me in the old kitchen the dreary night before the move, when everything was in boxes, including the TV and the lampshades. She also shuttled items to the new place, dashed to the supermarket to stock the fridge, drove us to the movies when we were in need of comic relief. After a while, exhausted from three months of decision making, I merely started doing what she told me. Should we take this poster? What about that CD player? And then, once the boxes had been moved -- she unpacked half of them -- where should we stow the candlesticks?
It was a comfort to have her around, especially when we took a final walk through the old house after the cleaning crew had finished, just to say goodbye. The rooms looked denuded and sad. The garage still lacked doors, the kitchen with its inked doorjamb still needed major renovation, and it was probably a good thing that its new owners would have the means and energy to do the place justice. Yet in my mind's eye I still saw us there, Jon and I and our little girl. Now that girl, much taller than Mommy, put a protective arm around my shoulders as I cried a bit, then locked the door.
It took a few weeks to overcome the impulse to drive to the old address, not the new one, a few blocks away. When the first housefly of spring entered the apartment, I had to stop and think: Had I brought the swatter? And if I had, where the hell had I stashed it? For a while, I felt as though I were housesitting for a friend with similar taste, in a place that was pleasant enough but wasn't home. The truth is, we will never have a family home again, not in the classic sense. It's a thought that takes some getting used to.
But the house will shelter another family, which has already installed a swing set in the yard. And we are awfully fortunate to have two comfortable places to live, one urban and one rural. As the strangeness of the whole experience wears off, I'm coming to feel at ease in both of them.
We're lucky, too, to have this kid, who still needs our help and counsel but is increasingly able to supply some of her own. With luck, she won't need to be making decisions for us for many years, but it's reassuring to know that if we need her to, she can. Something subtle in our relationship has shifted.
Not everything, though. A few weeks after the move, the last of the boxes barely out for recycling, Em called to say that she was ready to leave the apartment she'd been sharing with four roommates and had found a tiny studio of her own. There was so much to do; she was feeling so stressed. Would I come help her move?
And what could I say?
Paula Span (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Magazine contributing writer.