What a Surprise

27 December 2015

I’ve written before about leaving the land and house I had loved for 56 years.  When the time came, the physical part of the ordeal was far harder than I expected; the dreaded emotional part, far easier.  I wish I could reassure my contemporaries that there might be a good surprise waiting for them when the deed is done.

When I Googled “professional downsizers”, a dozen emails appeared within an hour.  That was the first surprise – the realization that downsizing had become a profession. I chose the woman who sounded confident and tough knowing she might compensate for my reluctance to get rid of nearly six decades of accumulation.  She packed, wrapped, labelled, and planned without ever letting me find excuses to escape.

Toward the end, we had divided my world into “keep” and “garage sale” and it felt ugly.  The barn the Amish had built to house the outdoor equipment, the shed I had built, the garage, cellar, attic and yes – the whole house – all of these spaces containing the remnants of the good lives of five of us who had lived there.

But then and inevitably, with the movers about to arrive, I discovered the things we had missed – wedding present silver and suitcases in a forgotten part of the attic, several four drawer files of our company papers that had to be inspected and shredded, and books.  What to do with my collection of biographies and American history?

At that awful time when everything seemed impossible, my saviors arrived.  My daughter-in-law, my daughter, and my new friend and accountant – all changed their plans when they saw I was in trouble.  Kimberly came down from Vermont and worked without pause for four days, Laurie worked equally hard for two – both cleaning up everything I had forgotten – bathroom cabinets, closets, attic nooks, boxes of college papers.  My new friend, who saw me unravelling, went quietly through all the company papers, stuffing them into green garbage bags and then summoned the shredding truck – the life of our family company in shreds.  Do you want to know the weight of a dozen green garbage bags full of papers and files that had to be carried outside and up a hill?

And then the tide began to turn.  Three men arrived from Teachers Moving Company.  They were not only capable and friendly but funny and patient.  They took the boxes and books I couldn’t abandon along with the china and glass I thought of as indispensable.  .

Recognizing self-punishment when I saw it, I didn’t go to the garage sale, didn’t want to hear disparaging remarks about furniture I had loved and books I had read with such pleasure.  On the night of the move, I slept in my new small apartment on the fifth floor of a new building in Red Bank, New Jersey.

During that first week it took just a day or so before I began to realize I loved the sound of the train whistles, the rain pelting the big windows where my desk would be, sunsets and sunrises seen from the sky instead of the woods.

Dare I call Red Bank a city?  Of course not, but the enveloping silence of the place I had loved for so long had become just a little shot through with a touch of fear; friends were gone; family lived elsewhere; the isolation was complete.  Now, two months later I have new friends in the Danish Café across the street where I go too often to escape turning on my stove.  The Two River Theater is downstairs a few steps across a side street.  When a lecture is scheduled, I go with pleasure.  When I work at my desk I look straight ahead over my monitor at a piece of the river, sunrise to my left, sunset straight ahead.  And three blocks away is the movie theater I go to for my review deadlines.

And then, the best part:  when the panorama of traffic and pedestrians morphs into silence at night, I look down at a still life painting of the railroad station, brick buildings, and empty streets sprinkled with night lights.  It stops me in my tracks every time.  There is an odd feeling of safety that there are no deer or people walking on my deck, no thoughts of taxes owed, deterioration to be repaired, or big old broken trees to be cut at $1000 each.  When morning comes, the stillness below jumps alive.  The isolation we had once loved as a family is over.  Why didn’t I see that sooner?

In fact, what I had never expected was the deep feeling of freedom I now have as I build a new life.  The bones of it are my review deadlines which are pure pleasure for someone who loves movies.  Everything else is freedom.  I have no obligations.  When have I ever been able to say that before?  At 85, many people my age can look back at the teamwork of early marriage, at the fun of raising families, at lives lived well in the homes we created.  But now I feel positively frivolous when I file a story and then say to myself “OK, well done, now, a movie? A lecture?  The Café?  Or shall I watch the news or just read for a while.  Whatever the answer, it is no longer something that needs to be done. Don’t wait too long.