In late July, my paternal grandmother Louise Moore Larson died at the age of 92. She had recently undergone major surgery and just couldn’t seem to bounce back from it. She had been fragile, in poor health for a number of months. So we all knew, at the back of our minds, that the end was probably near, and indeed it was.
There was one small blessing. Mama Lou (that’s what we called her) had passionately resisted leaving her house to move into an assisted living facility. She maintained that she did not want to leave her home and all of her belongings, even though we all worried about how she and my grandfather were going to take care of themselves. Because she died in the hospital after her surgery, she never had to make that agonizing move. She never had to sort through all of her possession and choose only those most cherished belongings to keep, relegating the others to relatives or charity sales. She never had to walk through the empty, echoing rooms of her home of nearly 50 years–the home where she raised her children–and she never had to say goodbye aloud in the space where she had lived most of her adult life.
Unfortunately, my grandfather had to do all of those things. And he had to do it alone. After she died, Grandaddy Bill decided that he could not bear to live alone in that house. He knew that his own health was not as good as it used to be, but more importantly, he didn’t think he could live by himself in that cozy house that he shared so long with his wife. He decided to look into an assisted living facility. For weeks, my parents and my aunt, uncle and cousin helped him sort through the decades’ worth of stuff that had accumulated in the house. They gave my grandmother’s clothing and accessories to a thrift shop, passed some heirlooms on to me, preserved the boxes of photos and important paperwork, and threw away trash. They smiled sadly over the beautiful hand-sewn handbags that my grandmother made, and they matched earrings and divided up the things that each wanted to keep to remember Mama Lou by.
Over the next few months, my grandfather mourned and waited to hear about a room opening up for him in a nearby senior living complex. The things still left in the house continued to dwindle. The days ticked by, quietly.
Finally, word came that a small two-room apartment was available at a nearby assisted living facility. My grandfather didn’t hesitate. He agreed to take it. It was going to be a gradual move, since the house was still on the market and there was no need to rush things. My father drove down to help him begin moving some of his belongings from the house to the new apartment. Last week, I drove down to southern Mississippi to see my grandfather and to introduce him to his newest great-granchild, my younger son Andrew.
We arrived at his house bright and early on Friday morning to help him gather up a few more things to take to his new place. My grandfather greeted us, moving slowly and sadly. He was ready. He had spent Thursday night there at home, and it was finally time to take the big step and start living in his new apartment. Dad and my brother John disassembled his bed frame and carried the wooden pieces and the mattress out to the truck. Later, they would set them back up in the narrow bedroom of a small freshly-painted suite a few miles away. My grandfather had spent his last night in that house, the house with the music box behind the front door that played the theme song from “Dr. Zhivago,” the house where he had lived for nearly 50 years with his beloved wife. It was the house that they lived in when my father graduated from high school, the house where I visited as a child while my parents were waiting on my baby brother to be born, the house where I brought my own firstborn and photographed him toddling along the front sidewalk just like I used to do. My grandparents’ prize-winning rosebushes were long gone, but my mind’s eye still put them in the yard.
My grandfather made the decision to leave that house and move into an assisted living facility with clear eyes. He did it for the right reasons, and he didn’t waver in his decision. But he clearly knew that things were never going to be the same….had not been the same since July 24. And the transition made him ache. I ached for him, as he sat next to me in my minivan en route from the house to the assisted living complex.
In the van, he showed me a carefully preserved copy of a magazine article heralding the then-upcoming marriage of my grandmother to him almost 67 years ago. The photograph of my grandmother showed a beaming young woman with neat, dark curls and a glow about her. Clearly that was who my grandfather saw when he looked at her all those years. He proudly pointed out the passage that noted that she had graduated from college before her 20th birthday and had intended to pursue a master’s degree. She had such potential, he said. “Then we got married, and she never mentioned it again,” he said softly, as if musing over why that had been. He carried that black-and-white magazine with him to the new apartment, choosing to take it with him over many other more intrinsically valuable things.
In the house, Grandaddy had a snapshot of my grandmother affixed to his bureau mirror before we disassembled it, too. It showed the same pretty girl, perhaps a few years older of course, in a sharply-cut dark suit and 1940’s stylish hair, lounging casually, her legs crossed, in a reclining chair in a yard somewhere. I hope the photo is still attached to his mirror in his new place. Mama Lou lives on with him, in his new apartment, in his memories and photographs. She lives on in all of us, in a similar way.
Meanwhile, the house is undergoing a transition from a home back into just a house again. Many of my grandparents’ possessions are still there, waiting to be sold or donated or stored. Grandaddy will doubtlessly move some more of them over into his new place, too. But as we walked through that house last Friday afternoon, it just felt like it was already a stranger’s house again. It was like the soul of the house had moved on, like the soul of a person departs when he or she dies. And perhaps that’s exactly what happened.