It was deep summer. The family had already left for our new home in the mountains. I had stayed behind to see to repairs, close up business, and find a tenant. Everything I owned was packed and gone. I wouldn’t see some of it for months. The 18-wheeler moving truck had been parked at the curb for three days. The movers had worked with good cheer – hard and methodically. They wrapped and boxed, labeled and color coded, heaved sofas and beds for hours at a time. Where the workers went at night, I never asked. And then, at the end of the third day, they drove the truck away – with everything in it.
Alone, I walked through my empty house, an echo box, with no food (they took the refrigerator), no place to sit (they took the furniture) no personal character (the art, photos, piano, house plants, contents of the junk drawer, it had all been removed), no entertainment, books or people. It was silent and noisy at the same time.
I anticipated it would take two weeks to do the repairs, paint the interior, buff the floors, and wash all the windows. It would be easier to get the work done with the house empty, the space unobstructed. And there would be nothing else to do.
The place was not entirely empty, though. Here and there were piles of organized materials: things to donate, things to give to particular people, precious things to be kept with me and moved in the car, cleaning supplies and tools, my sleeping gear and clothes, trash. For the first few days I really kept my nose to the grind stone and made good progress spiffing up the house.
I had pulled from the filing cabinets before they were loaded into the moving truck important papers that would help me do the business of moving. I had put the papers into a used shirt box and labeled it DO NOT PACK. By the end of the first week, having moved and reorganized my supplies almost daily, I couldn’t find the shirt box. I was afraid it had been included in the haul. It could be sitting in the new storage unit, 300 miles away, and I needed the information in those papers.
It was Saturday morning. I was just back from a good-bye visit with a friend. I was getting straight to work, organizing my run to the Goodwill donation drop-off site. Everything was piled in a box the size of a bathtub positioned between the fireplace and the picture window. It held things like the old vacuum, a plastic Christmas tree, and a dish rack. On top of these were clothes and fabrics, tucked together in white pillowcases which were too rough for my liking. I lifted the top two pillowcases to run them to the car, and there, on top of a third pillowcase, I saw it – the lost shirt box. On the white cardboard, neatly printed in red marker, were the wonderful words: DO NOT PACK. In relief, I snatched it up and moved it to the kitchen counter where it would always be visible. Then I looked carefully through all the other donation items, double checking their status before packing them into the car for the trip to Goodwill.
The thing about living in an emptied house is that I had to take up residence in it all over again, but in a different way. I slept, now, not on a bed but on the floor on a two-inch foam pad and in a different room than I used to use as my bedroom. My regular room needed some electrical work, so I set up camp in what had been the study. It turned out that the study was not blessed with the morning sun, so I had to set an alarm clock to wake me. The timer on the stove worked for this. I set it each night for six hours, plus however long I thought I would read before falling asleep.
Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I would wake up. Nothing unusual about that. I have a long standing routine for sleeplessness. If I have tossed and turned for very long, I get up and make myself a cup of tea with lots of milk. I sit at the kitchen table with my feet propped next to the teacup, drape a blanket over my legs, and read the latest magazine. Sometimes I have a second cup of milk tea and a bowl of granola. I enjoy the midnight solitude. After about an hour and a half, I find I’m interested in going back to bed.
But in an empty house, waking in the middle of the night was terrible. On Sunday night, or really it was early Monday morning, I woke in the quiet darkness and could not get back to sleep. Eventually I got up and headed to the kitchen. There, I was struck, as if in a nightmare, by disappointment. There was no place to sit! No table for my feet! There were no extra blankets to drape over my legs. The latest magazine was in pieces on the floor where I painted earlier. The magazine wasn’t supposed to be used that way, but the morning paper of the previous day, the usual floor covering for painting, had been late. I hadn’t wanted to wait to get started on the job, so, I sacrificed my magazine, which in the middle of the night, I very much regretted.
I had kept a teakettle with me in my “transition kit,” along with an electric wok for a little cooking, so I was able to make myself some tea. When it was ready, I turned to the refrigerator for the milk. But. . .what? There was no refrigerator!
Where, then, I wondered, was the milk I had purchased? I looked around. It was not on the counter top near the sink where it used to always get left out. A heap of paint supplies was spread out there, and the shirt box. I felt a general confusion come over me. The stupor of having tossed and turned prior to getting up was affecting me. I slowly turned around, befuddled, and then I saw it – the cabinet that used to have napkins and vitamins. That’s it! The milk was in the cabinet where I had put it with the bread and butter, where it was not supposed to be. Nonsense, but true. I got the milk down and smelled it. This was its second day in the cabinet. It was still good, thank goodness. That didn’t make sense either. Still, I fixed the tea and cuddled up in the corner of the kitchen with my sleeping bag.
There were other things out of place, as well. Like the cats. The little one was curled up with me on the kitchen floor, but her sister, a robust, fluffy girl, had gone missing. We had gotten the two as kittens from the animal shelter several years ago. They’d been brought in from a local ranch. The two cats had always been together. Now, only the little whiny one was showing up each morning. Her meow had sounded like a complaint ever since she was a kitten. Now, it seemed to express fear and loneliness. She visited me frequently during the days while I worked, no one but me to amuse her. Her big sister was not to be found in any of her usual spots – under the coffee table, on the piano, or next to the refrigerator. They had all been moved out of the house. The last time I saw her, she was on the deck. She had been skittish, like she had been the summer before when the raccoon kept coming close-in to the backdoor, looking for food.
Drinking my tea and petting the little sister, I told myself the missing kitty was someplace safe, just in the wrong place. I wondered if she was locked in the basement, or the garden shed, the way the milk had gotten lost in the cabinet. She was probably at a neighbor’s house, fat and happy. What really worried me was that she may have gotten trapped inside the moving truck.
Living in the empty house was a challenge. I still needed to have stuff. Some things were not available, like the iron which I thought I wouldn’t need. Things that were available —tools, cat food, bills to be paid — had no clearly designated place, so stuff was all over the place. It felt like a mess even when it was organized. The repairs and the cleaning were time-consuming because things had to be moved and moved again. I could only hope I would remember all the changes. Moving things also drew my attention to other tasks that needed to be done. It seemed everything was urgent. It got overwhelming. I tried to be practical and orderly, but in the middle of a job, supplies would often get put down just somewhere, really anywhere, just out of the way, and in some way so as to be able to retrieve them later. But it ended up being too much to remember. Things became evermore simple, not always by choice.
For instance, a single pair of underwear got washed nightly. The extras that I had packed in my “transition clothing kit” were buried and lost in the closet under the “transition bedding kit” and the “transition office kit.” I found them on my final day, while packing my car to leave. The ibuprofen never showed itself after the first day. And the paint opener which I used for cracking open fresh, cold beers – it should have been with the knife, fork and wine screw in the newly assigned tool drawer. But it often was not. That misplacement was easy to figure out, though. The opener would be with the painting supplies, the other place it belonged. And on it went.
Sitting in the empty house, surrounded by dark windows, I whistled a bit. The acoustics were vibrant. Singing was good, too, with the rich echo. Little kitty, trying to snooze on my lap under the sleeping bag, took all the sound as disruptive noise, though, so I returned to silence.
Work, then, would be the entertainment! The project needed to move forward, anyway. There were windows to polish and cabinets to detail. That was why the house was empty, anyway, to get the work done. My two-inch foam bed was not that comfortable, and there was nothing else to do. I thought, maybe big-sister cat would see me in the lighted windows and come home, but I knew different. Poor cat. Her porch cushions were no longer where they were supposed to be, all shipped away now, just like my antique bedroom set. A few nights before, hoping she would come home, I had bundled up my bathrobe as a bed for her on the porch. I put it right where her cushion used to be. It remained unused. Too silky, maybe, and it was not her normal bed. It wasn’t next to the deck chairs and potted plants. There were no dinner scraps left for her. Her sister was inside, with me. Everything was different. She was a good mouser, though. She would make it, somehow, on her own.
On that early morning, a lot of thoughts went through my mind, a lot of memories. I didn’t really do much work. My heart wasn’t in it.
I headed back to the study, which was not a study anymore. In an hour, the stove timer would start beeping. I wanted to be asleep before then. I wanted to be awakened from a long, comfortable sleep under my familiar, well-worn featherbed, the sun streaming in, my first sight the same as every morning for the last many years, with the meowing of two cats looking wide-eyed in through the window, demanding to be fed, just like normal used to be.