The day the realtor hammered a huge wooden “For Sale” sign in my front yard, I sat on the sofa in the living room and cried. My daughter, who was studying for a test in the breakfast room, let me be. She knew that I needed to unleash my pain at having to relinquish the house I had lived in for 36 years. It was almost like having to let go of my husband again, who had died almost six years earlier. After the sign went up my realtor said, “You’d better start packing.” I figured it would take some time to sell the house but I was wrong. Within the first week we had a buyer. Now, it was real. I started to regret putting it on the market, but I also knew it was a message from Hashem that I should move on. To me it felt like 40 years earlier, when we had sold our first house literally in a matter of days and moved to an apartment near the shul so we could become shomer Shabbos. That was shortly after I told my teacher Rabbi David Epstein that I would start keeping Shabbos if we could sell our house and move closer to the synagogue. “So why don’t you?” he had asked. I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Who does that?” Actually, there were several Jewish couples in our southern town who had done just that but it seemed farfetched. I could never do that. Or so I thought.
Two weeks later my husband came home from work balancing a cardboard box full of odds and ends and announced that by mutual consent he was out of a job. “I want to sell the house, move back to an apartment and go into business,” he said. “Are you with me?” Of course I was with him; I’d follow him to the ends of the Earth. I just couldn’t imagine moving back to an apartment. I didn’t like the apartments near the shul. But I also knew I had made a commitment to become shomer Shabbos and my husband wanted this as well. The house was sold within a week. Four weeks later I was standing in front of the fireplace in our wood-paneled den, watching two burly moving men carrying out whatever furniture could fit into an apartment. Besides the den, I was leaving behind a huge master bedroom with an attached closet my husband had turned into a writing room for me, two smaller bedrooms and a big backyard. After living in three apartments it was our first house, the fulfillment of the American dream. We’d lived there less than two years. Tonight we’d be back to sleeping in an apartment. It turned out to be the best move we ever made. We could walk to shul on Shabbos and were surrounded by wonderful Jewish neighbors. They helped us build our first sukkah and invited us for Shabbos. We reciprocated their invitations and they actually came. Bearded rabbis collecting for yeshivos slept on the sofa bed in our living room and taught us about hachnasas orchim.
Our Israeli neighbors on sabbatical infected us with their love of Israel. With the shul,preschool and day school nearby, our two young sons were flourishing. Then three years later the apartment complex manager announced: “No children allowed.” They wanted to become an adult community. With no other option we started looking for a house. Only two were available in the neighborhood. One was ruled out immediately after we had to walk through a bedroom to get to the kitchen. The other one, a threebedroom ranch with a small enclosed carport, was located within walking distance of the shul. The price was $48,000. It wasn’t a fancy house and it was rather small. As soon as I stepped over the threshold, though, I was drawn to the living/dining area. The sun’s rays streamed through the large picture window in the center of the room. I couldn’t wait to put my sofa under that window and watch the birds flitting in and out of the branches of the tall oak and pine trees in our very own backyard. In March 1977 we moved into our new home and were warmly welcomed by our neighbors.
Now in March 2013, I was moving out and back into an apartment, leaving behind those neighbors and so many memories. I recalled the lighting of the Chanukah candles, and how the kids would run outside to see the flickering flames in our window. I remembered costumed children delivering mishloach manos, while yeshivah bachurim pulled my husband into a circle of joyous dancing. There were memories of Pesach sedarim in our dining room, accompanied by the smell of chicken soup simmering on the foil-covered stove. My husband putting on his kittel while the children whispered to each other where to hide the afikoman, and later the knock on the door just as my husband recited the line, “Whoever is hungry should come and eat…” There were also reminiscences of Tehillim groups, simchos, birthday barbecues and Shabbos and Yom Tov meals. Recollections of my family looking up at the stars twinkling through the sechach in our beautiful sukkah. Those were happy memories. Yet there were also poignant ones, such as the grief I experienced during the shivah for each of my beloved parents and later again for my husband. I would never forget the day he passed away in this house, surrounded by his children and me. Since thenmy world has never been the same. Those memories would stay with me forever, but most of the stuff I had accumulated over the course of 36 years would have to go.
Once I stopped crying, I was in a position to properly assess the workload before me. When I opened the closets, boxes of school papers and memorabilia nearly tumbled out. More cartons, many of which I hadn’t looked at in years, were gathering dust in the attic. My musty unfinished basement held even more. There was old furniture with sentimental value, clothes I meant to give away, sukkah decorations and rusting tools. I wondered how I was going to tackle this before closing in six weeks. My youngest daughter tossed out hundreds of loose photos she thought we no longer needed and packed the rest. Friends called and offered their help, and I gratefully accepted. One dear friend carefully packed up everything in my china cabinet, two others started on the kitchen while another worked on my bedroom closet. It wasn’t easy to let go of my need for privacy, but I don’t know what I would have done without them. The built-in bookcase in the living room was a looming challenge. I love to read, and every book has a story besides the one between the pages. Some of the sefarim belonged to my sons so they took them back. But there seemed to be hundreds more, and I knew I could only take what would fit in one medium-sized bookcase. A rebbetzin I knew graciously spent several days sorting through the books, designating what would be given away and packing up the others. Most of the secular ones were hauled away by my oldest son to a used book store and the public library. He also found homes for many of my Jewish books in the day schools, kollellim and shuls.
Only one box of books I’d planned on keeping was mistakenly given away. I felt it was a kaparah, and I’d have to live without them. I could always borrow the books, if I could find them. The attic, though, was a major hurdle. It was full of memories that sometimes made me happy and other times brought tears to my eyes. Birthday cards from my parents with prices on the back as low as ten or 25 cents amazed me. My children’s schoolwork brought back warm feelings and antiquated teaching materials left me amused. Why on Earth had I kept so much? My son perched on the rungs of the attic ladder sifting through one box at a time while I stood below in the hallway, filling a garbage bag with papers that hadn’t seen the light of day in decades. There were only a few short weeks before the closing, and the pile of boxes seemed never-ending. My rebbetzin, Miriam Feldman, said, “Don’t even look through them. Throw out everything!” So, for help, I hired the maintenance manager at the school where I tutor. He and two other workers schlepped out every remaining box from the basement and attic and deposited them in front of the house, so many that they covered the lawn. It was embarrassing when carloads of strangers pulled up and rummaged through the boxes hoping to find a treasure.
Some uncovered baseball cards, others an old magazine or antique. I had hoped to do that myself someday, but now I had to reserve my time and energy to finish packing. Two days later, to my relief, the garbage men cleared away nearly everything. One of the small items that remained was a faded brown envelope with canceled bank checks. When I looked inside, I could hardly believe how old they were. Most were from 1967, the year my husband and I had gotten married. One was written for $50 as a “deposit for honeymoon.” A stack held together with a rubber band was made out in the amount of $124, for “monthly rent.” A third collection appeared to be for weekly “groceries,” mostly for $25. My husband, a neat and organized chemist, wasn’t a saver. Years ago he had cleared out the basement one time and put several boxes out on the curb for the next day’s pickup. As soon as he drove off, I ran outside and quickly retrieved the items I couldn’t part with. It was so unlike him to have saved ancient checks from our first year of marriage. Yet here they were in my hand. Another thing I found was a mezuzah case, which of course I kept. I also decided to keep some of the checks. I felt like my husband was offering me his blessings on my move. I was going back to an apartment, just as we had lived in the early days of our marriage and when we became shomer Shabbos.
Like that earlier move 40 years before, a crew of broad-shouldered men loaded all the furniture I hadn’t sold or given away onto the moving truck. This time, though, I was going through it without my husband. It was more traumatic but also necessary. My youngest daughter cried, but I controlled myself. After everything was on the truck, I jumped into my car and led the way to my new two-bedroom apartment. Surprisingly, the dining room table, chairs and china cabinet, which my husband had picked out ten years earlier, looked beautiful in the new location. The sofa seemed to be custommade and my writing desk fit perfectly into a little alcove. With freshly painted walls and steam-cleaned carpeting, everything sparkled. For the first time since my husband passed away I felt the responsibility of keeping up the house lifting off my shoulders.
In addition, I was free of most of the clutter I had accumulated over the years. The next afternoon I drove back to my old address to make sure I hadn’t left anything behind. Truthfully, I needed to be alone in the house one more time in order to properly part. The walls were bare. As I walked on the wooden floors I could hear the echo of my footsteps. I went from room to room, ending in the living/dining area that had captured my heart when I first saw the sunlight streaming through the picture window. I could almost see my husband and children sitting around the Shabbos table and singing zemiros. Everything that had taken place in that room for the past 36 years flashed through my mind. As the sun set, I davened Minchah in the corner for the last time, thanking Hashem for all the precious memories and asking for His help in moving on. Then I locked the kitchen door, got into my car and drove away.