Without A Trace

"It might be best if you stash some of the family pictures," the realtor says. "People coming through want a clean landscape; no traces of the current owner."

I realize he's trying to be gentle for he's aware of the circumstances that led to my putting my house on the market.  I'm not offended by his suggestion. We’re a team with the same goal: sell my three-bedroom house, which has become too large and too lonely without my husband. If successful, then move me into a rental apartment that will better suit my budget and solo life.

"I guess I could de-clutter," I say. My gaze travels around the rooms on the first floor. The dining room table holds a framed photograph of Tommy on his Schwinn. I love that picture because it's testimony to his amazing spirit. Despite my husband's challenges, he'd hop on his bike every afternoon, while I'd stand watch at the window and pace until he returned.

I hit pause on my reverie and promised the realtor, "I'll handle it before the showing."

"Take your time," he says, and puts a hand on my shoulder that tells me he sympathizes.

When he leaves, I move to our upright, its top decorated with photos of two different Golden Retrievers, beloved pets who gave us 9 and 14 years of sweet companionship. Where to hide these temporarily? The piano bench! I open the lid and place the three pictures on the Rogers and Hart Songbook.

The second floor is the real challenge, for it's not only Tommy and the dogs hogging every surface and shelf, but daughters, grandchildren, and my brother and his family. All smiling back at me with memories of our younger, innocent, hopeful selves.

I slow my task because each photo must be studied. Their backstories flash in front of me, like the crawl at the bottom of a TV screen. Instead of sports scores or weather advisories, the line that enters my vision reminds me: This one must've been taken 16 years ago because my oldest grandson is just a baby here. My daughters and their partners, Tommy and I, and Sasha, the first of our dogs, are sprawled across our queen-sized bed.

Everyone in the scene gleams. The joy of a new grandchild and the feeling of family togetherness are palpable. Now that I think of it, I believe some of Tommy's happiness in that photo was due to this new family he has won. With no children of his own, my second husband relished his sudden role as stepfather to my vibrant daughters.

Without a piano bench to use as storage, I find a carton to hold the second floor's larger collection. I lift a photo from a book shelf. It displays my husband and me and my brother and sister-law. We are at some party that I can't recall, but it must've been special because the men are in sport jackets and the women in fancy clothing. "Is anything wrong with Tommy?" is the line that this photo generates. "He seems to be repeating things."

"It's not Alzheimer's," I tell my brother. "He forgot to take his thyroid meds for several weeks and he's a bit muddled." Wishful thinking, I realize now. Not Alzheimer's, but the first evidence of a brain degeneration as miserable as the better-known illness.

There are wedding photos everywhere. Tommy and I posed as newlyweds; smiles nearly as bright as the Las Vegas lights in the hotel we've picked for our venue. Here's a crowd photo of my daughters, their partners, my grandson now a toddler, my brother and sister-in-law, and friends who could fly in for our January 13, 1998 wedding. I gather all of these testaments to our happy union, then open a dresser drawer to tuck them in.

On the nightstand next to our bed, I not only have another framed photo of my husband, but also his watch, wallet, and wedding band. I've set them here as a makeshift alter -- my last stop for a goodnight chat before heading under the covers. One-by-one, I place  each totem in a drawer. But once strangers traverse my clean landscape, I'll  retrieve and return his beloved possessions to their rightful spot.

When I am finished de-cluttering, and my home no longer bares traces of my old life, I head out the door. The realtor is due soon with a prospect. I hope they have children, a dog, and, please, a camera.