A Dollhouse, Part 2

After my father died in 1959, my mother Min, his 46-year-old widow, and I, moved into a tiny garden apartment. At least that’s what the real estate listing had called it. Basement was more like it. 

Mom had a knack for decorating and soon transformed the dark and occasionally damp space into what visitors called "a dollhouse." Needlework that she handcrafted hung on walls in the living room and in the one bedroom. 

Despite her beautifying, the apartment was more subterranean than floral. The back door opened into the building's laundry room, and in the living room, when I sat on the plastic-covered couch and looked out the window, I could see the feet of other tenants as they walked past.

I recalled those mother-daughter dollhouse-days after I, a 74-year-old widow, moved into my 613-square-foot apartment April 15 of this year. Although I covered the experience in my roman a clef e-book, “She’s Not The Type,” I thought it worthwhile to to revisit that episode and description.

Here’s how my own downsizing began: Following my husband Tommy’s death in November of 2012, I had at first planned to accede to advice offered the bereaved: Don’t make a major move for at least a year. 

But this obligatory timetable weighed on me. “I’m so discouraged,” I said to my daughter Faith. She was in town for Tommy’s memorial and I was using her as a sympathetic ear.

She put her hand on my shoulder. Her face had a worried look. This was not a typical mood for her mother. Throughout my husband’s illness, hospitalization, hospice, and death, I stayed strong and confident.

“It’s only natural,” Faith said. “Look at all you’ve been through.”

“No, it’s not that,” I said. “It’s that I see such a dismal future. I’ll have to rent out half the garage and turn our two spare bedrooms into housing for a boarder. That’s the only way I can see handling my bills.”

I went to bed that evening, leaving my daughter uneasy at my dispirited state. But in the middle of the night, I woke with a thought: I don’t have to listen to widow-advice that doesn’t fit me. I don’t have to stay in the house.

In the morning, Faith headed straight to my home office, prepared to console me once again. Instead, she found me searching the web for downtown, luxury high-rise rental apartments.

“Look,” I shouted to her. “Swimming pool, business center, exercise room!” 

At first, my daughter was alarmed at this sudden mood swing. “What happened, Mom?” she said. “Last night, you were...”

“I don’t have to stay,” I said. “I can sell the house and move to a smaller place. One that I can handle. No snow shoveling, lawn mowing, worrying about downspouts, sump pumps, furnaces, water heaters. All the stuff I don’t understand in the first place. And, I won’t have to share the garage or bedrooms.”

And that’s what I did. To both of my daughters’ relief, I put the house on the market and found my version of a dollhouse. But unlike the one I lived in with Mom, I am on the 19th floor, so no feet obstruct my view, which to the north overlooks the river and to the east, downtown.

Although I lack my mother’s craftiness, all of the paintings that I love, now grace the walls of my new home and feel just right. And with the help of a painter friend, I have a petite office for my business that sports a Sapphire Blue desk and bench, both cut down to my size.

Best of all, I can walk through my building’s garage to my exercise club, which for an early-morning person like me, is a special treat. Neither rain, nor snow will prevent workouts.

In daily texts to my daughters, I have written, “Worked out, met my friend for breakfast, had a massage.”

And, “I’m living the life you dreamed of for me.”

Although I can’t see their faces in Boston and Los Angeles, nor hear their voices, I interpret their texted responses of “So happy. You deserve it. Can’t wait to see your new place” to mean they’re as satisfied as I am with my swift choice.

Now I wonder, in their afterlife abodes, how does Mom view my digs? And my dear Tommy, how does he feel about my leaving our house?

“Perfect,” I can hear Mom saying, and I see two thumbs up from Tommy. I believe they are both relieved, and at peace, to find me cocooned in my own dollhouse.

Sunday Breakfast, Minus One

It’s 7:15 in the morning and I’m standing at the kitchen counter sorting out the bulky Sunday newspaper. “I’ve got your sports section and the comics,” I say out loud. My husband, who died Nov. 2 of this year, is not physically in the room to hear my declaration. But, conversing with him eases my raw pain.

After Tommy died, I halted our Sunday routine and stayed away from Dapper's, our usual breakfast place, believing it would be too painful for me to enter without him. But this Sunday, I had to shop at Target in the same mall as the restaurant, so I figured it'd be a good opportunity to test a revisit.

Somehow, I could feel my husband agreeing, celestially pushing for our regular weekend routine. First, though, I had to finish preparing the newspaper that had always accompanied us.

I replicated Tommy's system: Out went the advertising flyers to the recycle bin. Sports and Comics -- his first choice sections - on top of the pile, followed by News (local and international), Business, Arts, Travel, Real Estate, and Magazine. I took a plastic bag, packed in the specially-arranged paper, and drove to Dapper’s.

“Can I do this?” I said, as I stood at the entrance’s revolving door. Tommy, evidently believing the question was addressed to him, gave me a mystic push and sent me twirling inside.

I stepped to our usual booth. But, since we hadn’t been customers for two months because of my hip surgery, and my husband’s hospitalization and hospice, it wasn’t set up with our place settings. There were no tiny pots of jam, flavored coffee sweeteners, and other items our waitress, Linda, typically arranged before our arrival.

“Okay, don’t sit there,” Linda said rushing towards me. She grabbed my shoulders and steered me away. I was frozen in the spot, tears staining my eyeglasses. A few of the regulars swiveled to peek, but quickly returned to their newspapers and food. Our duo was minus one. My tears and my partner's absence told the story.

As Linda offered alternative booths, I said, “The counter. I want to sit at the counter.”

“Perfect,” she said.

Linda may have seconded my choice because it could keep her closer to me, perhaps to forestall a second breakdown. But, I had another reason: when I first met Tommy in 1996, he was a regular counter occupant at the Lakeview Diner. Once we became a couple, we moved to a booth.

Now, single, a widow, I decided to honor my husband; I’d become a counter person, too. At this early hour, I was able to spread out. My backpack went to the stool to my right. I unfolded the newspaper atop the bare counter on my left. I was easing in.

In between customers, Linda stood on her side of the counter, elbows up, hands holding her concerned face. I could bawl directly to her without rousing anyone else. “It’s so hard being here without him,” I said.

“He’s here, sweetheart, he’s here,” she said. “His spirit is here.”

“I really felt like he wanted me to be here, and he wanted to come, too.”

“Of course,” she said.

So, I did what I always did, but this time from my new counter seat instead of our old booth: I removed Comics and Sport from the stack I had brought with. Without worrying about anyone thinking me dotty, I said to my right, “Okay, Honey, here’s your sections,” then placed them on the empty space. As I finished my own parts of the newspaper, I’d add them to Tommy’s pile.

Although his stack never moved, never diminished, I was okay with the arrangement. I drank my coffee and ate my egg-white Spartan omelet with mozzarella instead of feta, Greek toast, bacon, and fruit. My eyes never left the newspaper.

When I finished my breakfast, Linda brought only one white foam box for leftovers. No need for Tommy's half of waffle, pancake, or cheese omelet.

I placed all of the newspaper sections back in the plastic bag I had brought from home including Tommy’s stack. I knew I’d never read Comics or Sports, but somehow, I couldn’t leave them behind.

After I paid the bill, and as I headed for the exit, with a lightweight bag of leftovers in one hand, and a full bag of newspaper sections in the other, Linda called after me,  “See you next week?” Her voice and face hopeful.

“I’ll try,” I said. “I’ll try.”

Then, with Tommy’s gentle push, I slowly revolved out the door into my new life.