As I close the window of the main bedroom upstairs, I catch sight of a tiny cat, almost a kitten, sliding under the big door of the barn across the yard. All at once, that day of my childhood comes back. I can still feel how frantic I became when Mom told me my dearest kitten Sam had disappeared that morning. I sigh. How is it that such a faraway memory can make your heart swell in your chest this way?
“You closed all the windows upstairs?” a calm voice asks from the bottom of the stairs.
I jump out of my daydream and go into the dusty hallway. It’s crazy, but this hallway is not that big after all. As a child, I saw it as the hallway of a castle: shiny, wide, and so nice with its wooden panels. I used to climb the wide stairs to it behind my grandmother, my chin up and my hands holding a long imaginary dress. I felt like a princess in a fairy tale because this place was so much bigger than the tiny apartment I had lived in with my parents and two big brothers. The hallway was waiting for me upstairs, with the wooden handrail all along it and the bright wide bedrooms on one side. I was to have a nap every afternoon, and it was all so quiet upstairs that sometimes I felt afraid of the beating of my blood in my ears. On these hot, sunny afternoons, my grandmother kissed me lightly on the cheek and closed the door. Then I could hear her feet slide more than they walked on the waxed parquet floor of the hallway. I was alone in the “white room,” as it was called. At first, I could not sleep at all because of the silence. And the darkness. I lay, my eyes wide open, and little by little, the light that slid through the splits of the wooden shutters drew the room for me.
“Yes,” I answer my mom, and I smile at her as she lifts her tired face to me. Her smile does not light her eyes. I know how hard it feels for her to sell this house.
“I saw a black-and-white kitten entering the barn,” I say, back downstairs. “It must be Sam’s great-great-great-grandchild! It looks quite like him,” I add, trying to sound cheerful.
“Sam? Oh, that Sam!” my brother John says. I hear the mocking tone he uses quite a lot with me, the little sister. “Well, I doubt he ever had a lineage, that one.”
“And why not? We don’t know, after all.”
“Oh you!” John says, averting his eyes.
“I was so sad that day,” I remember aloud. “And for once, you were so sweet to me, John! You and I looked for him until the night arrived. Even Dad helped us. You remember?”
“Yeah! That was the least he could do,” my brother says. He is always so bitter when it comes to Dad. Those two never got along well.
“Come on, John!” my mom says. “Your dad did the best he could, and those were difficult times when we had to come here to live with your grandparents while looking for a job.”
“Oh, yeah, great,” John says. “It was nice to live here with Grandma and Grandpa fussing around those poor little children who need everything. How I hated this place! You could do nothing inside. You had to be careful not to break any of their precious vases. You had to wear those silly things under your feet to keep the floor immaculate. No walking in that house, only sliding. You remember, Peter?” he asks my other brother.
“Yeah, we did have fun playing outside, though, didn’t we?” Peter answers. He looks at my mom to have her smile at those memories of happy children running around—a little wild because they suddenly had so much more space.
She is smiling, and I wonder if it is more about her or about us. She too ran wild here as a child and climbed the stairs like a princess behind my grandma, then young and smiling. I wonder if this place is more the place of her childhood than the place where she had to come back with broken dreams after her husband’s bankruptcy.
“But that day Dad was here!” I say, holding tightly to the memory of my long-gone kitten against the dizziness of time going by. “He helped me, and he took time to comfort me.”
“He was here! Of course he was here. He was the one who killed your cat!” John bursts out.
My mom lets out a short, reproachful cry.
“Oh, John, just shut up for once!” Peter exclaims. He sees my bewildered look, and I feel tears building up inside me when he reaches for my hand.
“Oh, Annie,” my mom says, “your dad had had another argument with your grandpa that morning, and he took the car out to unwind. But he was so upset that he didn’t see Sam, and the car ran it over, the poor little thing. We didn’t have the heart to tell you.”
“So came the convenient lie of Sam’s disappearance,” John says.
“Oh!” I can say nothing else. I let go of Peter’s hand and turn away.
I run to the rear of the house, where the kitchen stands. The colored tablecloth I remember is still on the big table, and some of the pans and pots are still on the counter. So this is it, I think. I will never see this kitchen again. I hide myself in the corner where the TV used to be. I cry, and I do not know if it is for the house, my little Sam, my dad’s betrayal, or just because I feel my childhood is ending right now.
Soon I hear footsteps coming. I feel comforting arms around me.
“Oh, John,” I say, “do you think we’ll ever know the truth about him?”
He just holds me more tightly. “I don’t care!” he lies.
I smell tobacco on his jacket, but I don’t tell him that he smells just as our dad did.
The moment passes by—one or two seconds more of closeness before he releases me. Mom is entering the kitchen. She looks at the two of us and smiles, her gentle, sweet smile that makes us feel we belong where she is.
“Sweetie, would you come help me with the sheets in the wardrobe upstairs? I think there are still some of them. Maybe we can do something with them.”
I follow her while John goes outside, possibly to drag on one of his too-many cigarettes a day. Mom and I climb up the stairs to the white room, where the big wardrobe stands. She does not speak of the cat, and I don’t speak of Dad. This is how it is in this family; we don’t speak too much.
We enter the white room, and suddenly it’s like my room again. When I used to nap here, that big wardrobe stood at the foot of the bed, threatening me, its heavy doors always ajar because when you closed them, the hinges would creak horribly. The walnut tree it had been made from had been cut more than a century ago, my grandma had told me. That used to make me dizzy. And the dark wood shone and exhaled a waxed perfume that mixed with the scent of lavender that Grandma always had in the small bags that she hid in every cupboard upstairs. Sometimes, in the dim light, I tried to follow with my eyes the waves and lines and circles that the years had drawn in the wood of the doors, but I always got lost. Now the wardrobe is like all the rest of the house: older, its patina gone, and the smell of lavender so faint that maybe I am just imagining it. I sigh and open the doors.
“There are only two or three pairs of sheets,” I say. I take them out and put them on the bed.
Mom unfolds the stiff, thick fabric and wonders aloud, “Who would sleep in one of these? I think all we can do is tear them apart and make rags.”
I nod absently and bend more into the wardrobe, where many boxes go up in uneven piles. They are full of ribbons, old gloves, small bonnets with long strings, old pictures, a funny old hat, and scarves, all so worn out it makes me feel sick. These are memories of my grandma. Nothing from us as a family, yet we spent almost two years here. But I guess that when we finally went away, we took our belongings with us. There were not many anyway.
And then I see it, hidden under the highest pile of boxes. It’s a simple brown envelope. I pick it up and hold my breath when I read the name and the date: “Suzanne, summer of 1976.”
“What’s this?” my mom asks, and I can hear something in her voice: fear, trouble, anticipation, a tremor of excitation—maybe all of this—as she takes the envelope. When she reads the date, she pales a little, and her breath changes.
“Open it, Mom!” I say with childish impatience.
She just stands there and opens her mouth as if to speak. Then she tightens her lips and turns away from me. She leaves the room without a word, and I feel dumbfounded. I am about to follow her and demand to see the envelope. But I look at my mom, who closes the door slowly behind her and does not look at me again. She looks so frail. What does this date mean to her? How old was I then? I do the math quickly. Thirteen years ago, I would have been eight, Peter would have been eleven, and John, almost a young man, would have been thirteen.
The summer of 1976, Dad had found a part-time job. We were in this house; I even went to school in this little village, that year and the prior one, while John and Peter remained in their high school but had long rides in a bus to continue their classes. That summer, I remember an ominous mood here; Grandma and Grandpa were silent most of the time. My young auntie Suzanne was here with an arm in plaster. She had broken it while riding Grandpa’s mare. Mom went away early every morning in Grandma’s little car to work at the library in the village nearby. Dad, somber, smoked one cigarette after the other. Sometimes there were whispers between Grandpa and Grandma, but if they saw me, they would stop at once.
Yes, I do remember the summer of 1976—and the autumn that followed.
I know we won’t have time to sort out all the little memory things packed in the boxes, so I take two big plastic bags and stuff everything inside. I do not wonder about my mom leaving this behind. The envelope must have shaken her. I close the wardrobe, and it cries again, one last time. Mom decided to give up on it; she does not have any room to store it. As single persons living in cramped little apartments, John and I declined. Peter’s wife said she did not want this sad, old, creaking, “worn-out, old-fashioned thing” in their IKEA home, so this is it. The old wardrobe will stay here, along with the old bed. I stroke the doors one last time, bend against the wood, and smell it, breathing a goodbye. Hopefully, the buyers will not dump it in a junkyard. I take the bags with me and close the white room, not wanting to embrace it with my eyes one last time.
We are done upstairs.
I drag the bags to the bottom of the stairs. I hear Peter and John in the kitchen. There are very few remaining things any of us will want to take away. Soon they come to me, each with one box in his arms. Those and the big bags are all we have to take today. This was the last of many visits at the house, sweeping the floors, washing the tiles here and there, driving many times to the junkyard.
This is it. Here we are, the three only grandchildren, a small group saying nothing, waiting for Mom to agree that we can go.
“Where is she?” John asks.
“I don’t know.” I add nothing about the envelope for now. I don’t want Peter to know about it. If Peter knows, then his wife will know, and she will not stop before she finds out everything about it. So I will wait until I can have some time with John. He looks at me. I understand my reply was somewhat abrupt, for I see Peter looking at me, puzzled too.
“I wish this were over,” I mutter. “It’s hard on her.”
“Yes, it reminds her of bad memories,” Peter says, and we all turn around because here she is, coming from the front porch. I look at her—no envelope, of course. She looks composed but pale as she smiles at the three of us.
“I think we can go now,” she says. “What’s in the bags?”
“I put all the boxes upstairs inside.”
She waves her hand as if to say, Why bother with this? I meet her eyes for a second. I cannot believe I see such coldness in them all at once. But it’s only a flicker, and her real eyes are back soon, a little warm and mischievous. I smile, shaking the chillness away.
“We should go now,” she says. So we step outside and watch her close the door for the last time. I know she is to give the key to the real estate agent tomorrow. We slowly climb down the front porch and into Peter’s car, Mom in the front, John and I behind. I turn around when the car passes the gate and see the house standing lonely, with its big windows closed on the past.
“Oh!” I exclaim. “What about the little kitten there? Should I take it?”
“It hasn’t been waiting for you. Anyway, the neighbor always had a good dozen of them. Don’t worry. It will be taken care of, unless it’s just a wild one that will live its life without you.” My mom did not bother to turn to say that.
I know she’s right, but the certainty of her voice infuriates me. “Well, I’ll just have a look at it,” I say. “Excuse me, Peter.”
To my surprise, he stops without complaining, and I hurry to the barn, John following me. Inside, the old carriage where we used to hide and play as children is gone. There are three or four rotten big balls of hay up in the hayloft but nothing else. The barn is empty, and I do not see any kitten or hear any noise. I climb up the ladder, with John holding it, but a quick survey lets me know the kitten has gone. I don’t know if I’m happy with this or not.
“Okay now?” John asks. “Can we go?”
“John, do you know what exactly happened in 1976?” He catches his breath, I am sure. I press further. “I found an envelope in the wardrobe of the white room. On it was written ‘Suzanne, summer of 1976.’ What happened? Mom wouldn’t open it.”
“I don’t know,” he says. “Ask her.” Just as Mom did, he turns around and goes.
I plead, “John!” I know I sound so much like his little sister.
He looks back at me with the same coldness I saw in my mom’s eyes just before. “Believe me, Sis, you do not want to know.” Then he strides out of the barn, leaving me with no choice but to follow.
In the car, only Peter seems cheerful, happy that this business with the house is over, looking forward to the meal his wife prepared for all of us tonight. My mom answers his unending chatter from time to time, sounding like her natural self. John and I drop a few words here and there. Each time I look at him, he just looks away through the window with a little sigh of impatience.
Finally, I cannot stand it. “Peter, I’m sorry. Would you drop me on the way? I have had a headache since this morning. I don’t feel up for a big meal tonight. You say my best to Bess, and I’ll come and visit one of these days.”
“Are you sure? She prepared lasagna!”
Our eyes meet in the rearview mirror. Nice, always-happy Peter. I don’t know what he sees, but his eyes smile. “As you wish, Annie.”
Soon the city is here, and we cross the river. I live in a small building not far from the main bridge. “Goodbye!” I say to the three of them when it’s in sight. “See you soon, everyone. Peter, wait for me to get the bags.”
I retrieve them and wave, pretending to be even too sick to kiss them goodbye. I know that no one but Peter believes me, and off they go. I turn and head to my empty home with one bag under each arm.