Elizabeth Jaeger

Nothing is as it should be. At the beach, I had to set up the umbrella. It’s a simple task, but I’m not supposed to do it. Dad never let anyone but my son help him. But Dad isn’t here anymore. COVID stole him from us, and after more than a year, we still haven’t regained our balance. I miss him terribly.

I always enjoyed visiting Dad at his beach house, and since his death, I still enjoy visiting because the house is saturated with memories of him. But now, after almost two years, Mom is selling the house he loved, the house in which my son and I were always happiest.

Perhaps it’s silly to love a house. It’s an inanimate object that is made of wood, glass, and stone. But it’s not about the physical make-up, it’s the memories tucked into the crevices. The stories unfolded inside. The smiles and giggles rippling through the walls. The moments I now grasp at as I am waking up only to realize once again that everything has changed.

My parents had bought the house when I was sixteen. It’d been falling apart, but was all they could afford. Dad hired someone to completely renovate it, and I spent spring break with Mom raking leaves and doing yard work. It didn’t take long for it to feel like home. However, Mom didn’t drive, so without Dad, she had no way to get out here. I offered to take charge and care for it, but Mom wanted more from me than I could promise. With a child, I couldn’t commit to driving out here as frequently as she would have liked in order to tend to any required maintenance. Despite my pleas, she called a realtor. I begged her to rent instead of sell, but she refused. The stress and anxiety of caring for two houses was overwhelming. So now, the love Dad poured into this place was being reduced to an anticipated check.

Since Mom has no one else, the task of helping her pack it up falls to me. With reluctant footsteps, I wander through the house taking knickknacks off shelves, wrapping dishes in newspaper, discarding crap I forgot we even owned. Mom and I sort through Dad’s things. A pile for what we will keep. Another for trash. I want to hoard it all, but hoarding won’t bring him back. If he were here we’d be buying a new grill, then tossing the one that no longer works. If he were here, my eleven-year-old son wouldn’t be in New Jersey. He’d be with his grandfather in the house that used to be his palace. If Dad were here, Mom might remember how to smile.

When Mom finally retreats into her room and tries to sleep, I sit quietly in the living room — alone. If I’m quiet enough, if I’m still enough, maybe I can catch a glimpse of Dad? When he first died, I thought he was haunting the house. One afternoon, remembering how much he had hated eating out on the porch, I sat in his wooden chair, and it cracked. Another time, I plopped down on the couch and the curtain fell on me. Was it a coincidence that things started to fall apart after his death or did he somehow have a hand in it? Was he trying to communicate from afar without words, without us being able to see him?

No, I don’t really believe in ghosts, but lately I feel so alone that I need to believe in something. From Mom’s room, I hear muffled cries. Perhaps they are tears of regret. Now that she has found a buyer, does she wish she hadn’t? I’ve tried to comfort her all day, but sometimes words—or even my presence—aren’t enough.

My eyes drift around the house, my mind conjuring up images, moments I long to relive. I see Dad sitting at the table prepping the shrimp for scampi. I see him cuddled up in his chair with my son, the two of them watching a movie. In Dad’s room, he reads an Elephant and Piggie book with my son who, at four, loved those books. Through the back door, Dad is tossing a steak on the grill and beckoning a much younger me with his baseball glove, ready to have a catch. Together we rake leaves in the fall, and I help him put the kayaks up on the car. He sits in the dining room chair, a cake in front of him, my son on his back as we sing “Happy Birthday.” In the kitchen, he is making waffles, my son’s favorite. Then I hear his feet stomping across the porch, the front door sticks as he pushes it open, but when I turn to look no one is there.

I get up, walk into my room, and flip on the light. My eyes blink, and then I stare at the pen marks on the doorway, lines that chart my son’s growth. Dad always wanted me to measure my son, especially if it had been awhile since we had last visited. He wanted to know how much his grandson had grown. I reach for the ruler and measure. Four inches. That’s how much he has grown since Dad died. Four inches of absence. Four inches of memories that never got to be. I always thought my son would become an adult in this house, that I would mark his height until he stopped growing. But the house will be sold, and the wood will be painted over before I can finish measuring him. An incomplete record. A broken trail. Similar to his grandfather’s life.

If only things had been different. If only my parents hadn’t gone on a cruise. If only I had forced Dad to go to the hospital sooner. If only I had paid more attention early on to what was happening in the world. But things can only be different in my imagination, late at night when I close my eyes and pretend. I’ve always sucked at pretending. There is no escape. Reality defeats me. The house will soon belong to someone else.

When the world shut down, the plan had been that my son and I would weather the COVID storm out in Long Island with my parents. We’d stay safe, together, in a house removed from the epicenter. But then Dad started feeling sick. He told me not to wait for him. He told me that my son and I could go out to Mattituck whenever we wanted. The house, he assured me, was mine to use whenever I needed to get away. He didn’t need to be here for me to be at home. But now he is dead, and his promises died with him. The house is no longer mine. Carrying nothing but memories, I close the door for the final time. I can barely see because tears blur my vision. I’m sure it is my imagination, but when I get in my car and shift into reverse, I glance back at the house and I swear I see Dad sitting on the stoop, hunched over, and crying.

About the Author

Elizabeth Jaeger’s essays, short stories, book reviews and poetry have been published in various print and online journals, including Margate Bookie, Inscape, Shorts Magazine, Caustic Frolic, The Blue Nib, Capsule Stories, Watchung Review, Ovunque Siamo, Peacock Journal, Boston Accent Lit, and Italian Americana. Newtown Literary published an excerpt from her novel-in-progress.