When Selling a Beloved Home Means Erasing Parts of the Past
BY SUSAN RAVA
“We can help. It’s a question of—how shall I say it? Of. . .?” Mary Louise, an interior designer, hesitated, ran her fingers through her short, frosted hair, looked intently from me to John, my husband of 53 years. She had volunteered to help us prepare our home for sale while advising us on our new condo.
Jen, her assistant, spoke up: “A question of making it more palatable, let’s just say. Yes, more palatable.”
“You know,” said the senior designer, “it’s the young people these days. Like Jen here. Now Jen, what would you do if you were buying this house?”
“Well,” Jen paused. Pretty with a high forehead and ebony hair pulled into a low bun that gave her a professional air, Jen glanced around our dining room: floor-length lace curtains with sheers at the French door, a mahogany table with claw feet, an antique Italian fruitwood secretary with a silk-tasseled key hanging from its door, a Persian rug in ocean blue and burnt sienna, all set in a room with wallpaper. “Well,” Jen said, glancing at her superior, “I’m like my generation—we like open spaces and open windows for light to come in. My generation doesn’t do window treatment, like drapes or sheers. Like your lace curtains here probably have to go. And the wallpaper. Then, what with the kitchen just through that swinging door. . . .”
Mary Louise continued, “You could take the wall out. Open up the eating and dining areas. Before you sell your house, you’ll have to make it appealing. So people can imagine living here.”
“Appealing, you mean, to young people.” I’d heard this from a real estate agent, too. “I get it. No one your age is going to buy a 100-year old house fixed up by 80-year olds. The buyers are bound to be young.”
“Which means …,” Mary Louise said as she pulled up straight in our dining room chair and spoke, “which means you have to neutralize your house.”
“Neutralize my house. A-ha, neutralize 52 years of life.” I saw those years in my mind’s eye there in our dining room as designer and assistant rang the death knell for decades of my husband’s and my life. Years with three children grown now into the fullness of adulthood; dinners with friends, political campaign parties, and church gatherings; wedding and baby showers, and memorial services with music on our piano; guinea pigs buried in the back yard and fuchsia peonies bursting forth in May; dark nights of adolescent anguish and family deaths; the luminosity of grandkids up and down the stairs, pleading to go to the attic to search for their great-grandfather’s sword; three basset hounds, a Scottie, and now a beloved found dog who wags at Mary Louise and Jen without suspecting that they propose to neutralize her beloved home.
“I hear, Jen, that your generation doesn’t do brown wood either.”
“Correct,” Jen said and nodded.
“A bit of a marketing problem for us. Just look around,” I said.
“We’ll work around that. And as for books, no paperbacks. Best to have the hardbacks arranged by size and color.”
“Ummm.” That we wouldn’t obey, not me (a former academic) nor John (a retired lawyer and politics buff).
“Finally, rugs. Not so many. Your house will look bigger without them.”
I will roll up the Tree of Life rug we bought on a whim in Seattle. The memory of the rug dealer in Fez spreading out carpet upon carpet until, like magic, we owned three—that memory will linger. Today as I step into my now ivory-colored dining room, bare of my ornaments—flowered demitasse cups, Italian secretary, and the royal blue Venetian glass ball—I breathe deep the grace of that room ready for the next owner. Freed, I fly to my new place—fresh, too, and beckoning. I weigh the possibilities of its now-empty rooms. Shall I repeat the cups and wallpaper with curlicues? Or shall I venture forth with everything different in what will soon become my home?
Susan Rava, a former French teacher, lives and writes in St. Louis. She is the author of Swimming Solo: A Daughter’s Memoir of Her Parents, His Parents, and Alzheimer’s Disease (Plateau Books).