Under the House

This is an essay that will be appearing in a forthcoming book, Modern Loss, to be published in January by HarperCollins.

If a place can symbolize the missteps one makes in the confusing period that follows a shocking death, then my family’s home in Vermont is the poster child. 

The property, a sprawling edifice that stands alone atop a hill overlooking Lake Champlain, is usually empty. It’s not really a home in the traditional sense, having become, over the years, a family warehouse, the place where we keep our most painful memories.

The house is about as far north as you can go before crossing into Canada — close enough to Montreal that the radio often picks up French stations. It was rebuilt some years back on the footprint of an older home that had been there for a hundred years, and, inexplicably, it retains the creaky, hollow bones of its predecessor.  My parents furnished it quickly, with a smattering of leftovers from previous family moves and a hefty helping of my high school watercolors. There are still remnants from the prior owners, who ran a bed-and-breakfast out of the house, such as fake ivy vines crawling across shelves and an empty, oversized aquarium that had once been filled with tropical fish. 

My parents purchased the house in the months following my younger brother Jed’s suicide. I remember clearly the despair I felt when they told me they were going to buy it. We’d spent the weekend in a small hotel in Essex, Vermont, swimming in the pool, exploring the area, and looking at houses for sale. In those dark days my family would often leave town together, as if holing up in some new place could distract us from our anguish. I argued in vain against buying a place up there. It was too far and too cold and too impractical. 

During those terrible months, my parents stuck to my surviving brother and me like an octopus suctioning its tentacles to a rock in a strong current. If they let go, they thought they would float away. My parents bought the house, then, as equal parts refuge and insurance that we’d always stay with them, unlike our younger brother. 

The first thing we did after buying the house was to truck everything that had been Jed’s from New York to Vermont. When you’re young —  Jed was 20 — you don’t normally have an inheritance to leave beyond your physical stuff. Into the subterranean basement went his bulky hockey bag stuffed with dirty jerseys and black skates; garbage bags filled with Dave Matthews and Led Zeppelin concert T-shirts, and intro-to-psych textbooks and English papers. We parked his enormous SUV beside the snow blower and the bikes, and for nearly two decades it has stood there, its black paint now covered in film, its engine now rusted out. And still, my parents continue to pay the car insurance. 

From the start, my older brother and his family used the house the most. As if he were just an ordinary homeowner, my brother invited friends, swam in the lake, and barbecued large summer dinners beneath the orange sunsets. 

I mostly stayed away. I hated the freezing cold lake, didn’t know how to navigate the small motor boat we kept there, and as a city girl, felt uncomfortable being so far from civilization. My parents, too, rarely made the drive. My Brooklyn-born father could barely swim, and my mother preferred window-shopping and eating out to fishing or hikes.

 

Occasionally, we came up as a family. Usually it was for New Year’s Eve, around the anniversary of Jed’s death. One year, my parents stayed in their room the entire day, my brother, sister-in-law and I awkwardly reading in the living room by the fire as my young nephews, oblivious to the significance of the day, played and ran through the halls. But mostly, the house sat empty; a ridiculous, oversized storage space for Jed’s things. 

It is said that homes can adopt a personality. For me this house was a mausoleum. Above ground the sun shone and the grass was green. But rarely if ever did anyone venture to the basement to see what was decaying down there. 

In our way, we’ve each moved past those terrifying first few years. And while we’ve all adapted and carried on, the house hasn’t changed with us. Jed’s things remain stubbornly untouched in the basement; the furniture we corralled ad-hoc into the bedrooms remain unaltered. The same blanket covers my bed where I had once lay so alone and scared, and now sleep with my husband on the rare occasion that we visit.

You would think we would have just joined together one horrible weekend and gone through Jed’s belongings. Confronted those smelly and now likely moth-bitten clothes and books, the pedestrian belongings of a college sophomore. But we have never even discussed it. 

We have talked, casually and in passing, about selling the place. It costs a lot to maintain a mostly empty house tucked away in the rural Northeast. There is a lawn to be mowed; raccoon traps to be set; electricity bills to be paid and frozen pipes to be thawed. My parents would welcome the freed-up cash. We all realize how impractical it is. But against all logic, we do nothing.

Recently, my husband and I put some savings toward a small cottage on the Long Island Sound, where my husband’s family has long spent holidays. In buying it, I felt like we were breaking the pact we made when my parents bought the Vermont house — to always stay together, a single-family unit. So I was surprised at how nonchalantly they greeted the news. The intensity with which my parents had once clung to us has dissipated, replaced by a grim acceptance that must come after so many years. 

If everyone in my family has moved past the utter darkness that enveloped us after Jed died, then why can’t we just tow his car and free ourselves from all his stuff? It may be laziness, but I think it is also dread at having to revisit that rawness of our early grief.  So the house in Vermont stands there like an immobile statue to our family tragedy. Its contents packed away and set aside. Above there is the appearance of normalcy, while down below, there is Jed’s decrepit SUV, its insurance up-to-date, as though the engine would actually turn on, and as though one day one of us would drive it away.