As Audra mounted the steps to her parents’ house for what would be the last time, she was overcome with profound sadness. The last six months had been grueling, as weekend after weekend, she had made the four-hour drive from her home in Albany to the house her parents had lived in until their deaths. It was no longer a warm and loving space. Not since Dad’s death six years before had any semblance of vitality remained. Seeing it was a painful reminder of what was gone.
Its emptiness echoed, as she stripped away its contents. Dumpster after ugly green dumpster sat in the driveway, a sign to passersby that this house would soon be occupied by a new family. Her memories would be overwritten by those being made by a family not her own, interlopers sitting in her Mom’s kitchen or gathered in her Dad’s den.
She had painstakingly sorted through their things, keeping for herself everything she valued, distributing to relatives the things that had by sentimental value. All usable items she donated to charity, leaving only whatever the attic held.
The attic was the place of her parents’ oldest memories, keepsakes of their childhoods, growing up in Astoria, Queens, attending William Cullen Bryant High School. Over the years, she had heard many stories of how life had been for them, living through the depression, learning how not only to value what they had, but also never taking anything for granted.
“How did you meet?” she had once asked once asked her mother.
“Your father knew my older sister and they walked to school together with a bunch of neighborhood kids. When I was a freshman, I joined the group. I was struggling to carry all my books and this gorgeous blue-eyed blonde took them from me and offered his arm. And that was it.”
She remembered her mother smiling at the memory. “How did you start going out?” Audra had asked on another occasion.
“Well, we had lots of dances back then and I was hanging posters and selling tickets for one. Your father asked if he could help me and I said, ‘Only if you buy a ticket’ and then he said ‘Only if you go with me’ which I thought was pretty fresh, so I stapled his tie to the bulletin board next to the poster.” That and a hundred other memories flooded Audra’s mind every time she was back in their home, Sifting and sorting, picking and donating. Now, only the attic remained.
The access to the attic was at the far end of the walk-in closet attached to the largest of the home’s four bedrooms. That room had been hers when she’d lived here, but it lacked any familiarity. After she moved out, her father made her bedroom his office. Once he was gone, it remained empty, her mother having neither a reason nor a desire to climb the stairs. As strange as it was, she couldn’t remember if she had ever gone into the attic. Now she stood just inside the closet, whatever the attic held, treasures or trash waiting.
Audra reached for the latch and pulled it back. The wooden door groaned in protest, unwilling to be disturbed after so many years of resting peacefully, but rattled and yielded. Ducking her head inside, uncertain of the room’s height, she searched for and found the light pull, and tugged on it, illuminating an area only as wide as the naked light bulb could reach. The air was hot and stale and the room was dusty and cloaked in cobwebs. And there were boxes. That was good. She could pull them out one by one, carry them down to the sunken living room to sort, using the step down as a chair, now that all the furniture was gone.
She opened each box and sorted the contents into a semicircle of piles around her. Some things were easily discarded, some would have to be shredded, others would require a closer look. Box after box was subjected to a similar process: open, review, sort. Open, review, sort. Once the piles threatened to topple, she plugged in the shredder, reducing tax returns that spanned decades to confetti. That she dumped into the tall kitchen trash bag along with the “discard” pile.
She worked methodically as she had during each lonely trip, accompanied only by the music she played in her head, the stereo system long gone. Sometimes she sang along with Old Blue Eyes. Sometimes it was Simon and Garfunkel or The Beatles. Today, it was Pavarotti and then, Bocelli. One last box to go before sweeping out the attic floor, latching the door and contacting Ryan Realty to officially put the house on the market.
She hummed along with Bocelli as she opened the last box, the only one labeled. ASTORIA, it was marked. In it were remnants and keepsakes of her parents’ youth: her Dad’s Varsity letters for track, his army discharge papers, both his and her Mom’s high school yearbooks, their juvenile autograph books with well wishes from family members, some of whom died before Audra was born. She felt tears spring to her eyes when she recognized both her grandparents’ handwriting and read their messages. There were also photos she had never seen before: younger versions of her parents. They were so young, smiling, and fully alive. These she would take home to show her children. At the very bottom of the box was a black leather-bound book, resting on what was a formal portrait folder.
She looked at the portrait first. A handsome blue eyed, curly-haired blond young man smiled up at Audra, dressed in his Navy uniform. The words Wait for me, were written in fading blue ink, and signed Billy. Her mother had talked about the boy from Astoria, Billy Greenfield, who had proposed to her but who was killed during the war. Her father didn’t like it when her mother told the story, a hint of jealousy breaking through. He would say, “You might not be here at all, Audra, if your mother had said yes.”
That’s when her mother would smile mischievously and say, “But I did choose you, Ed, even though Billy was a better dancer.”
Her parents had gotten engaged in 1943, when her mother was just 17, and had married in November of 1944. Billy Greenfield went MIA in March of 1943 while on a mission and was presumed dead. Yet, here he was, saved by her mother all these years, tucked away at the bottom of a box in the attic.
Audra set the picture aside and picked up the book, brushed it off and opened it carefully. She was greeted by her mother’s unmistakable flowing script in fading ink, aligned in poetic stanzas on page after page. She read one, then another and then a third poem, aware that she was not only peering through time, but also into the private world her mother had hidden away, a trespasser in her mother’s mind and heart. The poems were intensely personal, but one stood out. She read it more than once, wondering whether it had been written to her or to Billy Greenfield.
Aurem cordis, the ear of the heart,
Hears a melody unique, tuned to one voice
Unknown and unknowable
Until the sweet entrancing tones
Float across the vastness of Time and Space.
A siren song whose intricate melody insinuates itself into the
Sheltered chambers of the heart to find the sacred place reserved
And settles there, never to be disturbed
Who had her mother written this poem for, her father? or Billy Greenfield whom she hadn’t waited for and who never made it home? All three of them were now gone. Whoever had held that sacred place in her mother’s heart would know it now, if such a thing as heaven existed. It was a puzzle Audra would never know the answer to and it was an answer best left unknown, she decided.
Audra completed her sorting and left the house for the last time, carrying the ASTORIA box and her mom’s black notebook with her. Andrea Bocelli’s Con Te Partiro (Time to Say Goodbye), reverberated in her head. She paused in the driveway, letting the engine idle. The tasks were finished and she was taking the last of her parents with her. It was time for that final goodbye and start for home.
She kept the book of poems in her night table and, every now and then, she would randomly open it to read her mother’s words, in her own hand, in that private voice that soared with emotion, an aria sung by a woman she had never dreamed existed but who was preserved in the black leather-bound book found at the bottom of that last box, a treasure preserved in a dusty attic.
Kathleen Chamberlin is a retired educator living in Albany, New York. She began writing creatively during the quarantine period of Covid-19 and her writing has appeared in both print and online journals and anthologies.