When my great aunt died in March, two deaths actually occurred: hers, and the house in which she lived.
My aunt was the last person living in the Northeast Philly rowhome that had been part of the family since the 1930s, when my great-grandparents came to America from Poland. My great-grandfather died early, my grandmother got married and moved to New Jersey, and then for several years the house was occupied by my great-grandmother and her other three children–my Uncle Cas and my Aunts Adzia and Stasia.
By the time I came into the picture, my great-grandmother, Babcia, was very sick. Most of my memories of her involve her sitting in the corner chair in the living room, colostomy bag strapped to her side.
Her English was poor, and she spoke mostly in Polish. As a small child, a very old woman with a pee bag who spoke in a foreign tongue was somewhat frightening, and I hated when she’d scold my aunts for scratching my back and letting me watch the mini-series V.
I was 6 when Babcia died. I remember several events of that day, starting from being at home and my mom asking me if I wanted to go over to Babcia’s house for the afternoon. Of course! I said, because I knew either Adzia or Stasia would give me something cool, like a new coloring book or toy. My mom warned me that Babcia was very sick; I was OK with that. What I didn’t know then as a child was that Babcia was actually dying, and my mom had gotten a call that this was the end. By the time we crossed the bridge and got into Philly, Babcia had died. I was quickly ushered upstairs into Babcia’s old bedroom (which she hadn’t used in years; she had been sleeping in a hospital bed downstairs) and was told to stay on the left side of the bed, on the floor, and play with the Valentine’s puzzle I had just gotten. Everyone was crying and running around the house looking for papers, but I was content putting together my candy heart puzzle in the “purple room,” which until then I had never been allowed in.
After Babcia died, my Aunt Adzia finally had a place to sleep. Until then, she had been sleeping on a mat in the middle of the living room (nevermind the fact that “purple room” remained vacant, but apparently it was viewed as some kind of shrine to Babcia). The front room of the house was eventually transformed into Adzia’s bedroom.
For years, the three siblings lived together in the house, and every Friday afternoon my mom, grandmom, and I (and eventually my sister) would drive over the bridge to visit them. We’d go out dinner, go shopping (usually at Ports of the World, which we termed “The Biggie” because of its massive size), and then have dessert back at the house in the kitchen.
My Uncle Cas was a man of mystery. He’d come home from work around 4:30, sleep till 8 or so, and then go out for the night with his fiancee Mary Ellen. I never understood how someone could just be going out for the night that late!
Even his bedroom was a mystery. The door was always closed, and I was warned over and over again not to go into Uncle Cas’ room. To this day, I still don’t know what made the room off-limits. Was it just plain old messy? Did he have girlie posters hanging? Was there porn stashed everywhere?
Uncle Cas was the youngest but the first of the 4 siblings to die. He didn’t know it at the time, but when he came to my wedding in 2004 and had trouble eating the food, it was because he had colon cancer.
My Aunt Stasia, the second youngest and most religious of the siblings, was the next to pass away.
Her illness was drawn out for years. At first she refused to leave the house, then the upstairs, then her bedroom. My Aunt Adzia waited on hand and foot. Her bedroom, once a fancy “beauty parlor” in my young eyes, turned into a dark and depressing psychiatric ward. She died in 2007, after nearly 5 years of never leaving the house.
My Aunt Adzia lived alone in the house for nearly 4 years after her sister’s death. Don’t ask me how an 80-something spinster who didn’t drive managed this property–located on a high-volume road just minutes from I-95–on her own. She hired someone to mow the lawn, and my mom and grandmom visited every other week to take her grocery shopping, but for the most part she kept the place spic and span with her own two hands.
Adzia was hospitalized at the end of November after collapsing in the basement bathroom.
She died in March, after almost 4 months going back and forth between the hospital and rehab. She never returned home.
After she died, my mom and grandmom spent several days a week cleaning out the house to prepare it for the market. They removed all the clothes and valuables, but most of the furniture, linens, and appliances are being sold with the house. All the photos pictured thus far are how the house remains for the new owner.
New owner. It’s incredibly odd and profoundly sad to know that in three days this house–where my family lived after moving to America during the Great Depression–will no longer be part of the family. So much of my childhood was spent in that house, from those Friday night visits to weekend sleepovers when my aunts would take me out to breakfast or buy me sugary cereal like Count Chocula that was forbidden at home to late summer nights when I’d dance outside using their vast lawn as my stage. I’d color on the living room floor with the new coloring books Adzia bought for me every week, help my aunts pick out the ripe tomatoes and peppers from their garden, and eat Old London pizza at the kitchen table.
My visit to the house this weekend was my first time there since last summer–and my last visit ever. It was so weird to walk through the door and not hear my Aunt Adzia calling, “Jennifer, dollbaby!” I couldn’t decide whether having the house furnished was a good or bad thing–seeing everything the way it’s been forever was comforting as opposed to seeing each room stripped of its familiarity, but at the same time it was so strange to see everything there, minus my aunt.
I wanted to honor the house in some way before I left, and I felt it was most appropriate to dance in the living room, like I always had anytime I visited. Since my childhood, the house had a giant mirror perched behind the sofa; it was like a dance studio! I’d always be practicing pirouettes or perfecting my arabesques, checking myself out. During my younger days, I’d bring my cassette tapes over to the house and perform my dance studio recital numbers in the living room for my aunts, who’d sit on the couch and be my captive audience.
And just like in 5Rhythms, the dance always ends with Stillness.