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Leaving Our Town

The experience is so deeply embedded that, even now, I occasionally dream about forgetting my lines on stage. I had been cast as Emily in my high school production of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer prize-winning play, Our Town. The play transformed me.

I remember the feel of my vintage dress, the fit of my black Mary Janes, the swishing sound while brushing against overcoats as I emerged from the circle of mourners at my character’s funeral. But most of all, I remember asking the iconic question to the Stage Manager over the pin-drop-quiet Saturday night audience: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?”

“No,” the Stage Manager says quietly. “Saints and poets maybe—they do some.”

The play has bubbled up in a significant way for me as we are on the verge of leaving our town and moving from Pennsylvania to Maryland.

It all started in late July, when two of our three grandchildren were here for a few days. Seven-year-old Hadley asked to see the dollhouse her mother told her she and her sister had gotten for Christmas when they were little. Rob had built it for the girls, lovingly laid every roof shingle, meticulously painted it, and mounted it upon a heavy board with four sturdy handles for easy carrying. We had brought it from our old house before we were grandparents, hoping one day to pass it along to the next generation.

Hadley’s eyes got big when I showed it to her. “It’s all yours, whenever you want it,” I told her. She made a video to send to her mother to convince her to make room for it in their home. The video did the trick.

When Leslie came for the kids the next day, we told her how much we enjoyed having them, and how we wished we lived closer. She confessed that both she and Heath have talked about wishing that both sets of grandparents could have more of a regular presence in the kids’ lives. Then she got up to leave. It was a long drive after all.

As she helped Rob carry the dollhouse by its handles out of the storage area and into her car in the garage, they might as well have been carrying the Ark of the Covenant as far as I was concerned.

I felt something shift in my gut—like I had just received the signal to advance.

Within days, we were entertaining the idea of moving closer to them. Then it got more and more serious, like we had caught a wave on a surfboard we just couldn’t fall off of. Within four weeks, we had made the decision, bought a house there, and put ours up for sale.

A friend’s words taunt me a little: Are you sure you and Rob are doing the right thing? “No,” I told her. “But we’re being nudged more in the direction of moving than not.” So we keep packing and planning. Walking by faith.

Like everyone knows, it’s a laborious task to decide what to take, trash, donate or sell. I thought I was ready to part with a small box we had labeled, “Kelly’s Things” during our last move in 2011. My first clue to the contrary was dreading even opening it. I hadn’t opened it in ten years, so did I really need it? You’ve processed deeply about grief, I told myself. It’s time to let go.

I came down into the storage area and saw that Rob had already opened the box. On top he had laid her teddy bear, the familiar light blue denim jumper and t-shirt, and the boots she wore at camp before she died. He looked at me to make the call, and I looked at the items longingly, unable to. Then he picked up the clothing, buried his face in it, and rocked back and forth in a gesture we both know so well from our dear friend Gregg Hurley’s sweatshirt dance about loss, “Two Halves Make a (W)hole.”

I never loved him more. “Yes,” I cried with relief. “These are our sweatshirts.” They make the cut once more.

But something had slipped to the bottom of her box that I didn’t even remember existed. It made me realize that I have lived among saints and poets all along—the very human beings the Stage Manager in Our Town says do realize life while they live it, “every, every minute.” It was a tiny envelope with the familiar shaky scrawl of Rob’s father, who never let his intention tremor keep him from tipping a trembling gallon of spring water over our crystal goblets when they hosted us for dinner. Nine years after his death, we realize even more of this servant-hearted man’s poetic essence.

Kelley’s Last Tear, he wrote on the envelope, with an extra “e” inserted in her name. I open it and pull out an unremarkable crumpled tissue—except that we know it holds her DNA. The yellowed pages of our real-life drama fall open to her climactic scene, and our hearts notice a stage direction we had completely overlooked: (POP-POP notices a tear sliding down KELLY’S cheek. He pulls a tissue out of his pocket to dab it.)

Like him back then, we are approaching the third act of our life drama. Hopefully, it will be a long, fruitful time till our own final curtain. But you never know. You just never know.

Four days ago, potential buyers walked with their agents through our house and looked right past our emotionally-charged, plain brown boxes. No “wow” factor for them there. They came not as sauntering saints or poets, but rather as folks seeking to stay alive in the churning whitewater of a seller’s market, where no one is in a state of mindfulness, but rather in a tense, cat-and-mouse game of bait and trap.

We played it weeks before, so we know what it feels like to be the mouse. But on this particular day, we were the cat, tails twitching with heightened adrenaline. And even though the role didn’t suit either of our personalities, we had put on the costume. It’s what you do. And with mounting expenses at the other end of our move, we wanted top dollar as much as any seller.

Kicked out of our house during the last of the showings, and on hyper alert for texts from our agent, we got takeout from a restaurant and drove to a park two miles away. At a picnic table under a pavilion, I opened the food bag and lifted the steaming hot containers—brown sauce not on the side and leaking all over my hands. “Oh no!” I cried. “What a mess! And they didn’t give us any napkins—or utensils!“

“Call them up!” Rob said, as frustrated as I. “They should—”

“They should what? You want me to ask them to deliver plastic utensils?” We were poised to pounce, eyes ablaze, claws bared. Hangry is putting it mildly, considering how mentally and physically exhausted we were from all the packing and stress.

Rob picked up a chunk of piping hot, dripping broccoli with his bare hands. “Don’t do that,” I said, getting up. “Wait here.” I went to the car and came back with half a paper towel, a near-empty pack of tissues, and a single dirty plastic fork I’d pulled from my lunch bag. “We can share.”

Like sharing a toothbrush, he had to have been thinking. No one wants to do that.

I handed him the fork. “No, you first,” he said. I took a bite and passed the fork across the table to him. He took a bite and passed it back to me. And so it went, one slow, alternating, mindful bite at a time, turning us from cougars back into kittens.

Toddlers giggled as their daddies pushed them on the swings nearby. Tiny dogs, drawn to every scent, zig-zagged at the end of their persons’ leashes. A squirrel walked in halting, deliberate steps across the macadam as if he, too, were under the spell of our black plastic fork. And the sun slipped lower in the sky.

We prayed for the right buyers for our house as we drove home, trying to discern between three generous offers, and wondering if the last couple to go through would make a fourth.

As it turned out, we didn’t take the highest bid. We were drawn, instead, to the story of a couple who had lost several other houses, and who could give us an early settlement and generous conditions in their offer. And who, we found out the next day, had been praying as well. They cried when they received the good news that they’d gotten the house. It was the emotion-laden first anniversary of their mother’s passing. We are human beings after all, in need of a divine touch.

In just a matter of weeks, we will have left our life-long hometown. Our town. Already, I’m experiencing the shimmering preciousness of “last” things. My last appointment at the beauty salon. (Did she ever style my hair more beautifully?) Our last church service. (Was the music ever more transporting?) The hibiscus on our balcony. (After struggling to bloom all summer, she is now bursting with bright red flowers.)

The Stage Manager knew what heightened appreciation is, of course. “Sky is beginnin’ to show some streaks of light over in the East there, back of our mountain,” he says in the opening of the play as he introduces the people and the town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire.

“The mornin’ star always gets wonderful bright the minute before it has to go.”

I convince myself and others that we will stay in touch like always. Facebook, texting, and video chats, right? It’ll be just the same as during the pandemic. We won’t even notice the change. We’re not REALLY leaving. And we can always drive the 90 minutes to see one another.

But I am trying to protect myself and my friends. The truth is that the extraordinary and taken-for-granted gestures of togetherness will be gone: the amusing way my stylist, after 15 years, still gets it wrong which side I part my hair on; the lift we get in our spirits from the energizing salsa music our neighbor plays on his porch on Saturday mornings; being able to walk just a few blocks down the street to hang out with Rob’s sister, her husband, and their golden retriever on their porch; cherished friends just doors away, who can gather at a moment’s notice to take a walk or kibitz about life; and the network of dear friends populating the wider radius around us, supporting us and keeping us buoyant like springs on a trampoline. We will miss them dearly.

But there’s a lot we’re looking forward to, also. One-mile proximity to our grandchildren. Renovating a tired, 80-year-old house. Being closer to a major airport when traveling to see our other daughter on the west coast. But for now, it’s time to take off the protective armor and channel Emily in Our Town. Maybe even insert a few of my own words in her final monologue:

“Goodbye, Lancaster—Goodbye Lemon Street Market and city sunrises and moonlight from our balcony—Goodbye, Buchanan, Musser, and Lancaster County Central Park trees—and fireworks on Barnstormer game nights—and #27 with chicken from Sukhothai—and jazz concerts in our loft—and the grounding feel of the hardwood landing two thirds of the way up the L-shaped staircase to my studio.

“Oh Lancaster, and all of our friends, you’re too wonderful for anyone to realize you!”

Hadley with Holden, the night she chose the dollhouse.

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