All That You Can’t Leave Behind Part 1

A Place That Has To Be Believed...Photo by Hallie Swift

A Very Very Very Fine House…Photo by Hallie Swift

You’re packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been
A place that has to be believed to be seen…

                                                                   (from Walk On by U2)

I see it


the cool white Spanish walls

on a hot LA day;

sun streaming

in the tall windows;

the welcome breeze at dusk.

My sister

at the piano;

fingers flying, chords vibrating,

her conquest:

Rhapsody in Blue;

just for the fun of it.

My father

on the sofa;

end-of-the-day vodka

cradled in his hand;

a dog-eared encyclopedia

resting in his lap; always

studying something new,

just for the fun of it.

My mother

in her chair;

exhausted from

chores and cooking; cooking and chores;

waiting to be

swept away by

Masterpiece Theater;

just for the relief of it.

I see us


I took it all for granted;

my mother did not.

She wanted to buy a home for years, struggling to convince my Depression-scarred dad, who didn’t believe in debt.

But she wanted a house.

And she wanted this house.

When she heard Mrs. Gold might sell, my mother walked up the red brick path and


I have loved this house

from the moment she opened the door.

It was her dream; her triumph;

she even bought Mrs. Gold’s dining room set.

My mother lived in her house for 40 years;

until one day

with our urging

she headed to the hospital.

Knee replacement surgery would guarantee her independence

or so we thought;

I will have you dancing out of the hospital, her surgeon lied.

She walked out her door,

down the red brick path;

she never walked again.

In the beginning, I did not accept her fate. She begged to go home; I vowed to make it happen.

But two years after the surgery,

I finally started to understand.

My sister and I faced a dilemma. We lived in the east. We could not take care of our childhood home.

And we needed to pay the nursing home bills.

We needed to sell the house.

(But how do we tell her?)

We spent the holidays in Los Angeles;

(Merry Christmas, mama; oh by the way, we are going to destroy you).

We visited. We celebrated. We did not discuss it.

Our holiday was slipping away. December 26…

December 27…

I was trembling when we walked into her room.

Before we said a word, she looked at us evenly:

Well, girls, I’ve been thinking. I think it’s time we sold the house.


It must have been unsettling– knowing we were staying in her home–without her.

And just the day before, my uncle casually remarked

Well, dear, I’m going to your house now… to have a martini…

I gulped; he turned white; but

his blunder might have been the welcome catalyst —

Well, girls…I think it’s time we sold the house.

I was ecstatic. She had made a staggering decision with no prompting. But within days,

she protested:

Who said you could sell the house? Who decided?

You did, mama.

I did? I don’t remember!

Yes mama, you said: Girls, I think it’s time we sold the house.

I would never say that!

But you did, mama, you did.

And she had decided,

for one day–

or at least for one moment–

but I had learned; in the world of dementia, you take what you can get.

I never mentioned our house again.

But she did.

She continually plotted her return long after it had been sold. She tore our family photos from the nursing home wall, preparing for her journey. She begged the nurses for a bus pass. She sat stoically by the front door, waiting for her (long dead) sister to pick her up.

Sometimes I waited with her.

I let her believe her sister was coming.

I let her believe her home was waiting.

I could not destroy my mother’s hope.

Out of the blue, she might ask

Where is my dining room table?

We have it.

Who has it?

Well, you remember Uncle Ted, right?

Well, of course.

Remember his son Bob?

Yes, Hallie, of course.

Well, then you remember Bob’s daughter. Remember when she was a baby and had her first Thanksgiving at your table…

Oh yes, she is so cute!

Well, mama, Bob’s daughter has your table and all the dining room furniture. She is taking care of it for you. And when you are ready, she’s going to bring it back. Does that sound like a plan?

Yes! That sounds like a plan!

Over the years, she asked about her possessions as though she were taking inventory; table by table; room by room. She even asked about her recipes; an intriguing question for someone who hated to cook…

And each time, I converted her questions into conversations about family. I tried to be careful, calm, reassuring– her belongings would be returned, of course, when it’s time to go home.

But when is that?

When is what?

When am I going home?

Well, first you have to move into assisted living. And if you can be in assisted living without falling, you can go home. Wouldn’t it be terrible if you went home and had to come right back?

Yes, that would be terrible.

When you can live on your own without falling, then you can go home. Does that sound like a plan?

There was silence.

That, she said slowly, is a very tall order.

I know mama,
but it would be awful if you fell…

She looked into my eyes.

I believe

she knew exactly what I was doing.

You can go home…

That is a very tall order.

I stare into her almond-shaped hazel eyes;

And I see us


Sitting on the sofa;

Playing the piano;

Waiting for

Masterpiece Theater.

We can go home, mama.

We will walk up the red brick path;

light streaming in the tall windows;

white stucco walls against the hot LA sun;

a cool breeze at dusk.

Your home is waiting for you, mama;

I will take you there.

Does that sound like a plan?

Home I can’t say where it is

But I know I am going home

That’s where the heart is

And I know it aches

How your heart it breaks

And you can only take so much

Walk on, Walk on

Vincent van Gogh, White House at Night, 1890  Hermitage Museum Collection

Vincent van Gogh, White House at Night, 1890 Hermitage Museum Collection

Both sets of lyrics from Walk On, from the album All That You Can’t Leave Behind by U2, music and lyrics by Adam Clayton, Larry Mullin, Dave Evans, Paul David Hewson, Copyright Polygram Int. Music Publishing B.V.

The last essay, Remember the Ladies, inadvertently did not allow Reader Comments. I hope the problem has been remedied, and I welcome your comments. Thank you, Hallie


21 thoughts on “All That You Can’t Leave Behind Part 1

  1. Maybe someday I’ll be able to read your posts without being moved to tears…but, I doubt it. This post made me want to be able to look into my Mom’s beautiful blue eyes…how I miss them. Daddy is still in our family home, but I know the day is coming when it will not be so…I hold on to the thought that a new, young family will raise their children there. Thank you, again, for your beautiful writing.

    • Thank you again. I do think about the house–who might be there now–and if the walls talk! I think the physical structure of a family home holds more power than we realize, and it is only afterwards (at least for me) that it takes on a whole new perspective in my memory.

      My husband’s uncle did something at the funeral service for his wife which moves me to this day…the funeral cortege took a detour from the church-to-cemetery route, stopping in front of the family childhood home, and the cars flashed their lights. My husband and I were completely taken by the symbolism and power of their homage to their home.

      And the eyes, yes. I long to see my mother’s eyes, and in fact I do see them–distinctly–in my mind; hence the inspiration for the fantasy lines at the end of the essay…

      I so appreciate your comments here, H

  2. I understand about the home. We had that family home and I think I sent you a picture of it once. How lucky my Mother was to have owned a home like that. None of us were able to have a home like that in our lives, nor her siblings or my cousins. She was very lucky. I am lucky that she chose to sell it before my Father passed away. I am very lucky that she knows exactly where all her furniture went and that she chose to leave it on her own. I can feel your Mother’s pain though. And I can empathize completely with an almost identical scenario of my brother playing the grand piano in the living room with the sun shining in and the windows open with sea breeze from Santa Monica blowing in and in my case the wonderful aroma of Italian food cooking in
    the kitchen and my Father reading the LA Times.
    This post really made me cry. It was so eloquently written Hallie. I feel that I am living your life through your posts because I feel all of it. Thank you.

    • I love the images you create here, the ocean breeze, your musician brother and the good aroma from the kitchen…it is reassuring to me that I am not alone in the way the past plays on my brain. I found a lyric from a recent song by Elton John that spoke to this…I may use it in a post some day, but for now, here it is:

      If I could go back home, if I could go back home
      if I’d never left, I’d never have known
      we all dream of leaving, but wind up in the end
      spending all our time trying to get back home again.

      Thank you, H

  3. I love the way that you weave music into your writing–although writing about your mother, it means your dad is in there too.

    • Several people have commented on how I weave art and lyrics into my writing…and I think you hit the nail on the head; both have always been an integral part of my life; I do not go through a day without a soundtrack (literally and figuratively).

      I wrote in an earlier piece how we always knew my record producer dad was coming home from work as we could hear his humming before we actually saw him–it never occurred to me but perhaps you are right, he makes his appearance here through the importance of music (and words).

      I do not claim that the lyric quotes are always the most profound or well written, but regardless, they underscore what I experienced in the moment and helped shape my reaction. That is certainly true of U2’s Walk On, which was popular at the time we were selling my mom’s house. The lyrics kept going through my head…and the line “You can only take so much, walk on” helped me immeasurably I dealt with something that emotionally was virtually impossible to grasp.

      Part 2 will also draw on the lyrics to Walk On.

      Thank you again for your support of my efforts, now and always, H

  4. Thank you. My friends this afternoon just talked about the point of leaving home – and having to choose which books and which pieces of artwork. It seems unbearable. I love the clear image of your family when everyone was home. And home was home. k

    • The disposition of treasures is gut wrenching. Part 2 will touch on this is more detail. You never know what is going to pull the rug out from under you…you think it might be the painting over the mantel or your mom’s favorite necklace, but actually a chipped coffee mug can hold the power to wallop.

      And then there is this quote from Ian McEwan’s Saturday:

      As the shelves and drawers emptied and the boxes and bags filled, he saw that no one owned anything really. It’s all rented, or borrowed. Our possessions will outlast us, we’ll desert them in the end.

      Sobering, but I like to think of it that way, Hallie

    • Thank you! Some people have commented that my posts are half poems/half essay, sort of an odd hybrid, and truthfully I don’t know how this style evolved but it is where the writing took me…

      I appreciate your comment and that you are reading my efforts!

  5. Bordering on poetry Happy New Year.Pat

    From: A Swift Current Reply-To: A Swift Current Date: Tuesday, January 28, 2014 4:40 PM To: Patricia Lipton Subject: [New post] All That You Cant Leave Behind Part 1 aswiftcurrent posted: ” You’re packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been A place that has to be believed to be seen (from Walk On by U2) I see it still; the cool white Spanish walls on a hot LA”

    • Thank you! It is probably evident that I don’t really know much about poetry and am not sure how this style of writing evolved…it is just where the process brought me…people tell me that the spare style enables them to put themselves in the middle of my experience and make it their own…and for that I am very grateful. Happy New Year to you, H

    • Thank you. As I look back on my mom’s life, I feel only now I am beginning to understand my complicated, exuberant, determined mother. Thank you for referring to “life lessons;” I feel like I am only beginning to learn…

      Your support here is deeply appreciated, H

  6. What a wonderful photo and painting bookend this sad, wry, and wise posting. So many of us faced– or will face — the time when a parent can no longer live in the family home. That family home was also the anchor of my mother’s existence. How hard to be the recipient of the anger of even the threat of “taking away” a beloved home. You help us see that we are not alone.

    • I know my childhood home was an anchor for my mom, and only in hindsight do I realize how much it was for me as well. I don’t think I ever appreciated that it was more than walls, furniture and possessions. But of course, I now see it was a symbol of everything my parents and their parents had sought, achieved, and ultimately relinquished (which is one reason it was so lovely to call out all their names as we circled around the garden). Thank you for saying I am helping you “see that we are not alone” — that is my overriding goal here– to share these experiences that are felt so deeply and seldom discussed…and be there for each other.

    • Thank you for your comment and for re-blogging my writing! As you know, it is challenging to find readers and I appreciate that you found me and shared A Swift Current on your blog. I will check out your site. Hallie

      • HALLIE—I did what you are more than welcome to do via my blog…found another blog and then found you! “Data-mining”…or in this case “follower-Likes-mining” is very acceptable. Another reason—besides liking what I find—for me to reblog! 🙂 Incidently…I also look for particular topics to search in my Reader that interest me. I forget which topic you were under…!

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