A Hard Inheritance

Unpacking the baggage from my family home

Sarah Stankorb

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Remnants from a long life, snug in a box.

“One day, all this will be yours.”

It was a promise my mother made years ago, wanting to assure me that I’d have some sort of inheritance. I scoffed. All I’d ever wanted was to escape my childhood home.

I also knew better. I knew how little they had saved. Whatever value resided in the walls of their century-old home was all they’d have in old age.

I’d inherit the obligation to clear out their decades’ of stashed garage sale goodies, the cobwebs, the memories.

Over a recent weekend, my husband and I wrapped what I hope will be the final stage in preparing a house I’ve always hated for sale. My parents have grown increasingly ill and weak over recent months and are now in a nursing facility near my home, all of us across the state from where I grew up, hours from that old house.

On prior trips, we salvaged the clothes and old family photos, not realizing even older photos — including one of my great-, great-grandfather from 1891 — were stored in boxes at the back of a closet. We’d been bleary-eyed, not believing that this stage had actually come. My forceful and at times terrifying father can now only creep a few feet across the room. His constant, anxious phone calls have become the background music of my life.

This time, we were more strategic with the house. All the furniture we’d moved in recent years to get my parents safely positioned on the ground level returned to its native location, a redistribution we hoped would better stage the home and help a buyer see themselves there.

My eyes caught on one of the eerie portrait prints hanging around the house with oily shadows of black and brown. There’s the lonely girl in a barn hanging in my old bedroom; the woman sitting alone in shadows doing needlepoint; the woman sitting alone reading; the barren landscapes with grey, leafless trees; the despairing farm family in a fallow field; the impression of a sorrowful girl painted in reds and browns; the red-headed child with tears brimming her eyes.

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Sarah Stankorb

Sarah Stankorb has published with The Washington Post, Marie Claire, Glamour, O, and The Atlantic (among others). @sarahstankorb www.sarahstankorb.com