Chapter 1: Les Escaliers
“You should give your house a name,” one of my girlfriends said when I told her about the Victorian brownstone my husband and I had bought. “Call it Les Escaliers,” French for “The Staircases.”
There were eight, a total of 120 steps. I finished tallying them sixteen years after we moved in, the day I moved out.
One by one, everyone in my family but me had already left. My daughter Ella had started college in the fall. Nicki, my eldest, had graduated the previous spring, then moved in with her boyfriend. That same summer our beloved family cat Thunder died. It was Jake, my ex-husband, who’d begun the exodus over a decade earlier, after meeting another woman and suing me for divorce.
That left me, alone in our four-story dream house in Brooklyn.
A few months before I left, my aunt and her six-year-old granddaughter came for a visit. That’s when I first began counting the stairs. But we had somewhere to go that day so we never finished our counting. I came across her notes the morning I left home for good and decided to finish.
I left the wooden spiral staircase descending from Ella’s room on the second floor straight down to the kitchen for last. I hadn’t meant to; it simply worked out that way.
As I descended it my final morning, I suddenly saw what Ella must have seen nearly eleven years to the day earlier, when she’d been only seven. Her mother, me, sitting at the kitchen table below, crying, broken. No wonder she’d been frightened. Hers was a picture of Mom she’d never witnessed before.
“Mommy, what are you doing up already?” Ella had asked, barefoot, standing at the top of the spiral staircase wearing her pink silky nightgown.
“I couldn’t sleep, honey,” I said.
“Is everything alright?” she asked, rubbing her eyes.
Someone once told me they could stare straight through Ella’s big brown eyes and see her soul. That day I felt she was looking directly through to mine.
By the time I moved out, I’d downsized three-quarters of our possessions, giving away expensive antiques and artwork. By then, despite the losses I’d endured, I understood what was important.
And so I kept every single one of the love notes and pictures Ella and Nicki made for me. Many had been taped to the wall above my desk for years, right up until the time I had to box them up to move. “The Wall of Mom,” Ella called it.
“I’m fine, honey,” I lied to my daughter that long-ago day at the kitchen table. “Get dressed and come down for breakfast.”
Everyone but me had moved on and started a new life. Now it was time for me to leave home too. To exit Brooklyn, pick up where I’d left off over thirty years before, and begin again.
First, though, I had to sell my house.
The night before I’d worried when Jake hadn’t come home until after midnight. I’d phoned the salon where he told me he was going for a massage after work, but they said he’d never shown up. When he got home, he refused to tell me where he’d been. Restless, I awoke early, the house quiet, my husband and children still slumbering. As I walked downstairs, my eyes were drawn to his brown suede jacket in the vestibule. Feeling like a thief, I reached inside the pockets, drew out Jake’s cell phone, and carried it into the kitchen, shaking.
I brewed a pot of coffee, conscious to place a moment between what I feared might be on that phone and whatever came next. And then I sat down at the kitchen table, picked up Jake’s cell phone, and perked up my ears to hear if my powering it on had woken anybody up.
My husband and I had had problems in our marriage from the start. But we’d worked through so many of them, or so I believed. I hadn’t dreamed he was having an affair.
He hadn’t created password protection so I scrolled to voicemail on my husband’s cell phone. Instantly I heard a woman’s voice I’d never heard before.
“I love you. Call me at home,” the voice said.
My hand trembled. I inhaled my tears and stuffed my wails inside so the children, one floor above, wouldn’t hear.
“Want to come over here tomorrow and have a little time to be private instead of meeting at the office?” the voice continued.
Fear exploded in my chest. I couldn’t swallow. I wanted to bolt the doors and keep my family in suspended animation, safe and rolled up in their covers until I could figure out what to do next.
But I pressed the send button to hear more, unable to stop inflicting my own pain.
That’s the moment Ella called to me from the top of her stairs, standing where I stood eleven years later, minutes before I left my house forever.
Twice before I’d left home, once for college and then again after law school when I moved to New York City. But this time was different. This time I would be leaving the nest I’d built—the nest that had become the symbol of the most important thing I had ever done and the people I loved more than anyone else and the place where it finally and officially crumbled. Everyone but me had moved on and started a new life. Now it was time for me to leave home too. To exit Brooklyn, pick up where I’d left off over thirty years before, and begin again.
First, though, I had to sell my house.
This is an edited excerpt from Beverly Willett’s memoir Disassembly Required: A Memoir of Midlife Resurrection (2019). Purchase it HERE.
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