When a parent dies, do we let the house fall?

Every generation must decide what to do with the lives that preceded theirs.

  • Julian and his sister during construction of their mother Barbara's cabin outside Sandpoint, Idaho.

    Leni Marshall

In the mid-1970s, my husband's parents were headed west in a rusting car, bound for divorce. Their marriage would end where the road did – in Bellingham, Washington – but before that, they settled briefly in the small town of Sandpoint, Idaho. My mother-in-law, Barbara, fell in love with it.

Just after her divorce, with the kids in their father's custody, she returned and found 15 acres of evergreen forest a half hour out of town up bumpy dirt roads.

On the back of an envelope, she sketched a house plan and began building it in installments, like a serialized novel: a frugal fantasy, unfettered by thoughts of resale value. Her bed perched in a bay window above the front door, and the kids' beds stood high off the floor, two little forts. Forest surrounded the bathtub, which had windows on three sides.

My future husband, Julian, spent his 12th summer helping his mother cover the exposed ceiling insulation with rough-hewn planks. Divots from misplaced hammer strikes still pepper the boards, enduring evidence of that summer vacation.

When I met her, my junior year of college, Barbara had already had breast cancer for about a decade. She treated it, mostly with natural remedies, and at that point, it was in remission. But two years later, when Julian and I lived in Berkeley, it returned, now in her lungs. Suddenly, she was frail. Julian took extended leave and moved to Idaho to chop wood, feed the stove, shovel snow and otherwise help his mother get through the winter. As she began chemo and radiation, I began visiting.

My future mother-in-law gave us her bed, and we slept in. She'd wake at 5:00 and make shortcake for breakfast. As the winter progressed, she, amazingly, got better, gaining weight, energy, happiness. By spring, she felt motherly enough to tell Julian to get on with his life. So we left for Singapore to teach for a year. Barbara visited twice; in between visits, she had chemo.

Two years later, Barbara attended our wedding, which she likely thought ridiculous in its scope and conventionality. Later that summer, she hosted her own version in her yard – inviting friends for potluck and cake, made spectacularly and miraculously by Julian's sister in Barbara's bare-bones kitchen.

When the cancer returned, Barbara saw a faith healer in Brazil. We visited her at home just before she left. An overwhelming feeling of autumn lay over everything: Barbara, thin, sitting in the long, low sunlight, surrounded by the many shades of gold of northern Idaho Octobers – mustardy, burnt, bright. It was the last time we saw her healthy. She returned early, too uncomfortable to be away.

Barbara died on a cold, still January morning in 2004. We laid her out on a bed in the living room, dressed in the mauve flowered summer dress she'd worn to our wedding party. Her friends arrived with musical instruments, singing folk tunes until well after dark. Coyotes howled across the meadow.

Now, Julian and his sister have this house – this quirky manifestation, or manifesto, of their mother's drive and dreams. In the decade since Barbara died, the house has endured many temporary caretakers. Pipes have frozen, items disappeared; residents stowed away the knickknacks that made the place hers. We've spent vacations cleaning, repairing, nagging, evicting, our visits shorter and shorter.

Meanwhile, nature is staging its own eviction. If we don't do something soon, ecology will reclaim that corner of the meadow. The house is sinking. Wild animals, nibbling, have left gaps and holes in the wooden siding. The moss-covered roof leaks.

So: What do we do? Fixing the place seems futile. We've talked about prefabs and construction, setting up yurts or camping. But our own house needs work, too, and our children are going to college; the money's not there.

It's not a new dilemma. Every generation must decide what to do with the lives that preceded theirs. Homes need tending; inherited land is not free. But this decision requires an uncomfortable acknowledgement: that our days are unlikely to play out beneath the broad skies of the West; that our American dream might not be a journey westward, a forging of our own place on the frontier, but a life of good Midwestern neighbors, with deciduous trees and steady jobs and retirement plans in a city. It means that Barbara's dreams, for all their charm and serendipity, might not be ours.

Barbara had a knack for creating connections, and her complicated, cash-poor life somehow worked out. Maybe we're hoping for the same. Meanwhile, the house has weathered another winter of heavy snow and doubtless sheltered dozens of rodents. Soon the wasps and flies will be buzzing in the eaves. I hope they find it's a good home.

Science journalist Jessica Marshall writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.

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