To Have and to Hold

By Peggy Duffy

They were about to make a decision on the house for all the wrong reasons.

He thought it was something he owed her. She’d grown up in a brick colonial overlooking the Potomac River, a mansion in his working class eyes. The first time she brought him home, he got lost on his way to the kitchen, wandering through the upstairs hallway, in and out of all those bedrooms, trying to find the foyer which led to the back staircase. He was the youngest of nine children from a farm in rural Pennsylvania, the only one of his siblings to go to college. His eldest brother, almost old enough to be his father, had smacked him on the back the day of his high school graduation. “Goddamn, Yale!” he’d said aloud for the first time, as if it were finally sinking in. “My baby brother’s off to Yale.”

He juggled loans, part-time jobs and summer employment to make up what the scholarship didn’t cover. His brother didn’t live to see his acceptance letter into Harvard Law. Family history of heart disease had added another member to its roster. He drove home for the funeral and was back at school the same night. He ended up graduating third in his law class. His wife-to-be graduated fifty-fifth.

She told him she was happy in the house they’d bought shortly after their marriage and she honestly was. They lived in the suburbs of Washington D.C., where they both worked, he for one of the country’s largest white collar law firms, she as a clerk for a judge. She didn’t mind that all the houses were constructed by the same builder and so had nearly identical floor plans, not did she care that when she looked out her living room window she could see into her neighbor’s family room.

After the birth of their first child, a boy, her husband encouraged her to stay home, wanting to support her and his child the way her father had supported his family. She was content to stop working, to give up a career she was never sure she wanted to begin with. She’d gone to law school to please her father, which in retrospect seemed the right decision when she thought about her husband and their chance meeting in the library. She enjoyed being a mother more than she’d imagined, even the dirty, messy parts her own mother had never attended to. Her husband was able to provide her with the means to hire someone to clean the house, since she hated anything which required a mop or a dust rag or a vacuum, and someone else to cook a few days each week because that was something else she didn’t much care for.

He made partner and they added to their family over the next few years, another boy and then a girl, filling up the four bedrooms, eventually finishing off the basement into a large playroom. She had friends in the neighborhood and there were lots of other children. The elementary school was a few blocks away, and she enjoyed walking her kids to school in the mornings and gossiping with the other mothers on the way back. She had a small garden where she and the children planted seeds each spring, and watched them sprout and eventually flower.

She kept telling him they didn’t need a new or bigger house, the financial burden of a larger mortgage. But she knew the house was something he really wanted and so she felt it was something she owed him, giving up the comfort of their neighborhood where she always had someone to talk to and the kids always had someone to play with. Besides, a few of her neighbors had gone back to work, now that all their children were in school, and her kids were getting older and bound to lose interest soon in bike riding and street hockey.

The real estate agent who escorted them that day had her own agenda. She needed one more sale to break the million dollar commission mark and receive a plaque at the company’s annual convention that year. She led them through the marble floored entranceway, pointing out the home’s fine features: its gleaming hardwood floors, the magnificent ten-foot ceilings framed with crown molding, the seven bedrooms upstairs each with its own private bath, the media room downstairs. She escorted them into the kitchen with its granite countertops and six-burner Viking stove and didn’t say another word, just gazed through the breakfast room windows, fixing her sights on the acres of lawn and shade trees beyond until husband and wife, following her gaze, became captivated by the view, the promise of privacy.

What they didn’t see that day was the isolation. How she would have to drive the children everywhere—to school, to play with their friends—while he was working twelve and fourteen hour days, and how she would come to resent it. How with the physical distance between her and her former friends and neighbors, the disconnection she had begun to sense would be more deeply felt. She wouldn’t be comfortable talking to them when her oldest son was caught cheating in school or when her younger son almost failed the eighth grade. Years later when she’d run into her ex-neighbors at the mall, her daughter’s face pierced everywhere imaginable, her son’s hair looking like it had been electrified, the way they pointedly looked away while they talked about the sports and music and academic accomplishments of their own kids, how could she tell them her oldest was on medication for depression? When her husband had a quadruple bypass, she’d return home from the hospital to the silence, each of her children, teenagers by then, either out who knew where, or sequestered in their bedrooms in the far corners of the house, the sound of their music muffled behind closed doors.

And maybe it would have happened anyway, the rebellious behavior, the blocked arteries (there was, after all, his family history), the breach with her old friends. Or maybe not.

She’d never know. Because on that bright and sunny day, after the two of them finished gazing at the expanse of grass and woods through that picture window, pausing briefly to see the agent’s encouraging smile, they looked at each other, and equally obliged for emotional debts yet to be paid, their eyes locked in agreement.

“It’s perfect,” he said.