“You’re losing it,” my friend Lori said. “I think you need help.”
She was right. I was driving friends and family crazy with my obsessive behavior when they staged this mini-intervention four years ago. It wasn’t a dangerous situation. I wasn’t drinking too much or using prescription painkillers. What caused them to question my mental state was an inability to make up my mind on a simple decision.
I recalled this predicament as I recently binge-watched the charming Israeli show Shtisel, on Netflix, about a Haredi family in an Ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem. I was struck by how the characters kissed the mezuzah each time they entered or exited a room. As a Jewish mother, I hung mezuzas on our doorposts but I wasn’t attentive to their symbolism as I passed through during my crisis. I had a less divine focus. I was fixated on the door knobs.
I was unraveled in a spiral of indecisiveness. It began when I decided to fix-up our aging house. My husband and I had been in the house for over 20 years – moving there from NYC when our sons were toddlers. Now they were grown and the youngest was graduating college. My boys were only two years older than the house, but while they’d grown more independent, the house acted like it was still in the terrible twos — demanding time, money and lots of care and attention. I had grown up too. My knees creaked about as much as the floorboards did, and I didn’t want to take care of kids OR the house anymore. I could barely keep up with my own maintenance. If we were going to spend money on a facelift, it was going to be on my 56-year-old face, and not a center hall colonial.
The entry hall had cracks in the ceiling, wood rot ate at the doorframes, the kitchen needed some new curtains and every room needed a coat of paint. If we ever wanted to sell it we’d have to maintain it. When a friend and real estate broker mentioned that new door handles were an easy upgrade I thought it would be a quick fix. Shiny new knobs had been known to freshen up old gals before so off I went to the hardware store.
Easy fix? It was not quite as simple as I hoped. Who knew there were so many choices? There were handles, levers, round knobs, egg knobs and so many finishes. There were hinges that needed to be matched. For a perfectionist like me who perseverated over details this was overwhelming. A salesman at Gracious Home helped me pick a classic style and went to get the order form but he would have needed a degree in abnormal psychology to get me to make the deposit. I went back to the store until I saw him run and hide the fourth time I showed up. When I thought he might call the Bellevue psych ward I went to other stores where I could start fresh. I stared at doors everywhere I went. I asked friends to take pictures of their door handles. I nearly fell off the Pilates reformer as I took a class and stared at the handles of the classroom door instead of my feet. My husband thought I was insane asking him his opinion on something he cared little about. I literally began dreaming of knobs. I couldn’t sleep. I was stuck. I was becoming unhinged.
I knew I should have been able to get a grip on this handle problem. Fortuitously I had an appointment with my internist for a routine physical. She asked how I was. I mentioned my eldest son was working in New York City and the other had graduated and would be moving to Chicago. Unexpectedly, I burst into tears. That’s when it hit me.
All this obsessing about handles and hinges — it was never about that. I was deeply emotional about the doors that were closing on a parenting chapter, as my youngest son was about to embark on his own life. I was sad about the once locked doors to their now abandoned bedrooms — where mezuzahs bought on a family trip to Israel were hung with pride. Now they were museums of their childhood, filled with stuffed bears, class trip souvenirs and ephemera. This condition was about the entry to the basement where they played with toy cars and Legos before graduating to video games and contraband beer bottles during high school.
I had dreamed of the time when the house would be quiet and clean and I would have freedom and time,yet when it was close I was surprised by my ambivalence about it. I missed the energy and noise that made the house alive. I missed the fridge door opening to shelves full of food and snacks, instead of only water bottles and condiments. When the boys came home they were only visiting. I felt like the proprietor of an empty inn.
Once I got a grip and knew I wasn’t going crazy I felt unburdened. I listened to my youngest jam on his guitar in his room and I enjoyed the soundtrack as I reflected on their childhood. A few weeks later he packed up his Fender and took it on the plane to the Windy City. Those empty rooms were a testament to a job well done. Whether we were in the same house or across the country, we would always be a family.
It was time for me to start a new phase too. I changed the curtains. I had the walls painted. I traveled to the places on my bucket list – Africa, Cuba, Italy. I volunteered at a hospital. I started writing again.
Now I drive past the bus stop and don’t recognize the younger families who recently moved to the neighborhood to raise their kids. People ask if we will to stay or move to the city. I’m leaving the doors open on that. The ones with the shiny new polished nickel handles that I finally picked out.