When the roomy old house that my wife, Annie, and I had rented for years was suddenly put on the market, we were heartsick. Although we had only a month to vacate, we drooped about for days, wasting time and bemoaning change. And it didn't help that when we finally looked at the housing ads, we found rents had soared. Houses were now beyond us, and our best hope was a one-bedroom apartment. Taking courage from little mercies, we looked diligently and found one at last.
There was a temptation, of course, to resent an apartment. We had been so very fond of the house, with its barefoot-cool basement, its airy rooms, and the bold bits of morning sunlight slanting through its windows, like truths that knew a slangy corner to the heart. And so far as we could make what we didn't own ours, so far as we could triumph with gratitude over regret, we had made the house ours.
But the apartment was, after all, very nice, fresh, and sunny. In its snugness it seemed to say that now we would have less room to distract us from our happiness with each other. Besides, what was the good of resenting an apartment because it wasn't a house? That would have been like resenting someone plain but good-hearted for not being beautiful. And we could make the apartment ours, too.
The problem was that we would be moving from roominess to snugness. That meant we would have to sell some of our things first. Carefully we chose, and then ran an ad in the paper asking quick-sale prices for them. They were ''a nice old sofa of much wisdom''; ''a complete set of nostalgic bedroom furniture''; and ''a sympathetic washer and dryer.''
The sofa, a three-seater of faded purple, had once belonged to my great-grandfather, an old scholar with a white beard that started just under his ears and hung down below his chin, making him look as if his face were inside snowy parentheses, as if his worldly presence were a thing to be mentioned only in passing. I could remember sitting on the sofa beside him, watching him read his big books, dart in and out of their pages like a little bird searching in the dense leaves of a tree. Sometimes he would read to me, and his eyes shone with such warmth I felt warmed, too. The sofa was our meeting place, our refuge, our secret.
The bedroom furniture, from our spare bedroom, dating from the 1940s, had been a gift from my wife's grandparents. Her favorite part was a very tall floor lamp that she loved to read by. She would sit curled up in its light for hours, like a little girl thinking deep thoughts all by herself in a spring meadow. Sometimes when I came home at night the only light in the house would be that lamp's, both lamp and reader up well after their bedtime.
The washer and dryer we had bought ourselves, giving, at last, roots to our laundry. They were fairly new, but somehow, in their solidity, dignity, faith in cleanliness, they seemed as if they'd been in the world a long time. And there was a patience in their intimacy with us that was like a kind of listening. On hard days, days when nothing went right and everything looked hopeless, whoever's turn it was to do laundry could pour out a heart to them; and it helped. They were our Wailing Wall.
The people who came to see them smiled at the legend of their sympathy and bought them that very day. They bought the old sofa, too. Then they loaded everything into a pickup and drove away. Annie and I stood at the window, watching till the arm of the sofa, as if waving good bye, disappeared around a corner.
I thought of what my great-grandfather had said once about how a person came into the world with his fists clenched, as if to say, ''I will grab what I can and hold on to it,'' but left the world with his hands open, as if to say, ''I take nothing with me but my soul.'' He had wanted to warn me against too great a love of possessions, of the things of this world. Yet there I stood, my eyes, like my wife's, moist with sadness. Were we both, God forbid, sentimental materialists?
A few days later a young couple came and bought our bedroom furniture. I helped the husband carry things out to a rickety truck where four children, two girls and two boys, played noisily. They were beautiful children, with big, dark eyes that flashed with delight and excitement at every piece we delivered. They peeked in drawers, crying, ''I get this one!'' They hid under things - ''Here I am!'' They even managed a kind of Maypole dance around the floor lamp. They were like children from a poor country, who had always lived in a bare room, slept on the floor, and now they had a whole house of their own. They waved to us and called out, ''Thank you!'' as the truck went off.
Afterward we took a walk, for the last time, around the old neighborhood. The joy of the children had eased our sadness, I might almost say chided it - ''How can you be so sad to part with things when you see how much they mean to others?'' If we were still sad, a little, it was because we felt a part of ourselves, our lives had ended. And now what would happen?
Stars were coming out, early. Far away over the rooftops a cluster of them appeared, seeming not so much to shine as to tremble, as if they wanted to speak , tell us something, give us good news. We looked up, listening.