Clean Slate

Michelle DeLiso

Real estate signs outnumber squirrels in my North Carolina neighborhood. Homes often sell before they’re listed—one day a moving truck rolls up and some new guy is kicking back on your neighbor’s porch. I’ve never witnessed such swift moving, a skill I lacked when my family and I packed up to leave our congested New Jersey borough in June 2020. Our relocation had been a long-term plan, literally ten years in the making, with a steady drumbeat of researching neighborhoods, schools, properties, jobs, realtors. You’d think with all that time I would have had a handle on what to bring or leave behind. I didn’t.

My husband, John, our two sons, and I had crammed fourteen years of life into our former house, a three-bedroom 1950s-era split-level. Scrutinizing every item through the lens of what the moving company would charge to haul it helped me abandon things we’d outgrown, like our twelve-year-old microfiber couch which smelled faintly of socks, and a dining room set about as contemporary as a rotary dial phone. Other decisions weren’t so simple. Like, should I bring my long-dead grandparents’ slate that, over the course of half a century, had been laid down as footpaths around three familial homes? If I’m being honest, I’d have to admit that I started agonizing over whether to uproot Nana and Papa’s slate three years before we left.

Slate. The word forever summons the image of the back yard I knew as a kid, more specifically, its single line of blue-gray, brown, and rust slabs marching straight down its center. They stretched from the cement patio of my grandparents’ house (they lived next door), past the metal clothesline where Nana air dried sheets and faded jeans, through the buttercups I’d pluck and adore in my palm, alongside Papa’s tomato, green bean, and cucumber garden, to the sloped end of the property. The footpath was inelegant but functional—roughly thirty asymmetrical, no-frills stones leading the way like a silent, accommodating guide. When I was seven, the walkway seemed to touch the horizon. It simply led to a shady street that led to a modest Grand Union grocery store. But skipping along the path was like having a private yellow brick road; it made me feel like I was headed somewhere important.


“Can you use any of Papa’s slate?” My mother asked when I’d first moved into that split-level. She’d gathered about twenty pieces from what we always referred to as “the back lot” —the far back yard section of what was once my grandparents’ property, the property that my mother and aunt had inherited, then sold to a builder.

“Sure, I could put some down outside the back door of the utility room. It gets mucky in the rain.”

“Oh good!” She said, with a contagious relief; our family circulates secondhand everything—clothes, tools, furniture, cars. When hand-me-downs remain in our circle, we exhale. “I have no place to put all the pieces I dug up. I’m so glad you can use them—Nana and Papa had them for years.”

 When I took on the slate, I was thinking function, not legacy. I laid it down at the side of the house and in our back “yard” (a swath of dirt resembling an obtuse triangle) so our fastidious Pug could keep his paws dry when we let him out, and later, as a path leading to the trampoline we’d put up for the boys. After our Pug died and the boys outgrew the trampoline, we rejiggered five or six slabs and set them between the deck and the driveway. Then we repositioned most of the pieces down the front lawn. We’d grown tired of slinking up the cramped driveway space to reach the steps—our coat zippers dinged the Honda whenever we shimmied to avoid banging our ankles against the protruding Belgian block border—and the only way to avoid that inhospitable trail was to trample up the grass. We fashioned a straight line from the cement landing facing the steps down to the sidewalk and, voilá, no more wriggling up the driveway, no more trodden grass. The slate’s new post was liberating.


Aside from my generic Triple A relocation checklists, I had little experience with long-distance moving. The town I grew up in was a residential suburb in Bergen County, New Jersey, a town with a community pool, restrictive blue laws, and where families seldom moved away. I lived less than twenty paces from Nana and Papa’s house, and the kids I knew I’d known since first grade. My mother grew up with many of my classmates’ parents. They knew where willow trees had been felled to pave roads; they remember the milkman. I didn’t move out of my childhood home until I was twenty-five, when I rented an apartment eight blocks over. Eventually, I relocated to points just an hour south. Home, and its abiding footpath, had always been, at most, a sixty-minute drive up the turnpike.

Nana and Papa had purchased that chunk of northeastern parcel in the 1940s. Wait—this is where I get to thinking about their backstories: When she was a little girl in Puerto Rico, Nana rode a goat to school. As a teenager, she lived with a relative while working at the Bacardi rum distillery to help pay her parents’ bills. Nana was pretty. The relative was jealous. When Nana was at work, Jealous Relative would drag Nana’s mattress out into the rain. Nana slept on a veritable waterbed. And Nana liked a boy. There was unrequited love. Think Cinderella without the ball. At twenty-one, Nana agreed to help babysit her cousin’s kids in New York; to arrive at her charge, she sailed on the S. S. Borinquen, slept in steerage because she couldn’t afford a cabin, and navigated Ellis Island alone. And Papa, as a young boy in colonized Algeria, tracked French soldiers and scrounged their scraps so he could eat. He ran away from home after he’d been accused of vandalizing a mosque, took up with sailors and sailed the globe working odd jobs on ships. One of those vessels, the Minnekahda, took him from Hamburg to New York. He and Nana met in Manhattan, got married, and bought the land in Bergen County. They came here with nothing. (I don’t believe this last. They must’ve brought something.)

Here’s a thing I wish I knew: What Nana packed in her suitcase when she left Puerto Rico. No one can tell me, so I dredged Ellis Island’s online records. I wanted to piece together her mindset, find out if we both shared the impulse to transport heirlooms tied to the earth and re-root them in new soil. I expected to pull up the ship’s manifest and find the contents of her bags itemized: undergarments, hairbrush, the Bible, a bag of rocks. It only referenced her age, sex, and marital status, as though she’d been itemized.

I don’t know what Papa took with him when he left Algeria. Silently, I’ve asked him. Nana, too. They never answer; they simply appear as holograms in my mind, Nana wearing one of the dresses she stitched using her foot pedal-operated Singer and a Butterick pattern, and Papa in a flannel shirt, jeans, and thick eyeglasses.

When she was alive, Nana would say, “No, I will not go,” with measured syllables and watery eyes, whenever anyone suggested she return to the island. Her father died of tuberculosis in a barrio in Puerto Rico during the early part of WWII while Nana was living on Amsterdam Avenue. She couldn’t reach him in his final days because ships had been requisitioned for the war. Nana reasoned that, because she couldn’t reunite with her father before his death, she should never return to Puerto Rico. “I could not see my father when he died,” she’d explain, pronouncing her v’s like b’s, “now I can neber go back.” She never did.

Papa would travel to Algeria well into his late sixties; little stopped him from returning—not even my parents’ wedding.

“He went to Algeria before I got married. He wished me well before he left,” my mother said, “and told me to come home if the marriage didn’t work out.”

I’d stay with my grandparents after school while my parents were still at work, and I have vivid memories of Papa amassing stacks of the New York Times and tying them up with twine. He’d create packaging out of cut-up paper bags and, his thick workman’s fingers gray with newsprint, address the bundles to his remaining kin in Algeria. I can’t fathom what his family did with dated, English-language newspapers, but Papa bundled and shipped them with the precision of a cartographer.

In their living room, Nana and Papa kept a curio cabinet, the kind with a key and long glass panels I wasn’t supposed to touch. It housed souvenirs from Papa’s oceanic voyages—oddly shaped stained-glass bowls, families of wooden giraffes—the kind of tchotchkes you’d find on a fold-out table at an octogenarian’s yard sale. Nana kept her own knickknacks—prayer candles, elephant figurines with skyward-reaching trunks, and stacks of outdated Weekly World News issues whose covers were littered with mug shots of egg-headed aliens. Only now does it occur to me that their collections might’ve been proxies for keepsakes they were once forced to leave behind.


Zen Buddhism says that attachment leads to suffering. This, I can believe. I allotted untold cubic millimeters of headspace to fretting about how, or if, I’d transport my grandparents’ slate—Should I pack it in my Honda Pilot, or let the movers take it? Pull it out of the ground before we list the house? No, the naked dirt patches would look ridiculous in the listing, like a fat-footed beast had clomped around the lawn. I could just take one or two from the back yard and no one would be the wiser. But what’s the point of taking one or two?

“Bring the stones to North Carolina?” John peered out the bay window tugging at his chin. Judging by the look on his face, you’d think I had suggested we take the entire front lawn. “But they’re part of the landscaping. It’ll look terrible if we pull those up. Why do we need them?”

“We don’t, but…I don’t know.” The stones cascaded down the subtle swell of the lawn and for the first time I realized that, nestled out front, they resembled the station they used to hold in my grandparents’ back yard. For a moment I was seven years old. “I’ve always had them around.”

“If the movers charge us by weight,” John said, turning to me with raised eyebrows, “that’s a lot of money.”

He had a point.

We purged more than we kept. We’d outgrown much, and the bulk of the furniture would have been ill-fitting in the new house. What family we had left couldn’t use our cast-offs. We donated our dining room table and chairs to a veterans’ concern and the hutch to our then handyman. I shredded boxes of triplicate photos, chucked a wall mirror, dropped heaping bags of clothes at GreenDrop, hauled books to the library, handed end tables, art, and deck chairs to friends. I even paid a company to recycle my childhood piano—I no longer played, the boys weren’t interested in lessons, no one would buy it, no charity would accept it, and after having moved that upright Wurlitzer to three different homes, we never wanted to move it again. But I was still torn about the slate—my earliest memories bare its imprint and it had functioned around each side of my house promising stability and a clear path. It was hard to imagine any place I called home without it.

The idea of leaving the slate took on the shape of an amputation and it struck me that I’d suffered for my grandparents’ footpath before. When I was seven or eight, I tripped down the slope at the end of the yard and landed on the serrated edge of one slab. The cut left a thick, raised scar, a bas relief of my misstep. Nearly fifty years later it has dissolved into a crooked inch-long line drawing of scar tissue. It has healed but is no less enduring.

Ultimately, the act of packing decided for me. On a cool April afternoon following a full morning of bubble wrapping china and on a breakfast of a single mug of dark roast, I was drawn to the garbage patio by the side of my house where I was determined to pull up a few pieces of slate where their absence would be less noticeable. The slate wounded me again—I bloodied two fingers prying loose a gray-blue slab. I caught a whiff of clean, damp earth and pill bugs scattered in the shock of sun. I would’ve had to unfurl the hose around back and throw on some old shoes if I intended to wash it down. I hadn’t thought things through. I released the rock and with a magnetic pull, it smacked back into its cavity like it never intended to leave. The heck with this, I thought. I had two kids to pack up, a smelly couch to toss, and neither the time nor the patience to hoist and pack metamorphic rock, no matter how symbolic.

And that was that. I left Nana and Papa’s slate in the earth around that aging New Jersey split-level.


John is a bonsai artist and he has sculpted a relentless web of potted Chinese quince, trident maple, and hornbeam outside the back deck of our North Carolina home. He hired some neighborhood guys to lay down a rock path around his garden. On a beastly August morning, they carved out a path, filled it with sand, laid down petite river rock, and topped it with a snaky gray footpath using fragments of flagstone. Seeing those fragments was like finding a Post-it with my grandparents’ old landline number scribbled on it—it was a connection to Home.

“Come check out the stone.” John motioned for me to follow him down the deck steps. “This gives us a dry path to the bench.”

The fragments were thin, and less than half the size of my grandparents’ stones—like little progenies. I skittered across their twisting path; forbidden is too strong a word to describe how that felt, but it felt something like that. I hopped back onto our Bermuda grass lawn, relieved, until I sensed my wobbly footing. On the bare grass, my grandparents’ faraway slate twinged like a phantom limb.

The flagstone triggers feelings I’m still teasing out. It gets me thinking about how Nana and Papa fled mattress destroyers and food insecurity. They were not native speakers, were not always welcome, and had to fashion a life from something close to nothing. It is not lost on me that their only grandchild dreams on a dry, pricey Serta, stocks a bursting pantry, and shuffles her bounty around with the help of interstate movers. Though one could argue mine is the kind of life they’d dreamed the children of their children would one day live. Still, it leaves me with those feelings I’m sorting.

I am of two minds when it comes to the slate. Part of me thinks I imagined a tacit understanding that I’d take the slate wherever I went because it had lived on Nana and Papa’s land, because it carried our stories, because it had been given to me, because I had the means to take it with me and therefore should have, and because it had supported me with its ever-present foundation. That part of me is haunted that the frenzy of moving distracted me from packing it. Why couldn’t I have just pulled on my old Nikes, untangled the hose, and rinsed one piece of slate so I’d have something to ground me? Another part of me is convinced that deserting the slate was an atavistic impulse, that I left it behind because my grandparents’ once difficult circumstances forced them to leave things behind and that urgency is coded into my DNA.

 Early mornings, when daylight twinkles on the flagstone, I think about how hard it had been to lift the slate from the ground around my last house, how a life force power-vacuumed it back into the soil. It didn’t want to be uprooted. I figure it was Nana and Papa’s way of telling me that it was okay to let it go, to begin again.


          Author Bio

Michelle DeLiso

Michelle DeLiso is a former reference librarian, magazine research editor, and children’s writing instructor. She now copyedits and reviews nonfiction manuscripts for the literary magazine Months To Years. Her work has appeared in Press Pause Press, Grande Dame Literary Journal, Hippocampus Magazine, Clackamas Literary Review, and Drunk Monkeys. She loves erasable pens and Palomino Blackwing pencils. She lives and writes in North Carolina.