When a neighbor sold her house, her grown children complained. “How could you give up our childhood home, Ma?” they asked. My friend couldn’t understand what the fuss was. Her kids were already married and settled in their own homes with growing families. Why the guilt trip?
A few months ago, my mother sold her house of 53 years – the one my siblings and I grew up in — to a construction company.
Today, I’m that balking adult child who dislikes any change. I’m miserable at the thought of our house being demolished, unhappy that a huge apartment building will replace my childhood home.
I want to kick and scream, “No, No!” I am emotionally tethered to this home and I need some closure. Badly.
So I travel to Brooklyn from my home in Los Angeles to help Mom clear out some final things before she moves and to say my official farewells to… The House.
To me this is not just any house; it’s many things to many people.
For five decades the house was a constant, a symbol of sameness. So much happened there, yet so much stayed the same. This is the house where we laughed, played, sang, ate, (and sometimes dieted.) The one where we studied, learned, listened, cried, complained, talked, yelled, argued, and partied. The house where my father, the disciplinarian punished us and the one where my mother pleaded for mercy.
The one where we hosted friends, had sleepovers, welcomed guests and celebrated milestones like bar and bas mitzvah’s, sweet 16 parties, and engagement parties. The house where all six of us brought our respective spouses to meet my parents.
This is the house that was always there, while molding us all into the individuals we are today. Saying good-bye to the house signals the end of an era.
My sisters, who live a few miles away helped her toss, throw out, purge. Together, they’ve been sorting through her stuff, discarding, deciding, selling on e-bay, giving away, and packing up her life in the form of furniture, clothes, toys, games, books, pictures, appliances, and so much more.
“Ma, you don’t need this. Throw it out,” my sisters told my mother about some yarn and fabric and other objects that have been there so long.
During my visit, mom and I are upstairs in one of the bedrooms. She hands me a bunch of photo albums, tablecloths, and artwork by my late Grandma.
“Here, take these, Miriam. I can’t throw them out and the girls don’t want them.” By “girls,” she means my sisters.
I’m sentimental about stuff so I carefully lay the albums in the empty suitcase we dragged down from the attic. I take the lovely round, lace tablecloths even though my linen closets back in LA are full. I pack the art canvases that my then-90 year old paternal grandmother painted.
My father saved everything: Old report cards, New Years cards, some projects. We laugh and reminisce. I take a few and throw out the rest. I take some old sheet music from my piano lessons.
My parents built this house in 1962 when I, then the youngest of four children, was 2 years old. Two younger sisters were born there in that five-bedroom brick home of 2 stories plus a large basement. So many events took place there that our neighbor across the street used to say to my mother, “Eva, this house could write a BOOK!”
The last chapter in that long 53-year old volume reached its downhill conclusion when my father (after 65 years of marriage) passed away last year. Since then, my mother has contemplated the idea of living closer to my siblings. The idea became a reality and the house was sold. My mother began the packing process.
Soon, my mother, who lived and breathed her home, her hearth, celebrating days, months, years and decades of history will be moving – or “downsizing” — to an apartment a few miles away.
The thought of not being able to just pop in there anymore pains me. Till now, living far away, I could fantasize that things stayed the same. Whenever I came back “home” for family events, things were just a little different. My room became a computer room; my sister’s room, my father’s exercise room. My brothers’ room became the sewing room, after a room in the basement morphed from a sewing room into a speech therapy clinic for an acquaintance. Two of the upstairs bedrooms became guest rooms; the basement, an area for guests with a separate entrance.
But the four walls of the house and exterior pretty much stayed the same. The peeling paint and woodwork refreshed every so often, the outside shutters missing. The bathroom tiles, my father’s bookcase, my mother’s breakfront with china, the dining room table, the living room rug where the kids played stayed the same.
More clutter, progeny visiting on weekends and playing Legos and blocks on the living floor. I was now one of many many others who called this home their home away from home.
But that house with that driveway, lawn, front door, combination lock, code and extra set of keys hanging on the gold curly-bumped edges of the front mirror for anyone from the family who needed the car. And the coins and dollars in the “front hall drawer” for needing extra change for the bus or subway.
No longer will I be able to punch in the code on that combination lock on the wooden front door when my husband and I arrive from the airport and quietly take the luggage upstairs while shushing my children in middle of the night.
No longer will I go past the front foyer, down the hall and past my father’s study where he would be sitting there and doing his work. No more smile and wink and kiss. Even as my father has passed away 9 months ago, knowing his study with his desk and bookshelves were still there was comforting.
My siblings lived so much closer to The House all these years as adults, certainly spent even more quality time on a daily or weekly basis than my own long-distance family who came for family occasions, The house was a hub for everyone.
Many grandchildren would spend the night while passing through to summer camp or yeshiva. Neighbors would use the basement for overflow out-of-towner guests. Grandchildren would come by to spend a Sunday afternoon, take pictures, sit and shmooze in the kitchen, and run down to the “avenue” to shop for unique items.
Toddler grandchildren would throw things down the laundry chute and then giggle as the other one stayed downstairs to catch it. Oh what fun! Until my father (RIP) would shush everyone up. But not for long.
Parties for charity were held in the basement and/or the living room, school events took place in our living room, high school play run-throughs, color war projects and cooking classes for organizations were held in our home. My mother said yes to practically everyone or anyone who asked to use her house for an event.
An acquaintance psychologist used the guest bedroom off of the kitchen once a week so that he could be near his part-time practice in the area. A friend who had a speech therapy practice drove in every Sunday and used one of the large areas in the basement for her speech therapy practice. A separate entrance was designated for her clients, right through the basement. The waiting room was the room that used to be our “bike room” when we were growing up.
A cousin in Israel hears about the move and writes, “I can’t imagine that she won’t be living there – so many good memories – such a part of my life. I know it’s only a house – but what a house so full of warmth and love, not to mention good coffee…”
Soon, the house will be demolished – the one with memories of yarn turned into knitting or crocheting, fabric made into clothes, photos taken, old letters sent and received, smiles and tears, parties and homework, meals and friends, sleep-overs, visits, children, grandchildren, home-comings after camp, visits after marriage, baby’s nursed, and non-surprise surprise parties. Cousins coming by, places for our children to stay during school vacations, and places for others to drop by when just in the neighborhood.
It is the end of an era of punching in the combination into the front door to spend time with loved ones in a large and welcoming house.
All that’s left are the myriad pictures in our memories, on computer and in albums to show to future generations and say, “See? That’s where we grew up. That’s the house that could have written a book…”
I sit with my mother in the kitchen, eating salmon that she’s baked in her GE oven with the manual knobs. We talk about the baby grand piano, and that she has no room for it in her new apartment. She offers me the piano.
We research prices on piano movers. I take a look at the keys, some of which have been stripped of their ivories by wear and tear. We talk about moving the piano and restoring it. I visualize the baby grand piano of my childhood in my living room.
As each of us takes whatever material pieces of the house with us, we embrace lessons learned from living there in our hearts and minds. Kindness, flexibility and hospitality. Friendship, love. Knowing we can take those intangibles with us makes me feel just a little bit better about the loss of the house.
Letting go of The House becomes easier with the memories turned into lessons.
But still. No amount of letting go will enable me to walk down that block again.