In the ten years of being a caregiver to my aging parents, one of the most emotionally charged experiences was the last day I spent in my childhood home.
My father’s health had dictated a move to a retirement home and within a year, a move to a long-term care facility. This left my mother on her own in the one room space they had first moved into. Many factors influenced the decision to sell the family home and although my mother agreed wholeheartedly initially, she often referred to the sale as what her children had made final. Guilt was not what I needed on top of everyone’s sadness at the losses we faced. I knew that my siblings and I were making the best decisions with the best of intentions.
The house I grew up in was the only home we lived in as a family of six. For fifty-five years, it was always my happy and safe haven, long after I had moved out.
Even though I had left Canada twenty-five years previously, I religiously brought my own family back “home” twice yearly. During our two-week visits, we all would settle into the house (“33” as we affectionately refer to it as,) and the neighborhood as though we lived there permanently. It was “going home” for me and I never slept better than in my childhood bedroom.
The home has not belonged to us in over ten years. This summer I again made my way back to Ontario where all family members have remained.
At dinner one night the talk turned to “33,” as it invariably always does. The house has changed hands a couple of times and was recently put up for sale a third time. My sister and niece decided to go to the Open House. Neither was completely confident in their decision. My niece in fact did a preliminary run through and decided to return for a second walk through with my sister. She had her breakdown cry on visit one and with that out of her system, felt okay about a return visit. My sister was nervous about what she would feel and how different the house might look.
Dr. Ramani Durvasula, professor of psychology at California State University at Los Angeles writes, “Childhood homes, even those we lived in for a short time, become repositories for our memories, and even years later, when we see a home we once lived in, hundreds of evocative memories can flood in.”
Changes had been made to “33” but much has remained the same.
My father had built a workbench in the basement. It remained as it had been and there is a level of comfort in knowing that. The wall between the kitchen and the living area had been knocked down to open up the space. That was a project my mother had long talked about and one, which my father insisted, could not be easily done because of venting, support, or some such detail. We all laughed at the vision of our mother making the final point to our dad – “see, it could have been done.”
What had been my parents’ bedroom on the first floor had remained as a bedroom, but this time for a baby. We all felt good knowing that the house had been a home to other children as well.
The backyard at “33”: was always its shining glory. My parents were gardeners and the rock garden they built is still flourishing. The tool shed my father had assembled stands in the same spot. The beloved locust tree is gone and a deck now occupies where it had lived. That was another project my mother dreamed of. We laugh now realizing how content our father was with keeping things the way they were when he had helped build the house and done all the landscaping himself.
Surprisingly, the updates to the outside of the house somehow made the house look bigger. It was always a small and modest brick bungalow but we can see that it is aging well. I know it is just a structure but I am relieved it has not fallen to disrepair. Our parents lovingly cared for every inch of space inside and out.
At dinner, that evening we all bemoaned the fact that none of us had been in a position to buy the house back ten years ago and keep it in the family. It simply was not the right time.
The last time I walked through my family home was when it had been emptied of all belongings. I knew I would most likely never set foot in it again. It was sad and traumatic that day and for many months after.
I went through the home with my camera in hand. I took pictures of things that would only hold meaning to those who grew up in the house. All the photos hold precious memories now. Although I had to bid the house goodbye on that difficult day, the memories have never been lost.
What I found especially soothing during my last hours in the house was leaving hand written notes on walls in closets and other hidden spots. I described the crawl space in the attic as where we spent hours playing. I wrote on the shelves of the fruit cellar where my mother stored her homemade canning products. I left a note about my father’s workbench and how we all learned to hammer a nail in that spot, where he had painted his name in clear view.
The letting go was harder than I could ever have anticipated. The grief and mourning have concluded and so we all move forward with the warmth of our memories.
I wonder if the notes are still there. I hope it was fun for the person who would have easily discovered them at some point after moving in. I hope it gave the house the personality it deserved and imparted the understanding that this was a happy home that was loved.
There is no way to be prepared for the gamut of emotions that the sale of a childhood home can trigger. It is not lost on me that those of us who experience the pain of this loss are the lucky ones. I will always be grateful for the comfort my first home provided me and the memories I get to carry.
Check out the following article: https://www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/2014/07/26/saying-goodbye-your-childhood-home/84tG16vuxg3fGGSYx6llAK/story.html
Remember that North Shore Elder Services offers options counseling and caregiver support. If you need some guidance or resources, contact our office at 978-750-4540 or visit our website at https://nselder.org/family-caregiver-support-program/ or https://nselder.org/options-counseling-program/