Once a year I visit the town where I grew up. I go to see my Dad and other relatives. They are the reason for traveling 3000 miles. And blessedly my older relatives are aging well and still have plenty of vim and vigor and their wits about them. We enjoy catching up over long, leisurely meals. So much good food and good conversation. It’s lovely.
But still, the visit is always bittersweet…partly because there is no longer a family home. When my husband visits his family in Nebraska, he goes to the house he grew up in. Some of his stuff is still there. Scores of track medals, old toys, even some clothes. His parents are frugal people and the house hasn’t changed much over the years. He steps back in time when he visits.
But my parents sold our New York farmhouse decades ago and all my old dance costumes, report cards and stuffed animals stored in the attic were summarily disposed of. (My Dad is good at getting rid of stuff.) Thankfully my Mom had the good sense to send my Barbie dolls out to me with all the handmade clothes my Grandmother made for them.
My parents then rented a tiny house in town till they were ready to retire to Florida. It felt odd visiting them in this house. Wrong somehow.
A few years ago the people that had bought this farmhouse back in the ‘80s put it up for sale and I had the chance to see what it looked like now on the realtor’s website. I was appalled…from the hideous orange carpet that covered the hardwood floors to the weird wall of wood. From the wood-burning stove jammed in the corner that necessitated a huge pipe crawling up the outside of the house, to the cheap curtains, tacky lighting fixtures and old lady doilies.
It was hard to tell from the furniture and decorating choices if the theme was “woodsy cabin,” “funky ‘70s” or “Victorian prim.”
But, of course, I was pre-inclined to take that view. No one likes their family home mucked about with.
Not that it looked so great when we lived there. My Mom once had an interior decorator come in to help with the living room and the only thing the decorator thought worth saving in the whole room were the two lamps that had been recent gifts from our old neighbors.
But even though we no longer lived in this house and hadn’t for over 30 years, I expected the house to look better. I wanted it to look better. I wanted to see pictures of gleaming hardwood floors, clean ivory walls, displays of classic black and white photos. I wanted to believe that it had been well cared for and cared for by people with discriminating taste. Alas, in my mind that wasn’t true and it seemed to accentuate the “loss” of this house. My brother Danny and I even jokingly thought we should buy the house back to rescue it!
And I have been on the other end of this “childhood home” sadness. One day I saw an older man and woman looking at our house in California. They stood there for some minutes as he pointed things out. I had the feeling he had some connection to the house and went out to ask him. Indeed, he had once lived here. So I asked if he wanted to see the inside and he said yes with excitement. But of course, it didn’t end very well for him. Too much had changed since he had lived there as a child. He kept saying, “Wow, this looks different.” He got teary as he told his lady friend how it had looked in his day.
After the death of my Mom, my Dad remarried, sold his house in Florida and returned to his home town where he lives with his new wife in her house. When I visit I stay in this house or with my Aunt Mary, but there is no sense of “Ah, I’m home.” No rush of memories of birthday parties in the dining room, Christmas trees twinkling in the living room or family nights gathered around the TV. No poking around in drawers and finding a letter I may have sent years ago, or a pair of mittens my grandmother made one of us kids, or finding the score sheet to one of our marathon games of rummy.
I stay in homes that are as neutral as Switzerland. I wish it wasn’t so.
Would love to hear your thoughts about your childhood home. (You may want to check out this Wall Street Journal article: “Satisfying the Desire to Visit a Childhood Home.”)
Stay tuned for Part Two.