When a house is no longer a home
Memories and mementos can fill your heart
Gabe Kahn is the editor of The New Jersey Jewish News.
NEWTON, Mass. — Greetings everyone. I’m reporting to you today from my childhood home in a suburb of Boston, about a 20-minute drive from Fenway Park, just to give you some context.
As a groomsman at the wedding of a high school buddy, in a few hours I’ll be taking awkward photos in a large group that includes Great Aunt Rosey and several bridesmaids I’ve never met. All in all, it’s a good excuse to come home and hang out with old friends.
But soon there won’t be as many good excuses to come back. A few years ago, my parents retired and bought a place in Florida, and now their winters are spent by the pool in their backyard. They return for the summer, but considering they only spend half the year in New England, it was only a matter of time before they decided that a house built for a family of six was too big for the two of them.
So as I sit at the same desk where I wrote countless high school term papers — and one spectacular short story my vindictive English teacher graded a B-minus, though I’m totally over that — I do so in the knowledge that these may be the last words I ever type here. The very thought is devastating.
For people who have experienced true loss, the selling of a house — or any inanimate object — no doubt seems childish, and I fully understand. The same goes for immigrants and those who have been forced out of their homes. I don’t mean to compare my heartache to yours, nor to overstate its true significance or impact.
But it still hurts to think of leaving home for the last time.
The prospect of selling the house is easier for my older siblings to accept. My brother moved to Israel more than 20 years ago, so he’s well versed in letting go, and my sisters were out of the house long before I was. Unlike my siblings who lived in another house first, the car that picked me up from the hospital after I was born took me directly to this address.
In addition, my brother and sisters own their respective houses, so it’s easier to get over the loss for them. As a renter, I don’t have that consolation.
That may seem unimportant, but consider my perspective: As our children get older, our apartment, which once seemed rather large, is rapidly running out of space. Until now, whatever I didn’t need in the apartment but wanted to keep was relegated to my parents’ house. The prized “Thriller” album from 1983 that moved with me from apartment to apartment — even though I’ve never had a record player — remains on a shelf next to me as I write this. The futon that once served as a guest bed when I lived by myself is now in the basement in case I need it when I finally become a homeowner. Stacks of newspaper clips from articles I’ve written over the years are in my closet, under the bed, on the shelves, and any nook where I could shove them. When a sale goes through, I guess I’ll have to rent out a storage locker.
Then there’s the stuff that I never considered taking out of the house but seek out whenever I visit. These have never held anything other than intrinsic value, yet they transport me to a simpler time in my life, reminding me of the person I was before I had real commitments, real problems, real responsibilities. Back then I was worried about homework, interested in girls, and terrified that my parents would find out about the homework I hadn’t done or embarrass me about girls I was interested in.
A few years back I found a pocket planner from ninth grade, the margins filled with far more notes from friends than reminders to complete assignments. “I just bombed my Talmud test”; “Mrs. Schwartz is sick so we have 5th period free”; “Can you come to my party Saturday night?” (Fine, I made that last one up.)
Sifting through my desk drawers I find birthday cards from friends and family that date back to when I was in elementary school, maybe earlier, and a pile of exams in which I received high marks (OK, maybe “pile” is an overstatement). Even opening the medicine cabinet in my bathroom to find the same half-full (now petrified) bottle of Dippity-do hair gel that was there the day I flew to Israel for my gap year brings a sense of nostalgia and comfort.
And ultimately, that’s what one’s childhood home represents: comfort. While life moves at a frantic pace with major milestones and changes every few years ¬— a new job, a new city, marriage, divorce, children, grandchildren, the deaths of loved ones, etc. — time seems to stand still in the house where you spent your formative years. There you are surrounded by memories of a period in your life of relative stability, by the people who raised you, who loved you most and knew you best, who made it clear that no matter how bad you screwed up, you would still have a roof over your head.
Not everyone is as fortunate as I am to have the level of stability I experienced in my youth, and some of you may be rolling your eyes at my wistful, sentimental recollections. But for me, at least, the emotion is real, and these words mark not only the closing of this column, but of the first chapter of my life.