This month I said goodbye to my childhood home. (NO, I’m not finally moving out of my parents’ basement, you jokers!) My mom has been moving out of the home I grew up in in Virginia and last weekend was my last chance to say goodbye to a home I really loved, a home that fed my curiosity and sparked wonder. The pandemic robbed us of one last family Thanksgiving there and so many other things. I feared and dreaded saying goodbye to the beautiful 1907 Victorian home, filled to the brim with books and oddities fit for a Wes Anderson film. Don’t believe me? While helping to clean out the freezer, of course among the frozen peas and leftovers I found ONE full quail with feathers (because, obviously, the wings “would make good angel wings”) and ONE intact baby owl scavenged from the back yard (it clearly needed to be taxidermied and perched on a bookshelf to oversee things).
As I walked the hallways, ran a hand down the bannister, gazed at the few remaining pieces of furniture and out the windows at barren dogwoods, I tried to take in the remnants of full lives: stacks of dusty 1950s comic books, wrought iron frogs sword-fighting, the piano I learned to play Fur Elise on, my mother’s humorous painting of the Mona Lisa, the bathroom floor my mother tiled with shimmering glass baubles, the fireplaces and stair rails that my father marbled, the floors that needed to be refinished, the light from grand windows, the curved arches over hallways, cracking plaster, the stained glass windows my father created, the endless expanse of wood paneling that he stripped of paint and refinished long ago, the mismatched kitchen cabinets that were supposedly in vogue but probably a design mistake…how do you say goodbye to all of this and what does it mean?
Some of you know what gut-wrenching work this is, to say goodbye to a universe of experience. The walls and windows that shelter us and all the little things encased inside that surround us are hardly inanimate. They shape us whether we know it or not. They become part of us. How do we let go and say goodbye to a place that is so intimately a part of us?
How do we say goodbye to something we really love and have had a relationship with? That is the gut-wrenching scenario I was confronted with, as I surveyed the walls and windows I knew so well. What did the house mean to me? Why was this so hard? Is a loved thing ever really a thing?
In many ways, the answer is no.
But as I continued to think about what the house meant to me, I realized that the greatest gift the house had given us was the opportunity to gather. Houses become homes when they bring people together in ways that are meaningful. Most of my fondest memories involved people I loved. Yes, the house was important because it facilitated our gathering, but I think that what was really bitter about saying goodbye was the feeling that I was saying goodbye to gatherings like that. (This—saying goodbye to gatherings—is what COVID has robbed us all of, unfortunately.) Even the material aspects of the house that I loved–the glass tiling and marbled wood—I loved more because I love how creative my parents were, and I was loathe to say goodbye to that potential and the life of that era.
I’d love your feedback (truly) on this, but I feel like where I landed was that my heart was broken by the sale of this house not as much because I loved the house (although I did and DO, for its own sake) but because I had to say goodbye to everything it offered to us in the past and all the life it represented: the massive, joyful Thanksgivings, being silly brushing my teeth with my siblings in high school, surprise parties, overnight guests, my father’s good health (a thing of the past), my children riding toy trains around the house as babies, the dogs fighting in the back yard, walks downtown…the list is endless.
How do we let go and say goodbye to a vessel that holds our past?
Well, I’m sure there are many right answers for this, but the only way I knew how to do it was very simple. I lit a candle and walked from room to room by myself and spoke softly to each room, thanking each room for what it gave me. Then I asked the room to bless the next family. It actually did provide some succor to imagine a three-year-old sleeping in my old room and running through the halls. I thought of the next family (philosophers, thank goodness) moving in and gleefully stocking the shelves with books. The house needed to be loved by someone else. It was time.
Letting go is hard work. It also helped me just a little to remember that part of my attachment to the house was because of the people and the experiences we had there. It reminded me to celebrate the little things in life a bit more, and to not be too busy to have company over (once this awful pandemic is OVER!), and to remember that I can make great memories anywhere, in any space, if my heart is in the right place.