Parting with a childhood home can be difficult
November 9, 2004
The modest house my parents bought in August 1953 for $11,000 waits for their return. A lace tablecloth covers the dining room table, photos of the three grandchildren rest on the piano, and clean sheets are on the beds.
The other day, I made my plane reservation to fly home to Michigan for Christmas, and by the time I pull into the driveway, the furnace in the basement will be rumbling and the house will feel toasty warm. I will unlock the side door, and as I step inside, I will breathe in the familiar smell of a lifetime of pork rib roasts, apple sweet sauerkraut and sourdough rye bread.
Everything will be as I left it last August, for although their house waits, my parents will never return.This will be my second Christmas at the empty house, and it will be my fourth time home since I placed Mother and Father in a nursing home in July and August 2003.
Father died a year ago, but when I am at the house, it does not seem like it, even though I have bequeathed, given away, or tossed almost every piece of clothing he ever owned. His bathrobe, Norwegian cardigan and wool socks I have transferred to my room. I wear them when I’m home because it’s a way of keeping him close. Mother’s good clothes still hang in the closet, and on any given cold day, I’ ll put on one of her winter coats, wrap my gloved hands in her little fur handmuffs, and go for a walk around the lake.
It is mostly for Mother that I go home, even though I am afraid to bring her back to the house for fear her mind will suddenly come back and she’ll remember it’s where she belongs, and then what’ll I do? I can sign her out of the nursing home whenever I want, and I do. We go for walks, rides, eat at Bob’s Big Boy, go to doctors, but we do not go near our neighborhood and never to the house. I do not like myself whenever I think about it. It is as if I have somehow locked Mother out of her own house, as if she were knocking on the door, calling my name, but I, hiding behind a window, pretend deafness. Nor does it seem right that I should be making a cup of tea for myself, running water for a bath, or talking on the phone when Mother is only eight miles away, wandering up and down hallways, peering out the locked glass doors at the cemetery across the street.
Alone at the house, lying in bed at night reading a book, my bedroom door ajar, I can almost believe nothing has changed, that Mother and Father are asleep in the blue room, Father snuggled behind Mother’s back, his arms around her waist. I look up at the ceiling, at the flaking plaster in one corner, and remember the day we moved in.
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It was an early morning in August, and the rooms facing east were flooded with sunlight. The sun seemed to dance from ceiling to wall, and I had to shield my eyes when it reflected against the white porcelain of the kitchen sink. We were cleaning, but nothing was dirty. No stains anywhere, no dust. No cockroaches scurrying for cover when I pulled open the kitchen drawers, no mice beneath the beds. All day long, I followed the sun from room to room. I had never lived in a house, had never known what it was like to be surrounded by windows. Even now, 50 years later, I associate noon with sunlight streaming in the two windows flanking the living room fireplace, sundown with the front bedroom and perpetual cool shade with the north-facing bathroom.
This is the house my father finally loved more than his native Latvia, more than anything he had ever owned. This is the house he surrounded with a bower of crabapple, birch, spruce and pine; with lilacs, jasmine, red salvias; with dwarf cherry, pear and translucent apple. This is where he stood with his arms open.
Back in 1953, Mother and Father could not agree on which house to buy. I was in fourth grade, already spoke English fluently, and so served as translator in the negotiations. My opinion, they said, counted as much as theirs. So, in the end, I sided with Father. Mother thought we should buy an income property, a duplex. Father and I thought beauty more important.
Each time I return home now, I bring something back with me. Slowly, but inevitably, I have to dismantle the house, eventually rent it out. I can’t do it yet, for I can’t bear the thought of dismantling, somehow erasing, my parents’ life.
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches writing and literature at Western Nevada Community College.