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Letting Go of Your Family Home

The line is well worn–you can’t go home again.  It’s not only figuratively true but for many baby boomers literally true.  The childhood home was sold when our parents retired or died.

 But that doesn’t stop many of us from revisiting the homestead.  For Finding Our Way Home,  Wall Street Journal writer Kathleen Hughes interviewed more than one hundred people found that all but one went back to the old neighborhood: some drive by, some stop and stare, some go and ring the doorbell. Yet many don’t experience the warm feelings they expected. Hughes writes: 

Most homes don’t measure up to the memory. For one thing, childhood homes are usually owned by strangers who have remodeled. But the memory of the original childhood home, just the way it was, never seems to lose ground in the psyche. Discovering that the house has been altered—or worse, torn down—can trigger much greater feelings of loss.

Her piece resonated with me.  My siblings and I recently sold the house where we grew up and where my parents lived for more than 50 years.  That four-bedroom colonial fulfilled the dreams of both my parents.   My father wanted land and got an acre; my mother wanted lots of living space for five children and she got it (although we were so house poor that it took more than a decade to buy living room furniture).  The crowning touch:  the house was painted aqua blue, my mother’s favorite color. 

My mother lived in the house alone for almost nine years after my father’s death.  No assisted living for her; she was staying in her pride and joy, finally furnished and accessorized the way she had wanted.  After my mom died my siblings and I had the daunting task of cleaning out five decades of accumulated belongings. It was hard not to be paralyzed with memories but the sheer physical exertion of packing endless boxes and bags helped me shift into an emotionally neutral gear. 

 When we put the house up for sale the realtor told us to remove the family photos we had left mounted on three walls in the den.  Apparently the idea is for potential buyers to see themselves in the house, not be distracted by images of the family who once lived there.  So down came the photos: images ranging from a handsome WW2 Army captain and his stylish bride, through babies, celebrations, vacations, graduations, weddings and more babies.  At that point I knew it would be hard to go back into the house without breaking down.  Suddenly it was no longer the house where I grew up; it had been stripped of all meaning and memories.

 When the realtor called after the house was sold and offered a last walk though, I declined. I wanted to remember the house in my mind’s eye, filtering the best of all those years. The bittersweet fact is that my growing up years have come and gone.  Those memories are best preserved as family lore and in photo albums.

 A friend recently took a trip with three generations of her family; it was expensive but worth it, she said, because it was a “real memory maker.” Yes, you can’t go home again and recapture the past.  But we can be “memory makers” in our own homes now, creating times to remember for us, our children and grandchildren.

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