27 February, 2008

Goodbye, My Childhood Home

At the front door of the house, beneath the soft glow of the porch light, my first boyfriend John gave me my first kiss. My grandfather had his wedding reception here, and my cousin Kristen her bridal shower. The house has hosted its share of slumber parties, birthday parties, and holiday parties. So many happy memories are sheltered here, so many sad memories, too. It was nearly four years ago that my dad passed away here, suddenly, and without warning.

But it's time to say good-bye, now. In a few days, we'll pick up the U-Haul and load it up with the bulk of my mom's remaining furniture and take it to The Box House. After months of gypsy-style living and waiting for repairs to be completed at the new place, after weeks of lugging our computers back and forth so we could work on the new place and still get work-work done, after endless trekking back and forth across the snow-laden suburbs, we're finally doing it. We're settling into our new home.

I've enjoyed a rare privilege that not many adult children have. Last October, when Ted and I rented out our condo, we put the bulk of our possessions in storage and moved to my mom's house to wait until close, and stayed longer as we decided to get some crucial work done on The Box House before moving in. For the last four months, I've lived at my childhood home.

As I write this, I'm sitting at my desk, looking out my window on a street scene that hasn't changed much in the thirty-one years my mom has owned the house. Since being here again, I've found myself falling into many of the same routines as before: shopping at Stratford Square Mall, driving up to Portillos for a hot dog, walking the dog to the park--it's a different dog, sure, but the route is the same. Many of the neighbors who were here three decades ago are still here, and I'll wave and exchange hellos as before. "Yes, we're getting ready to pull out. Any day now, yes."

Our beloved Harley, who died last year at the ripe old age of 12.
He's posing most reluctantly for Mom's annual humiliate-the-dog picture.

Some things about my hometown I said good-bye to long ago. Wags is gone; the 24-hour diner with its bottomless cup of coffee was our after-work hangout in high school. The movie theatre I worked concession at has been gutted, expanded, and now serves Starbucks Coffee. It looks nothing like it did back in the day. And while I see an occasional almost-familiar face, softened somewhat by the years, most of the people I grew up with and hung out with are scattered across the globe.

Over the years, I've left and returned and left again, but part of me is feeling homesick at the thought of leaving for good. Whenever I left before, I always had the stability and reassurance that my parents would always be here, that their home would perfectly preserve every memory I had of growing up. And if I'm feeling troubled at the thought of other people living here instead of our family, how must my mom feel?

She has lived in this house exactly half of her life. Of course, she didn't plan on staying here forever. When my dad retired, the two of them were going to sell the house and move somewhere warmer. Maybe Florida, where my brother lived. Maybe somewhere else. Wherever it was, it was going to be bright and sunny.

But life can throw you a curve ball and change your plans forever. I know my mom never pictured getting a two-flat with her daughter and staying in the cold Chicago suburbs. She was supposed to enjoy her golden years with my dad, not argue with me about what color to paint the stairwell. She was supposed to live in some low-maintenance condo, clean and new, not in an 80+ year old brick house that will need work over the next year or two to make it into her dream home.

What I don't think my mom realizes, though, is just how much Ted and I enjoy having her around. We've actually liked hanging out with her these last months. My mom is one of the sweetest, kindest, funniest women around, with a heart as big as all that. I like having her in my day-to-day life again, and I love how she and Ted have formed a real bond.

Ted and Mom

When plans change so abruptly, it's hard to let go, make a leap of faith and follow them. My mom and I each feel, in some way, that we're leaving my dad behind in this house. I loved him so much, and I still miss him terribly. I worry that memories might fade if not bolstered by and surrounded by the physical things, the places, and the people that helped create those memories.

But I'm slowly coming to realize that a home is not the physical building itself, it's the people we love. I will remember my father whenever I see my brother use one of his gestures or my niece one of his phrases. Or when I see my aunt and uncle smile--they look so much like my dad it aches, sometimes--I can hear my dad's laugh again. Those are the kinds of things that will go with us to the new place, and we'll build a new home.

Dad and Me, 1970. It's one of my favorite pictures of the two of us.

We'll encounter difficulties long term, I know that. Perhaps by having our own units in The Box House my mom and I will still be able to maintain a good level of independence--and sanity. We have our own interests, our own hobbies, our own lives. When we don't feel like visiting, we could in theory go days without having to see each other. But it will be good to know that whenever one of us needs the other, it's only a short flight of stairs to the other apartment.

While we'll continue to come back to the house I grew up in each week until it actually sells, after this weekend it will no longer really be our home. Our future is in a new home, now, and I think it's looking pretty darn sunny.


Amalie said...

What a lovely post.

My father passed away a year ago, and we are moving back to my hometown to be closer to my mother. We've been staying with her on the weekends while we work on the house, and she and my other half have certainly developed a nice friendship, too.

My father was a carpenter and built houses-- he should be helping me with this house. The irony is, his death is the reason I even bought the place.

Most of life isn't planned, but shit happens, and sometimes it does work out-- and if we are very lucky, it works out well. At any rate, you put it very nicely. It really was lovely.

Joanne said...

Amalie, thank you. I'm sorry to hear about your father.

The other day, when my mom was stripping shelf paper from her pantry, she commented that when she looked down, it was her own father's hands wielding the scrapper that she saw. He died around the time my dad did, and like your father, would have loved to be helping with our house. Part of him is with us for this adventure, I think, at least in the stories that come up when we're working on things.

Anonymous said...

Two other memorable events at your house:
Using your yard as a movie lot while your mom and dad filmed us cousins in a laughably-bad
action/adventure home movie in the early 80’s.
(NOT available to the general public. Sorry.)
My kids, who love to watch it for the “we-can’t-believe-they-actually-did-this” factor alone, also commented on how different the yard looks from then to now.
While the yard once seemed so expansive, with plenty of room for filming alien invasions, it is now
lush with mature trees and bushes.

The other memory took place INSIDE the house. While a teenager- oh, so many years ago- I was teasing
your mother in the family room. She took to chasing me in a mock attempt to “get me.” Thinking I was safe on the other side of a large coffee table, I was surprised
when your mom (yes, YOU, Aunt Donna!) leapt over the table and tackled me to the floor. Your dad’s comment? “What? You thought she was a little old gray-haired lady?
You deserved that.”

Thanks for a great post that left me teary-eyed. I miss my uncle, too.

Best wishes on the move.
Cousin Kristen

Lady Quilter said...

"Jumping over coffee table" my dear niece, I'm amazed, and flattered that you still remember that day. It's one of my favorite "niece Kristen" stories that I tell anytime I have a chance!
Aunt Donna

Joanne said...

Kristen--the video has gone digital now! I just may have to post it online for all to see. Hee hee. Anyone out there want to see the musical Zinger Quest?

Anonymous said...

Cousin Jason™ here (it seems like the Cousin [name] is in vogue, so I've protected mine with a trademark, thank you very much). I've been thinking about your house recently, too. I've stored tons of memories from there, so I can't even begin to fathom how many you all have. We were actually allowed to paint on the walls in the basement - something I'd never been able to do (or do since), and each artistic piece on the walls felt like a framed work of art. Ron even put his touches in the whole endeavor by scribing Burma Shave slogans down the staircase walls. So cool, especially to a 10-year-old.
I remember renting movies back in the days when renting a movie was a pretty marvelous thing one could do. We'd sit and watch them, sprawled out on a six-hundred-foot diameter sofa that somehow fit in your front room.
I remember the weeks we'd spend there during the summers. Don't know if you really know this, but those "commuting summers" when I lived in Arizona during the school year and Wisconsin in the summer were both fun and extremely difficult. Leaving behind my friends for the summer was made easier when I knew that I had cousins to pal around with for weeks at a time. A great memory revolved around my dad's obliviousness that when we'd come to Chi-town to visit the cousins, we'd stay for a week. We tried packing bags to anticipate our trip, but he'd say to leave them behind. Inevitably, we'd stay at your place and somehow get by. I remember running to the store and buying socks/underwear/t-shirts/shorts just so we could stay the week! I ALSO remember being the same size as Jo, and she lent me a pair of her pants (Jo, you've got to remember this: they had a heart sewn on the back pocket. Woops!) so that I had enough clothes to wear for the visit.
All the while that we were there we felt like we lived there, and had so many great times. We'd catch movies and dinner, and do weird things like make home movies (with your dad patiently filming us, bless his heart). Sometimes I feel like I'm cursed with a good memory, because I remember all the negative things that have happened in my life and I stew on them waaaaay more than I should…but a good memory is a blessing, too, and I know I will always keep memories of your house near and dear to me. The good news? Those memories don't ONLY have to do with the house. A large chunk of that is the closeness of the family, and the laughing, and the sharing, and the get-togethers that will follow us to the new place, and it's up to us to make sure that we add to those so that the little kids that have come along in these past years can have a slice of what we had, too.

Lady Quilter said...

Cousin Jason, or in this case Nephew Jason. Summers past are overflowing with memories, when the cousins got together weeks at a time. I do hope the little ones, that are here now, have half the fun. Like jumping off the barn roof, bon fires in the backyard, graveyard tag, Zinger Quest, there will never be one to match this one though. One memory that will always be near and dear, although at the time I was having a heart attack. Cousin John had a flying lesson in the middle of one of our BBQs. Looking around I asked your Aunt Marsha where are the kids, it's too quiet. Just then a small plane passing overhead, buzzed the house to disappear into the sunset. "The kids are up there" Marsha answered calmly. "What do you mean . . up there??!!" "Oh, John is having a lesson, there was room in the plane, I said Jo and Jason could go with." I sat there, my only daughter and loving nephews up in a very small plane during John's lesson. Your uncle Ron, in his calm way of handling the situation "don't worry, they will be down soon." Of course you guys had the time of your life, it ws Joanne's first plane ride,while I sat numb, reaching for a stronger drink than the one I had. :) We will have to make new memories at the new house, just promise me . . . no planes!
Aunt Donna

Sue said...

*great* post.

Marilyn said...

Joanne, this is such a lovely post - and I'm not surprised that you've inspired strong feelings by many others. The gains and losses in life are bittersweet, but the stories we tell stick around forever. Thanks!

JoJo said...


I've been meaning to write to you much sooner than this but time just flies out the window I'm afraid. I've been keeping track of your progress through your blog and have to laugh a bit. You're far more ambitious than I am! I just about had a conniption when I was redoing my kitchen...can't imagine doing an entire house! The one lesson that I've learned is I'm hiring professionals.

I'm so glad to hear that your mom is doing as well as she is. It seems just yesterday that I saw you guys at the funeral home form my dad's memorial. I never expressed to you how much it meant to me that you both took the time to be there. Like you, I miss my father desparately at times. But, reluctantly I have to admit it does get easier.

There's really not much new news on my end - still working in DC. Only a "little" (I say that very sarcastically) busy this election cycle. Mom still lives in Bloomingdale. John and his new fabulous new wife is also living temporarily with her. Dex is Dex - he lives the high life in his condo on the beach out in Newport Beach, CA.

Speaking of yesterdays, you'll never guess who contacted me through Facebook earlier this week. Do you remember Dan Carter?!? I've received a lovely e-mail from him and it led me down memory road. I forwarded your blog to him - hope you don't mind.

I'm headed back to Chicago (March 20-24) for Easter and would love to grab a coffee with you if you're free.