Home is Where the Heart is

The house has been on the market for a year. It has been empty for eighteen months, since Dad died. For the first six months after his death, while Mum was still in the mental health unit, my sister and I would come and stay, sometimes bringing our children and dogs. We used it as a base while we sifted through our past – sorting Dad’s affairs; going through the cupboards and drawers; starting the long, painful process of getting rid of a lifetime’s accumulation of personal effects, photos, letters and clothes.

I couldn’t stay away. When I wasn’t able to get to the house, I thought of it almost constantly. It wound its way into my dreams. I would be driving somewhere or cooking or ironing and suddenly the house would appear in my mind’s eye and with it, a deep longing to be there would tug at my chest. I would feel an overwhelming urge to be walking up to the front door, to open it and let myself in to the parquet-floored hallway, to look out of that upstairs window to the green space opposite.

I was aware of how ironic it was to feel such a strong attachment to the place. While Dad was alive, I couldn’t bear to visit. The atmosphere was claustrophobic, oppressive. I regressed as soon as I walked in the door. I thrashed out at Mum, became easily irritated, felt reduced to a child again by the very act of sleeping in my old bedroom. I told myself I hated it and its suburban surroundings. I was cruel about the town and the people who lived there, sneering at my roots.

But from that first morning after Dad’s death, the house took on a welcoming, sunny aspect. It was as if it had been holding its breath through the storms and turmoil of the past, and now it could let go and relax. The dogs, who had never been welcome while Mum ruled the roost, were free to wander in and out of the back door. The grandchildren, who were expected to sit still, not bounce on the sofa and not make a noise, were at liberty to run through the rooms, laughing and whooping. The kitchen, in which my sister and I had never been allowed to cook, became the centre of our visits, my brother-in-law cooking up huge breakfasts which we all, dogs included, enjoyed. The radio was on, light and laughter filled the air. The garden was bursting with birds that I had not noticed in previous visits. The rooms expanded, embracing the increased number of people and animals, smiling down on us all. Where once I had felt I could not so much as breathe for fear of leaving an unwanted mark on Mum’s preciously guarded walls, I was now at ease – I had come home.

We couldn’t hold on to it, though. Mum moved into full-time care over a year ago. The property had to be sold to fund that. We knew this, even as we enjoyed those visits. And so we began the task of clearing the house. It was harder than watching Dad die. Or rather, it was an extension of that – a long-drawn out and painful one. We were stripping away the last remnants of his existence on this earth. For as long as the house was there, full of his belongings, his quirky systems for organising his life, his smell which pervaded everything, we could pretend that he would walk back into it again at any moment.

It felt wrong to be dismantling everything, to be entering the room my parents slept in, to be poking around in their personal space. It was a violation, to take his carefully ironed shirts from the shelves. How could I give his clothes to charity? How could I decide what should be kept, what donated and what simply thrown away? How could I allow myself to handle correspondence, journals, personal notes? And then there were the tragically intimate items such as toiletries, nail clippers, medicines, underwear – things that Dad would not have wanted his daughters to come into contact with.

There were unexpected finds too – a notebook full of Dad’s desperate scribbles from the time Mum had her first psychotic episode; a photo album Dad’s mother had made for him after his engagement to Mum which was a record of his life from birth to nineteen; a file of letters to and from his brother in South Africa in the 1970s; a monocle which Dad had insisted on wearing aged fourteen on discovering that his short sight was in one eye only.

Now I am sitting in the house and it is truly empty. Potential buyers have come and gone over the past twelve months, but we have finally found a young family who is ready to move in. I am sitting on the window ledge in the living room, thinking that the only other time I have seen this house empty was forty-one years ago. I was six years old and we were the young family, ready to move in. I chased my little sister round and round on that parquet flooring, laughter bubbling through us at the thrill of being in “our new house”. It was a new beginning, a time of exciting new possibilities and adventures – even aged six I knew that. I would be able to walk to school; my best friend lived down the road; there was a boys’ school next door where we would be able to swim and play tennis in the holidays. I was fizzing with happiness.

Today I am weighed down with sadness. My parents put their hearts and souls into this house. They made it a home. I did not always appreciate it or even want to be there. And now it is moving on, passing into the hands of another family who will put their own energy, hopes and dreams into these bricks and mortar. They will no doubt remodel it, as Mum and Dad did. They will knock down walls that Mum and Dad put up, they will pull out the kitchen and bathrooms of which Mum was so proud, they will modernise it, possibly beyond all recognition.

Yet, as I sit on this window ledge and look out at the garden, watching the watery January sunlight filter in through the faded floral curtains, I feel the house tell me not to mourn. This is a new chapter, I feel it say. And as I leave, setting the alarm for the last time, locking the door and walking out into the driveway, I know this is right. I am not a child any more. I have my own home in a different town, in a different time. Dad would not want me to try to hold on to the past. This is a new chapter, and there is no reason why it should not be even better than the last.