Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Saying Goodbye to your Family Home
It was a rambling, old wooden cottage with a huge established garden filled with rhododendrons over 100 years old, daffodils and jonquils in Spring, bushes of hydrangeas, climbing roses and a row of waratahs surrounding a fishpond filled with waterlilies. It was also our family home.
Today, it is still all those things except it no longer belongs to us.
Nearly a year ago, I drove out of the gates for the last time, the car filled with freshly cut hydrangea flowers, and it felt right it was no longer ours, despite my parents, sister and I thinking it would be a house that would never leave the family.
Bought as a weekender in the Blue Mountains nearly 20 years ago, my parents quickly realised they had stumbled onto something more significant, a house they could make the family home. One that could contain our history while anchoring us in the present. Furniture my parents had bought when they first married, the low coffee table my sister and I used to coast around when learning to walk, the piano I was forced to practice on numerous times a week, our childhood twin beds, family photos going back a couple of generations, my grandmother’s crockery and tea cups... all of it now finally out and displayed under one roof.
The house also witnessed our milestones and rites of passage: my father’s 50th birthday picnic in the garden, my wedding ceremony by the fishpond and reception in the neighbour’s paddock, numerous Christmases and Easters and many lunches farewelling or welcoming us all from overseas at different times.
But perhaps the most exciting milestone of all, was the arrival of the first grandchild. Extra bedrooms were added to enable all three generations to sleep under its roof at once. Highchairs were bought, my old teddies and toys appeared and a bookcase filled with our childhood library stood waiting patiently.
My parents talked about retiring there, my sister talked of having her own wedding there and then my father got sick.
During his illness, the house became a refuge. After chemo rounds and oncologist appointments, my parents would flee to this house; an escape from their unplanned reality. After his funeral, my mother and sister, along with me and my two children also fled here to be alone together. I insisted we plant a tree in his memory and all of us, including my two-year-old daughter, dug the hole. We could never sell this house, we all agreed, it would always be in the family.
Yet, life rarely goes to plan and the house stopped being a refuge. Instead, for all of us at different times to different degrees, it was a reminder of what we had lost. My mother was lonely there; married to a ghost she felt. When we visited, my children’s laughter would fill the rooms and every chair at the kitchen table was occupied but this only haunted me: my children inhabit a world my father doesn’t.
Eventually the decision was made; it was time to let go. It sold quickly and a weight lifted. So there we were – my husband, our three children, my mother and sister – a couple of weeks into the New Year, all of us ready for a new beginning.
The house was kind to us that last weekend. The sun shone, allowing us time for morning coffee and evening glasses of wine on the veranda in between trips to the tip, Vinnie’s and the Salvation Army. During one afternoon, my mother found my sister and I sorting our childhood books into piles for charity, another for the bin and ones for us to take home. She couldn’t watch, feeling we were throwing away pieces of our childhoods. In a sense we were, many of those books and toys while evoking wonderful memories belonged in the past.
‘I feel like I’m at my own wake’, my mother commented as we sorted through the contents of a dresser drawer. Dismantling this house was dismantling her life as a mother and wife. Her house in Sydney was post-husband and children. All remnants of our family life were kept in this house and now it was time to let it all go.
Before leaving the house I walked around the garden one last time chatting to my mother as we cut flowers. I watched my son on the old swing, my daughter leaving birdseed in the bird feeders and my youngest giggling as he crawled through the grass and I didn’t feel sad.
It was time for another family to love this house, another daughter to marry in this garden, another grandchild to squeal with delight on that old swing. We don’t need a house for us all to be together. We just are.
Photos © Justine Joffe