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  • Writer's pictureMargaret Gerety

The magic of the family home

When I described SprinkleTrust to one of my friends, she told me about the book They Left Us Everything, by Plum Johnson (2014, Penguin Canada). Thanks to libraries being shuttered for the last three months, I’ve been able to slowly wend my way through this memoir centered around a family home in Canada. The author -- the oldest child and only daughter in a family of four brothers -- describes her complicated emotions after losing her parents and letting her childhood home go. She spent decades growing up and then caring for her parents there, and more than a year decluttering it, inventorying it down to the last soup can, haggling with auctioneers and siblings over where everything would go. The gravitational pull of her home felt suffocating at times. Even as I related with her deeply, I had the urge to pull a Little Fires Everywhere number on the old lake house and release the author from its grip. 

There is an undeniable, magnetic force to a family home. I have recurring dreams about my own, and all of its deep closets and back staircases where we hid as kids; the sound of the heavy front door clicking shut when I came home late at night as a teenager; and our ritual of taping newspaper to the sun porch windows to shield the TV from the Saturday morning glare. So much of my life was lived and transformed there, it’s hard not to feel it’s part of who I am.

But once you decide to sell the family home and start dismantling the backdrop of your childhood memories, the home slips quickly into the hands of strangers. I remember the months after our father died, when my siblings and I decided to sell our Philadelphia house. We made quick work getting the trash removed and the valuables stored. That left the estate sale, which was a slapped together affair we held one Saturday morning. We positioned ourselves across the first floor, one of my sisters stationed at the foot of the stairs to prevent folks from exploring upstairs. We weren’t sure what to expect, and were too busy to worry about it. The first to arrive were the professional dealers, who had been loitering in the street for hours. They did brisk work, efficiently scanning the rooms, and leaving with a heavy haul. Then came the “neighbors.” Not the supportive, bring-a-quiche, walk-the-dog-in-a-pinch ones, but the community snoops and sort-of friends, who were curious about our old house and our family, feigning support and sympathy. Well come on in, we said, mostly sincerely.

On that day, we sold half-sets of chipped china and cutlery, dog-eared books, and old toys. I don’t remember price tags on anything, but I also don’t remember a lot of haggling. The point was to liquidate, and quickly. I remember negotiating the sale of my father's childhood stamp collection, which we found in a store room a few days earlier. To my knowledge, he had never mentioned it, although we knew of his penchant for collecting. In front of the dealer, I had the simultaneous urge to snatch the stamps back and thrust them to the guy for free. On the one hand, these were my father’s and I’m sure he would have had something to say about their historic, if not actual, value. On the other hand, it was hard to care about something you’d never seen or even heard about before, especially when there's no one there to connect the dots.

Even if I didn’t feel the urge to become the family historian like Plum Johnson, preserving and piecing together the remnants of a family home to uncover my parents’ life stories, I understand the power a house can hold over you, even after it is stripped of its people and things. The way I moved through that house is imprinted on me. I can still feel the cool, smoothness of the banister under my hand as I raced down the three flights for dinner, and the way the coat closet smelled of wet wool and crayon (the back had a little hiding place where we were allowed to draw on the walls). 

A couple of years ago, a close friend texted me that my old house was back on the market after 10 years. Pouring through the pictures online, I noticed the house had been lovingly restored and updated by the current owners. The staging was sterile and I had to pause at points to figure which room I was looking at. But I was moved to find that the owners had kept so many of its old, eccentric details, like the floor-to-ceiling cabinets in the "butler's pantry" and my mom’s sewing porch that had a weird little elevator built for my great aunt. The black rotary phones and silver ashtrays were gone, but I was still drawn to this house after all these years. It was tempting to buy it to see if it could work its magic on me once again, or even better on my children. 

That wasn't realistic, of course. I thought about my own home in D.C. that I was about to restore myself, about the traditions I had started there for my own kids, and how it had imprinted itself on them already. Like Plum Johnson, I understood that my old home was special because of the people, the relationships, and the memories held there. The family home is “a true ancestor”; it anchors you within the world. And like my parents, who I also let go in that home, it will continue to shape who I become. “It was a privilege to live here,” the current owner is quoted as saying in the online listing. Indeed it was.

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