Here’s a question I’ve been pondering for the last six months: what is it about a house that gets so deeply into one’s soul?
Is it the physical structure, the walls and doors, nooks and crannies, front steps and back porches? Or is it something far less tangible but every bit as real – the memories of a conversation over a kitchen table, taking a nap on the living room couch, setting a pot of flowers on the doorstep, painting a room?
A week ago, I was back for a visit in Riverview, the town in which I lived for 20 years. I went to all my familiar places – the coffee shop, bakery, gift store, restaurants, and homes of friends. But I studiously avoided going anywhere near the house in which I used to live.
I planned it this way even before leaving Toronto, where I am happily settled in a place that isn’t quite home yet, but has all the promise of becoming that. I knew that I wasn’t quite ready to go back to the house I used to live in, that seeing it from the curb would trip me up in some way I wasn’t prepared to experience.
Friends tell me it’s grief, this sense of emotional loss I feel about my house. I brushed that off at first, thinking grief is far too deep an emotion to wrap around a house. Grief should be reserved for people and pets, not spilled out over four walls and a roof.
And yet, that’s exactly what I find myself doing, mourning a good house in much the same way I would mourn a good friend.
I’ve been in this place before. Thirteen years ago, my parents sold the house in which I grew up. I was freshly out of university, happily settled in an apartment all by myself and delighted to be setting up housekeeping on my own. I’d made a choice not to return to my childhood home, but rather to start my adult working life somewhere else.
I was the one who chose to leave, so it surprised me when I found myself choking back tears on my final visit to our family’s house.
I remember being alone in the house and deciding I would say good bye to it by walking slowly from room to room, letting memories arise as they willed, appreciating the space for all that had gone on within it.
I wandered through the basement, laughing at the storage room, which we’d always referred to as The Little Room, thinking in capitals as we said it because that was its name and while there were other small rooms in the house, none were so christened.
I made it through the first floor, remembering how we always had to wait for my father to come home for supper before we could eat, and how my mother seemed to be able to magically make him appear just by having us all sit around the table, hungrily waiting for him, and for food.
It wasn’t until I reached the second floor that the maudlin feelings began to well up inside me. I recall being in the bathroom, standing over the blue porcelain sink, looking into the mirror when the tears came.
Perhaps it was just a flashback memory of myself at age 15, purple eye shadow creasing my lids, which made me cry. That memory is painful, more for the embarrassment of my seventies’ style than anything to do with the house.
At any rate, it was enough to stop the drama. I shut the bathroom door, went downstairs and said a stoic good bye to the house, although I continued to miss it for years.
I expect the same will be true of my Riverview house (which still pulls a personal pronoun out of me, even though it’s not mine anymore). When I bought that house, I thought I would live in it through my retirement. Those dreams are gone now, and I don’t regret the decision to let them go. But I do grieve for the house.
A good house is like a good friend. It wraps itself around you, protective, comforting, accepting. It opens itself to others, welcoming lots of people to the party. It’s the place you come back to at the end of the day. It’s familiar and comfortable. You can be completely yourself there.
And so, I suppose, taking one’s leave of a place like that is no simple act. It’s complicated and sad, opening up an emotional place you’d rather not return to, at least until time heals the rift.
That hasn’t happened for me yet. And so, while I returned to most of my favourite places during my Riverview visit, I didn’t go to all of them. I didn’t go home.
Lynda MacGibbon is a transplanted Maritimer living in Toronto. She’s been writing this column for more than 10 years for the Moncton Times & Transcript newspaper. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @lyndamacgibbon.