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?

I’d like to wrap my arms around this forlorn house.

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.

A good house deserves a good cat.

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.

I miss my garden, too.

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 lmacgibbon@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter @lyndamacgibbon.

11 thoughts on “Home is where the heart is broken

  1. A compelling question, this. And what is it that gives some houses that aura of welcome or comfort or peacefulness, while others seem cold and withdrawn, even unhappy? I remember the first time we walked into our Hopewell Cape home…I felt welcomed and knew it was meant for me.

    I wondered if you would do a drive-by while home.

  2. It’s interesting, because I have a really different (much more detached) attitude towards houses. I never had to go through losing my childhood home, and I’ve moved a lot since then, so I guess those are factors, but in general I’ve always been quite happy to leave a place behind.

    All my soul-piercing, nostalgia-inducing memories seem to be associated with songs, or smells, or other combinations of sensory experience (e.g. a salty sea breeze on a warm summer night always takes me back to teenage years and time spent around Parlee Beach!).

    Enjoyed the post anyway, as always!
    Tim

  3. Thanks for this article. It is hard to describe one’s feelings for a house, a thing, a place where one has lived life but I think you are right: it’s tied up in how we remember, how we lived when we were in that abode. In 2010 I visited my old home village in Ontario, and though the house is long gone, visiting the neighbourhood brought back memories which triggered sad and happy thoughts. Why? Because it was home, where I grew up and first really learned to appreciate the world around me. Because it was home; the place where I found my solace, my stability, my peace, my foundation and my faith.

  4. yes! a house can become a home, and leaving home triggers a deep longing that can never quite be quenched. I had pseudo-gypsy parents so my current house with my husband is my first experience with forming deep attachment with a house. I hope we never move!

  5. We have lived in our home for more than 40 years and are beginning to consider what we will need to do when we choose to downsize. The sorting and choosing what “stuff” to keep and what to let go; but you are right, it is not about “stuff”. It is about the memories that have been created in a home, and they will travel with us forever. (or we hope we will have our memory forever! – fodder for another article?)
    I tear up leaving our summer property at the end of each season; and our “home” (travel trailer) travels back to town with us!
    I also frequently recall my childhood home and neighbourhood.There is a sense of comfort in a familiar place, and in recalling happy memories.
    Thanks for stirring my memories of “home”.

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