My grandmother belonged in her home like a doll in her dollhouse. Each article of clothing, piece of furniture, and accessory seemed perfectly suited to her style and personality. I imagine her now, standing in her doorway at 12 am in a cotton nightgown, ushering my rumpled and crumpled family of eight inside after the long voyage between our home in Syracuse, New York to hers in Massachusetts.
She was not a traditional grandmother in any sense. Her knick-knacks were precious, her attire was elegant, and she always wore her hair in a youthful red bob. She was tough and smart and energetic and the guts and nerve contained in her petite 5’0 frame rivaled that of any 10 men.
My memories of my grandmother are made three dimensional by the details of her environment – the sound of the creaky back stairs, the smell of mothballs in her large linen closet, the hum of crickets drifting into her living room on summer nights while my sister and I listened to old records and my grandmother danced in the arms of an invisible beau, her nightly glass of sherry in hand.
Her house was like a living breathing thing with character and history. Scattered throughout, the secrets of her youth and the soap opera stories of those who came before her could be found in dark cellars, deep closets, and heavy oak drawers. Fascinating treasures told of a time when my grandmother was a knockout who wore sparkly dresses and fur coats to fancy parties; when the women of the house hosted dinner parties with fine china and good silver; and when adults, influenced by depression era proclivities, stockpiled commodities like matchbooks and sugar packets.
During visits to my grandmother’s house, I felt like I was a girl in one of my books like The Secret Garden who slept in a bedroom with a four-poster bed and whose only amusement was to wander the grounds and daydream. Sitting in the grass behind her house I would wonder who sat here a century ago and imagine the stone garage and little barn lining the yard’s perimeter were still the chauffer’s and the gardener’s domain.
Perhaps the sounds of my sisters doing cartwheels in the yard could be heard or perhaps my father drove his big van down the gravel driveway and, after stopping with a final crunch, emerged from the front seat with a six-pack of beer – these are the details I can’t recall. What I can remember is letting my romantic imagination run wild, whisked away on the wind it skipped and danced with the fireflies, as the gloaming’s quiet magic turned the sun from gold to red to dim.
I remarked very recently that we are never so kind as we are to people, places, and things that are gone and maybe when it comes to my grandmother’s house this is so. The last time I visited was just before it was sold and prior to then, I hadn’t been back for years. By the time I returned it was empty and all my grandmother’s belongings had been boxed up and stored away.
Standing in the hallway looking into bare rooms I thought
the house looked sad and frail – as though the cancer that took my grandmother had weakened its structure as well. I had hoped returning would help me remember my grandmother and the childhood days I spent there, but I was too late. My hopes of seeing the house one last time and preserving it pleasantly in my memory were gone.
People give up homes for various reasons. Sometimes the circumstances are in their control (such as making the choice to sell a house and move to a new one) and sometimes they aren’t (like in the case of a foreclosure, house fire, natural disaster, or death of the primary resident). Leaving a home can be very sad and emotional regardless of the reason.
Over the past few years, I’ve found myself grieving the loss of my grandmother’s house – both the physical place as well as the people and feelings associated with it – and I’ve often wondered what I could have done to find more meaningful closure. So, together with the help of our readers, here are suggestions for saying goodbye to a home and grieving places past.
Saying Goodbye to a Home:
- Visit: If the place is not your primary residence, find an opportunity to visit one last time. Be prepared though, there’s a chance it will seem altered and different. Reader Tracy reflects, “…the home which once held lots of laughter, fun, insight, love, comfort & great memories of times well spent together….now was just a structure, a house.”
- Document: Take photographs of different rooms and significant places.
- Say a ceremonial goodbye: Kimberly, one of our readers, offers her experience, “Before we moved we shared, as a family, our favorite memories we had in the home. We then blessed and released the home to the new owners wishing for them all the good times & great memories we had.”
- Have a photo shoot: Hire a photographer and have one last family photo shoot. For example, check out this touching father/daughter photo shoot.
- Spend Time: Spend purposeful and meaningful time in the home. Reader Dawn suggests, “…taking time in each room and letting the memories come. Also placing your hands on the walls, doors, windows or special areas for as long as feels right.”
- Leave your mark: Carve your initials in a tree, write a message in a door jam, make handprints in cement, or bury a time capsule in the backyard.
- Care for it: Reader Susan shares her experience with a house she didn’t particularly love, “…when I knew that I’d be selling and moving from the place. I felt a sense of responsibility to actively love the home, by making it more lovely — painting, caring for the things that needed fixing so that the place would be infused with my blessing, and consequently, bless the new owners. I literally prayed that the family who bought the home would have years of happiness and peace there. I felt better about leaving the home, with my blessing, maybe because I had dealt with my conflicted feelings about the place. I felt free to love a new home then, with little looking back or regrets.”
- Take something with you: Unearth a plant or tree to replant at your new location, take a brick out of the front pathway, unscrew a doorknob – go ahead and cause some destruction.
Grieving Places from the Past:
- Visit: As awkward as knocking on a stranger’s door and asking to walk around their home may seem, revisiting a place that’s been sold to new owners can be kind of cool. The current inhabitants may get a kick out of hearing old stories about their home and it may make you feel better to know the house is being cared for an appreciated (if this is indeed the case). If the home is no longer standing, you can always revisit the lot – this has the potential to be kind of a bummer but maybe worth the visit nonetheless.
- Reminisce: Talk about memories you had in the home, both with those who you shared the memories with and those you didn’t (maybe your kids or friends).
- Create a Heritage Album: Document details of your past home(s) as a part of your family history. Here’s a book about crafting your own heritage album.
- Collect photos and scrapbook: If your not quite ready to document your family history but want to remember the home, collect photos and create a few scrapbook pages. This is a good activity to do with kids.
- Research the house: Here’s a guide detailing resources for researching architectural and historical facts about a house.
- Create: Write a poem, essay, or song. Draw or paint a picture.
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