Goodbye to the House, Farewell to the Home

“Home is where the heart is.” – Pliny the Elder

Before my father died, my mother had been agitating to sell the family home and downsize to a more manageable property. But Dad was not interested in moving.

When Dad passed away two years ago, Mum put the brakes on the idea of selling. Given Dad’s feelings about it, the house had become synonymous in her mind with him. To sell up seemed to be a sort of betrayal of his memory.

Eventually, though, the burden of managing a big family sized property on her own became too much and she returned to the idea of downsizing. And so, after a very long sales campaign, the family home of 33 years in outer suburban Melbourne was sold and Mum finally moved out last week.

Often when people move they take the opportunity to clear out any junk that has accumulated around the house, rather than take it to the new place. But downsizing brings with it the need to get rid of much more than junk.

Not one to dilly-dally, Mum got down to business the moment the house was sold. She had sold the formal lounge suite and the kitchen table within two days of selling, and she continued selling pieces of furniture to friends and neighbours right up until she moved out.

She also put aside bags and bags of unwanted clothes and homeware to give to her chosen charity, Vinnie’s. She literally filled a room with unwanted goods for them, including some mattresses and an old desk.

Then there were things that no one wanted to buy and the charities wouldn’t take. Everything from an old barbecue to an old television to old chairs and much, much more. In the end, the front yard was filled with junk, to be collected by the local council.

As all of this was taking place, my brother and I were caught up in the activity and excitement of a new start for Mum. We were both aware that saying goodbye to the family home was a big thing, but I think both of us were surprised by the level of emotion it brought with it. As my friend Mary would say, you can know something rationally or intellectually but it sometimes takes a little time to catch up emotionally.

After spending a day moving the junk out of the house and onto the front lawn last Sunday week, my brother left the house and only later realised that that was it, he wouldn’t be returning. He rang me and asked if I’d taken any photos of the house, but as we discussed it we both realised that we already had photos of the house: all the photos we’d taken over the course of the last 33 years there. The ones with us in them. Those were the photos that counted.

There is an exercise that a friend of mine taught me to help you say goodbye to a house. As you leave, you take the good memories and positive vibes with you, and you place them into your next house. My brother and I talked about the fact that we would be taking all the good memories, all the things that made the house our home, with us. There was no need to be sad.

Of course, that’s always easier said than done. On the final day, as Mum and I emptied out the final boxes and bits and pieces and left the house for the last time, we performed the exercise to say goodbye to the house. While Mum was cheery and getting on with it, eager to move on, I went from room to room thinking about the lives we’d led in the house, good times and bad, and tearing up.

I’d also decided to act on the little seed my brother had planted in my mind and take photos of the house and gardens after all. Thanks to digital photography we can all hoard photos to our heart’s content, so I figured why not.

When I uploaded the photos and looked through them, though, it was the strangest thing: The house, empty now of our furniture, our things, and most importantly us, was just that: an empty house.

It reminded me of a lovely quote by humourist Sam Ewing:

“When you finally go back to your old home, you find it wasn’t the old home you missed but your childhood.”

So it is with our old family home. My brother and I are no longer able to revisit our past simply by visiting our mum. Now the house has returned to just being a house, as it was before we lived there. And what we’ll miss about it most is what we put in it ourselves: our lives, our heart.
Large empty living room in a house, with curtains drawn

The Monster Called Memory

“Your memory is a monster; you forget—it doesn’t. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you—and summons them to your recall with will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you!”
John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany

I’ve been thinking a lot about memory lately. I’m doing some research for a personal project which involves delving back into my diaries from the last few years. It’s been a fascinating process.

After a series of events in 2011, my life changed quite dramatically. Now, as I read about my life back in 2010, I marvel at how unrecognisable I am only three years later.

Yet the things I’ve forgotten come back to me as I read. I find myself constantly thinking, “Oh yeah, that happened! And I used to do those things! And I used to live like that! That’s right! Now I remember!”

And then there are those things that I think I remember well, until I read about them in my diary and it turns out I actually perceived them, and wrote about them at the time, very differently to how I remember them. Now I’m confused as to which is the real version: the perceived version at the time, or the version I remember.

Memory can be a tricky little beast.

Sometimes, in cahoots with our eyes, it plays games with us: manufacturing false memories out of photographs or stories we’ve heard over and over. I remember the experience of frolicking and laughing at the beach as a child, for example, but only through the prism of the photographs of that day, not from my actual memory of that experience.

It seems to me that our senses are anchored to memory in different ways. For me taste brings back an emotional memory, while hearing’s memory is filled with nostalgia.

Music, for example, always takes me back to different periods of my life: The Smiths will always and forever take me back to being 16 years old and full of teenage angst, while Matthew Sweet’s album “Girlfriend” reminds me of the carefree summers of my early 20s.

In my experience smell is the sense that evokes the strongest memories. In the early 1990s I was working in the candy bar of the local cinema multiplex. One hot summer day everyone was asking for extra ice with their drinks and I’d gone out the back to the ice machine to get more only to find we were nearly out. To fill my bucket with the remaining ice in the bottom of the ice machine, I had to bend at the waist and practically tip myself into it.

As I did so, I was suddenly transported to the ice skating rink that I’d visited as a child. I was so overwhelmed with the memory that I went into a kind of shock. I had completely forgotten that I had gone ice skating as a kid, but the strong smell of ice had brought it all back so sharply that I momentarily felt as if I was back there, at the rink. It wasn’t till I had pulled myself out of the ice machine that I regained a sense of where I actually was and the memory’s strength faded again.

Freud’s theory of forgetting things states that we forget those things to which we have an aversion (even if the aversion is to something that is connected to the thing we forget).

We all have painful, even traumatic, memories that we want to forget, consciously or subconsciously. At times we don’t even realise how successful we’ve been at forgetting until something intervenes to drag the memory out from where it has been long buried.

But I do believe it is all still there, out of our conscious reach, perhaps, but still there.

When I was 23 I nearly drowned. Just before I blacked out completely, I had a sort of conscious blackout and then my entire life flashed before my eyes. It was like being in a small but completely dark room for a few minutes, then having a projector suddenly flicker on and show you a home movie of your every experience, big or small. And as you watch, you re-experience all the thoughts, all the emotions.

It was the most extraordinary thing. When I told my brother about it, he said that perhaps our brain is like a giant filing cabinet, and all our experiences, thoughts and emotions are filed away in it. Perhaps, he said, as I was nearing death my brain started frantically pulling out all the files trying to find an experience similar to what I was going through to try to find a way to deal with it.

Of course I couldn’t tell you now what it was that I had seen and felt during that experience. Obviously all the files have been put back in their place.

When I think of memory now, I combine the visual of the filing cabinet with the monster that John Irving likened memory to, filing things away and choosing what to hide and reveal.

Sometimes the monster tries to protect us, if it thinks it’s for our own good. Other times it conspires with our senses to trick us. And sometimes the monster’s revelations surprise and amaze us.