My dad is selling the house. That one, right there. It’s not my childhood home, so the ties are not as strong as when my parents decided to sell that one. But it is the last place my mom lived, and where she died. It’s our last geographical connection to her, to a place she inhabited, to a space she made her own.
It’s the right move for my dad. He found an opportunity to downsize into new construction in the same city he lives now, where he depends on his close friendships. He chose a beautiful floor plan with a modern kitchen and lots of natural light. It’s a real neighborhood of freestanding homes, not some generic apartment or condo complex. While it wasn’t intended to be a retirement community, it’s organically become populated with fellow seniors. And financially, it puts him much more at ease.
But it’s going to be hard. We know that. The emotions naturally make you wonder if it’s too soon to be doing this, but the fact is, there will never be a time when we’d casually pack boxes, shed no tears and say to each other, “Well, that was easy.”
Back when my parents first decided to move to this house and sell our family home of almost 30 years, we went through the same dizzying swings between excited anticipation and crushing nostalgia. My mom and dad had long imagined living in the small town of Geneva, Ill., with its quaint streets dotted with lampposts and historical storefronts preserved so perfectly that part of the 2002 movie “The Road to Perdition,” about mobsters during Prohibition, was filmed on location there. (A local reporter overheard a location scout on the phone saying, “I’m standing here on State Street looking backwards in time.”)
Geneva’s primary draw, Third Street, is lined with what I always call “Mom shops,” places that sell decorative olive oils, pillows embroidered with punny jokes, large ceramic roosters, and Vera Bradley’s entire product line. Throw in a couple of coffee shops, an ice cream parlor and a train station at the end of the road, and you’ve got a pretty adorable place to live.
My mom was particularly eager to upgrade from our old, square ‘70s kitchen to her new culinary domain, a wide open room with plentiful counter space and–wait for it–a center island. (For every man who wonders what women really want, it’s a kitchen with a center island.) They had a wraparound front porch with a swing. They could walk over to Third Street on the weekend for festivals or dinner with friends. They couldn’t wait.
But when it came time to leave 309 Queens Parkway in Bartlett, all of the shiny new promises of what lay ahead paled in comparison to the memories being left behind. This was it, where it all happened, the story of our family. This was the setting of “The Bielinskis,” and now the show was over, and it was time to strike the scenery.
I remember sitting at our old kitchen table before the move, all of us reminiscing through tears. My mom said she had told my dad she wished she could magically go back and spend one week in the time when we were kids. Just be able to relive our routine family life for a few days. But then she said she decided she wouldn’t want that, “because it wouldn’t be long enough.”
That’s when we realized it wasn’t the walls or floors or cabinets or stairs we were going to miss. It was me covering my bedroom in Cubs posters. My little brother playing with Matchbox cars in the “lanes” of the kitchen tile. Our favorite babysitter always discovering the junk food my mom had pushed far back on the shelf. The phone cord from the kitchen wrapping into the foyer where I leaned against the banister to chat with friends.
It was that time in our life we were sad to leave, the individual days that turn into decades. It was the feelings we associated with the house: the joy, the warmth, the closeness, the fun, the humor, the love. That’s what we were longing for.
But of course, those weren’t going anywhere. We take those with us, wherever we go. Those were traits of the family, not the house. That was the culture my parents fostered, not the builders. Now, as my dad prepares to move on from the house that once felt so foreign, so new, we’re once again nostalgic. And it’s because my parents brought that same joy, warmth, closeness, fun, humor and love with them to Geneva. It was always about who they were–who we were as a family–and not the place where we lived.
I’m keeping this in mind as Alan and I start looking for our own new house. We’ve been renting for several years, and now with Archie getting bigger, our current space is shrinking on us. This production of “The Moores” is ready for a larger set.
As I swipe through pictures on Zillow or as we walk through Sunday open houses, I make instant snap judgments about the physical features of each place. That kitchen needs work. Hmm, these ceilings are really low. I’m not crazy about those shutters. But then I think about my old house, and how I would view it in a Zillow listing. The bedrooms would be too small. The kitchen too dated. The family room too boxy with no good place for the TV. I’d scroll right past it.
But this past summer, when I went home to visit my dad and help him sort through everything, I took a drive past our old house. I parked on the opposite curb, turned off the car, and was immediately overcome with tears.
I saw the image of my mom planting flowers around the tree in the front yard, my dad mowing the lawn, my brother and I sitting on the grass with our dog running around.
Then, looking at the house itself, I realized it was just a house, a collection of materials. I was reminded of how I felt the moment after my mom died. Her body was still there, but without her spirit, it was no longer her. The structure at 309 Queens Parkways might still exist, but without our family there, it’s no longer “our” house.
It gave me perspective in our house hunt. If we don’t have the perfect floor plan, the ideal backyard, the master bath of our dreams, it won’t matter. Whatever house we choose, if Alan and I do our jobs right as parents, Archie will look back with unparalled love and longing for his childhood home. His heart will ache for the bedroom we thought was too cramped, for the swingset we wished was bigger, for the shabby couch we always meant to upgrade. He’ll remember the way he felt when he was home, with his family, and that will always make it the best house he can imagine.
Now, with the Geneva house on the market, its flaws are revealing themselves. People don’t like the lighting fixtures. They’re concerned about the carpeting. They would change the kitchen hardware. I told my dad I couldn’t describe the lighting fixtures to you right now if you asked me. I can vaguely picture the style of the carpeting in the family room. I never noticed what the cabinet knobs looked like. Because those weren’t the things I cared about when I was there.
Instead, the moment that will forever encapsulate the Geneva house is this one, my mom dancing to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” on a December night in 2008. Her energy and joy are infectious, but the whole scene captures what our family holidays meant to me: everyone at home, relaxing together, open to the spontaneity of singing along to a Christmas song on the radio.
If the cliché is to dance like nobody is watching, my advice to Archie is to dance like your grandma is watching. Dance because you can. Dance because you have no reason not to. Dance because no matter where we are, if you are surrounded by the people you love, you can always call that place home.