My parents sold the Tavistock house that I grew up in with my brothers and sister in the spring of 1988, just before I was done high school. That Rudy Avenue house, with the stone wall my dad built and where our first dog is still buried, was the first house they’d ever owned and it’s the backdrop of all my childhood memories. For a long time into adulthood, I would often have dreams set inside that house.
One of my favourite memories of living there was of coming home on winter Sunday afternoons, fresh from a couple of hours of public skating at the original, wooden-raftered Tavistock Arena. While there, I would have filled myself up on Sour Cream & Onion chips — from a tinfoil bag — eaten too many Jawbreakers and chewed my fair share of two-cent Double Bubble. And, when I got home, all rosy-cheeked from the cold walk, my Dad would have a fire on and Mom would have a roast of beef, or some other delicious Sunday meal, in the oven. The warmth of the wood stove and the smell of Sunday suppers were always there to greet me when I blew in the door.
Most of my memories of our time in that house seem to be stored not in photos — though my mother made sure there are thousands — but in certain biscuits and cookies, Tang, textures of carpets and other smells. Memories triggered by scent, for me at least, seem to have the strongest emotional connection. Every once in awhile, I hit a tripwire of smell and memories explode.
Those Sundays mean everything. Because they still smell like home.
By 1988, I was the last of four kids left on Rudy Ave. and my parents were down-sizing to move to Stratford where they both worked. I was 17 and in Grade 12. I was devastated that our childhood home was being sold and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I remember being in my bedroom, with its hot pink carpet, for the last time after it was empty and the tears I held back as I rushed past my parents to get out the front door.
We sped off. From my perch on the front seat of my future husband’s souped-up 1977 Monte Carlo, I watched our wheels cross the town line, turn right onto the back highway to New Hamburg, pick up speed and head for new freedoms, or whatever awaited me now that I couldn’t go “home.” And then I cried.
These memories have been close to the surface for the past week or so as my dad finalized his decision to sell the only other place I’ve ever thought of as home — their house in Stratford. He is continuing to find his way after my mom’s death and it’s a decision that makes sense. Last weekend, he came over to talk through his plans and I joked afterwards that it was like he was coming out — making the same dreaded house-house trek to tell everyone his news that I once did. And instantly, I recognized how hard that must be for him.
I also find it so hard to let that place go. Largely because I’m so freaking sentimental and that house is the living personification of my Mom. To go there is to walk into a knick-knacked, big, fat, warm mom-hug kind of reminder of all that she loved and all that she was to us. It’s the last remaining physical connection. The last place she ever was. I’m a strong believer that home isn’t a place — it’s people. She herself was home to me in so many ways. And now she is gone too.
And yet, she lives on so powerfully within me. And so does the concept of “home” – I know I can find them both inside when I need to. And, I’m so happy for my Dad who has been so brave and diligent this year as he works to forge out a new life minus my Mom. I am sad. And happy. And divided. And grateful. I am all of these things. And I have come to know that I can be all of these things at once and that’s okay. Normal even. Like, missing home and my Mom and being happy for my dad don’t cancel each other out. They just sit there together in my heart, all opposite and content, occasionally vying for my attention at the same time.
It seems life is full of situations like this, isn’t it? Things that tear at you. Things that divide you right down the middle — pushing and pulling you at the same time. Things you can understand intellectually, but which your heart hasn’t caught up to yet. You want to do one thing but know you should likely do another. Something is painful, yet you know it shouldn’t be. You love someone but you’ve discovered something about yourself that means that, against every fibre of your being, you must let them go because, well…..love says so. Love is a masterclass in acceptance. And often that means accepting what you don’t want to.
My Dad is enduring the same tension as he lets go of something so dear and full of memories in pursuit of a happy life for his remaining years. It doesn’t negate how much he loved my Mom and their life together. In fact, I can hear her now, saying that I don’t need to hold this for her. That I don’t need to protect her memory so fiercely by finding it so hard to let go of the house. “Those are just things,” she would say.
She is not that house.
She is not the things in that house.
She is not the empty space. Or the empty chair.
She is not the amount of suffering we do, or the length of time we let grief level us.
She is not what is gone.
She is closer than we can imagine.
She is wishing and hoping the best for each of us. As she always did.
She is all that she ever was to us. Just in another room for the moment.
She is at peace.
And life is for the living, she would say.
I read somewhere once that a father’s job is to teach his children to be warriors. To give them the confidence to get on the horse to ride into battle when it’s necessary. My Dad, basically 130-pounds of quarters and nickels in Sears slacks, wasn’t a very intentional parent in the things he set out to teach us. We have learned, more than anything, by his example. Particularly recently. Every day of the past 12 years as my Mother slowly withered and died before his eyes, he got on that horse without complaint. He ended up unwittingly setting an example of love that I don’t even think he knew he had in him.
He was a warrior then. And, as he approaches 80, he’s still riding. Every day since January 12, he has struggled to reinvent himself and his life. And I think it must be so damn hard when he had never been without my Mom for even a day since he was 15 or 16. It is painful to imagine what it must be like for him. But he has ponied up every single day since. The gift it has been to witness that in all its tension of the opposite glory — has been both hard and beautiful. It is, in fact, a secret gratitude that I will carry with me always.
In the coming weeks once their house is sold, we’ll each take home some of their things to keep and we’ll pack up the rest. We’ll keep all of the wonderful memories but also find ourselves moving on. It will be both hard and beautiful, too.
Now, where did I park that horse…