Goodbye, old friend

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Chris Haws

It’s been your family home for ten, fifteen, twenty years or more. 

For all that time, as the kids arrived and thrived, it’s been the center of your collective experience. 

Joy, jubilation and happy chaos.  Tantrums, tears and teenage moods.

Thanksgiving turkeys, summer barbecues, spring salads, winter stews and soups.

Visiting friends and relatives – lots of relatives.

The first floor rooms have always been bathed in tasteful pastel shades that never shouted. The kids rooms, meanwhile, have alternately shrieked and screamed in a variety of raucous primary colors and clashing decorative effects.

This is a house that has been a patient, faithful, friend for all that time, never complaining about the assaults on its quiet, calm, underlying solidity – except for the occasional blown boiler, leaky roof and perverse tendency to invite termites and carpenter bees to also enjoy its generous hospitality.

But now all that is about to change.

The kids have mostly gone.  (Sure, they come back from time to time for that signature roundtable family meal – or to lick wounds when a job is lost or a heart is broken).  Soon the two of you will be alone with the house (and the dog).  Increasingly, it has become obvious that the house is now too big and, if truth be told, rather too much to manage practically and even financially.  The prospect of ‘downsizing’ – or as the current fashion would have it - ‘rightsizing’, has become ever more persuasive and attractive.

We have just taken that plunge and the reality of selling up and moving on has been more emotionally grueling than we anticipated. 

It began when we called in the realtor:

“Well, you can’t sell it like this!” she proclaimed, walking briskly through the hall, the lounge, the dining room and the day room, gesturing to left and right.

“Oh?  Why not?”  I ventured to ask, “We rather like it like this”.

“Exactly”, she affirmed, and sprang up the stairs like a gazelle on speed.  And yes, she hit each one of the four creaky treads.  I could tell that she noticed.

As I followed her expensive scent up to the second floor, all I could hear were exasperated gasps and toothy ‘tut-tuts’ as she sped from bedroom to bathroom to study.

Reaching the third floor, I found her waiting for me on the landing.  In the time it had taken me to catch up, she had ‘cased’ what we always thought of as the ‘kids’ floor’ – a domain that had been foreign territory to us.  Occasionally enemy territory.  Always an alien land.

She was shaking her head.  “No.  No.  No.  We – well, actually you – have a lot of work to do”

‘Like?”

“Well, you have to get rid of all this”, she gestured again, “and paint everything white”.

My eyes were drawn to the psychedelic mural that my eldest son and his friends had created on three of the four walls some years ago during their, um, ‘experimental’ period - and admitted that she might have a point.  But if you took the horror film posters off my younger son’s walls, you’d have a perfectly respectable pale blue room, in need of a touch up - and a bit of patching here and there, where he and his friends had punched holes in the drywall during their occasional wrestling contests, but…

“Get rid of all this?  But these beds and tables and chairs are all still very serviceable.  Well, almost all…”

More head shakes.  “Sorry.  Gotta go”.

“And white?”

“Yup.  Well, not exactly white.  Navaho White.  Slightly creamier.  Buyers love it”.

“So what will we do about these empty rooms?  Won’t that look a little odd?”

“Staging”

“Staging?”

“Staging.  We’ll bring in new, contemporary furniture, change the drapes, add a few throw rugs”, she looked at me sideways, gauging my reaction, “It’ll look fantastic.  Trust me”.

And with that she turned and clattered back down the stairs in her designer shoes to the first floor.  Our floor. 

Same story.  In was like being in the wake of the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland who kept proclaiming “Off with their heads”.  Everything, it seemed, had to go.  Had to be repainted.  Had to be neutralized.

And so the process began. 

We knew that we couldn’t accommodate all of our ‘stuff’ – furniture and well loved bits and pieces that seemed to fit easily into our five bedroom, four bathroom, three reception room, four story Victorian ‘folly’ with its own self contained basement apartment  – in the three bedroom, two bathroom cottage of our imagined future.

Much loved sofas went to the Salvation Army, along with a chest of drawers (identified on the receipt as ‘Chester Draws’.  Genius.  I treasure that receipt), plus tables, chairs and mountains of crockery.

Three thousand of our five thousand books had to be removed from the shelves that I had built to house them.  A truly painful exercise, since I love books for themselves as well as for their content.  There is, in my opinion, an aesthetic about shelves of books that is sublime.  I hope they all went to good homes.  Not likely in the age of the ibook and Kindle.

And so it was that slowly, our home was losing it’s character and its identity.

Like losing a loved one to Alzheimer’s.

It wasn’t obvious at first, but then the changes began to mount up.

The blue room became white (well Navaho White).

Then the green room.  Then the yellow room.

My study – a rich deep green, trimmed with mahogany woodwork – was next, and I have to tell you that mahogany trim in a Navaho White room looks, well, silly.

More furniture departed.  And new staging furniture came in.  Along with sculptures and spindly false flower arrangements that were – well, not my taste.

Pictures came off the walls.  Much loved pictures, all of which represented the evolution of my wife’s and my artistic tastes over our many decades of marriage.  Most weren’t particularly valuable as works of art, but some were.  Realizing that the combined ‘acreage’ of wall space that these many pictures occupied would be far too large for any house we might realistically envisage, we began to sell some of them.  As painful a process as dispatching our books.  More old friends being sent to the gallows – or at least it felt like that.

Meanwhile, the parallel process of putting certain things into storage, began to gain momentum.

Another conundrum.  What to store and what to junk? 

Initially we found it hard to let go of all our ‘stuff’ – and we stored far too much.

 

But as a new pragmatism wormed its way into our consciousnesses, we reluctantly revisited the storage facility and began to junk more of the things that we had thought we had wanted to keep.  An old oak rocking chair that had seen better days.  Ancient ‘incidental tables’ that were, well, incidental.  Out they went.  Into their place went boxes upon boxes of …. memorabilia. 

Photograph albums, letters, birthday and valentines cards, more pictures. 

All irreplaceable at any price – unlike a sofa or a table or a chair.

Once the sale of our house was agreed – now months on from the beginning of the process – the purging accelerated and yet more of our stuff met the axe. 

And as the staging elements were finally removed, the rooms became barer and barer and our home was becoming a house.  .

A beautiful house, but just bricks and mortar, when all is said and done.

The physical structure of our house was still intact, but its internal “character” - which had made it “our home” - had all but disappeared.

As we conducted the last ‘walk through’ with the new owner, the transformation in my mind and my heart was complete. 

The things that had made this house our home were now just memories.

But thankfully, we had a record of those memories in storage.

And our dear, generous, gentle friend was now also just a memory.

We could now move on, thankful for a rich past in our old home.

And now we are eagerly looking forward to a new ‘rightsized’ future in our next ‘friend to be’.