Many years ago, I read Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. Of Austen’s novels, it’s one of my favorites, in particular because of one interesting thing that has stuck with me for over a decade. Fanny Price, the novel’s heroine, goes back to her childhood home at one point. Her family still lives there, and she’s aching to return to a place of familiarity and comfort. Instead, she finds that the home she’s longed for is not a true reality. Everything is smaller, shabbier, dirtier, and more chaotic. While Fanny has spent years feeling unloved and unwanted with richer relatives, the place she’s thought of as “home” has become dark, depressing, and foreign to her. She doesn’t realize how much she’s changed until she sees how she no longer fits into her old life.
That’s the thing: You can’t go back. Anyone who has ever gone back to a location that lives shining in their memory has experienced the dissonance between that memory and the reality of that location. Because memories are wrapped up in far more than truth. They carry nuance, nostalgia, trauma, sensory triggers, time-specific circumstances, and a scrubbing out of the mundane. The more shining and wonderful a location is in a memory, the more likely it won’t live up in reality.
I am a person who lives in the past. I retain very strong sensory memories of times, events, and places, and I spend a lot of time longing for what was rather than looking forward or being in the present. And like Fanny Price, I’ve experienced the slap in the face that is going backwards into our past. Sometimes that slap in the face is exactly what I need to realize that I don’t want what was in the past anymore, and it helps me to move forward. To let go, especially of grief and longing.
So let’s talk about The House.
Recently, I wrote about being sucker-punched when I opened my Trulia app and saw that my old home was for sale. I struggled badly with that fact, even though I knew in my heart that all things considered, I wouldn’t want to go back to that house. Still, I wanted to walk through it. I wanted to see it, to be in the house that was home for my family for so many years, the place where my kids grew into adolescence, where Jason finished school, where my cousin and I would write every week, where I learned to run, where we hosted so many birthday and holiday parties, where so many of our memories lay. Yes, I remembered Fanny Price and Mansfield Park. I knew that it would be different. You can’t help what you want, though. I thought maybe it would help me to get some much-needed closure.
I’m not going to talk about the events that led up to this next part, because they involve the privacy of some folks I love, but long story short, I scheduled a showing at my old home.
There was one big thing that scared me the most about this trip. When I first walked into this house in 2006, not expecting anything, I was immediately overcome with an intense feeling of rightness. I worried that the same would happen this weekend, and that walking into the house and feeling that rightness would undo all my resolve to stay where I currently am.
But I didn’t feel that when I walked in. The new owners changed a lot – floors, paint, replacing the sliding back door with French doors, adding an island in the kitchen, expanding the concrete porch, adding a large shed, etc. TBH, they didn’t do a good job with a lot of those things. The paint often didn’t go all the way to the ceiling, or was smeared onto the ceiling. One of the French doors had an inch gap between the top of the door and the trim. Each room had a different kind of flooring, and the thresholds between them weren’t actually attached (I tripped on one!). One spot of the wall must have had a crack, because there was an entire INCH of mudding built up in layers over it, not even painted, a glaring eyesore in the middle of the living room.
Beyond DIY issues, the whole place was dingy. A couple of kids lived there, judging from the bedrooms, so it makes sense that a lot of the lower walls had a buildup of hand-dirt. That happens over time. So…if you want to sell a house, or get your deposit back in a rental, you scrub the walls, right? Yeah, there was no scrubbing here. There were grubby walls and dirt build-up on baseboards and in corners. There was trim where paint had been peeled off in long strips, or scratched away. Then there was just the time-based decay that was never taken care of by the current owners – texture falling off the ceiling and walls in clumps, cracks and chips around seams of drywall (which happened ALL THE TIME in that house, well before we lived there!) – that sort of thing. It was an old house before we moved in, an older house when we moved out, and even older now. It needs more care than it’s currently had.
Between all the dirt and the very dark colors on the walls, the whole house looked much, much smaller than I remember. Remember Fanny Price, though – how much of the smallness and darkness is in contrast with my shiny memories? It was definitely a mixture of things. The paint, lighting, and weird furniture layouts contributed to the feeling of diminishment. But there was also just the contrast of memory vs reality. For example, I went back to look at one of the two walk-in closets of the master bedroom and was surprised to see that the walkway between the two sides was so narrow that clothes would brush both shoulders of a thin person. Looking back, I probably got used to stepping in sideways anyway, since my clothes were on one side and J’s were on the other. Then there were the bedrooms, which I thought were roughly the same as our current house (which is only about 50 sq ft bigger, after all). But no, the smallest bedroom was much smaller than the one here, and the medium-sized was about the same as the smallest here. The layout of that old house really helped to make it feel bigger, but again, it had lost a lot of that from the way the new owners had redesigned.
It was nice to see some things in person. That stupid little chicken that I mentioned in the Sucker-Punched link above. Three months before we put the house on the market, Jason accidentally put a hot pan on the kitchen counter, making a ring of burns – and that was still there, ha! Our beautiful tree that we planted a decade ago, as well as the lemon tree that remains a weird shrubby lemon bush.
And honestly, it was nice to walk through and feel, not like home, but cramped. Because while I never meant to, I’ve outgrown this home. Would I have done so had we continued living there? Likely not. My family would have grown and evolved with the home, the way you do. Our paths diverged in July 2014, however, and we are no longer a perfect match. And that’s okay. I feel okay about that now. This walkthrough allowed me to let go of any future regrets surrounding this sale of the house, and makes me look on our approaching second anniversary in this house (early December) with more anticipation. I feel like I’ve hit the top of a particular mountain, to reach the other side. No more climb, no more looking back, no more what-ifs. Not a slap in the face, but an informed and gentle kind of closure.
This isn’t my home anymore. It was my home for 8.5 years, a lovely home filled with lovely memories, and I won’t allow those memories or photos or years to be changed by the reality of 2021’s version of the house. But I’ll also no longer allow wishing, longing, nostalgia, photographs, or what-ifs color today’s home. I’m on neutral ground now – a place I haven’t been for a very, very long time. It feels wonderful to lay down that stone – not through concerted effort, but because I no longer feel the need to carry it.
A special thank you to the person who made this happen for me. I can’t express how deeply grateful I am.
My grandma and grandad were really keen on gardening. Some years after my grandma died (my grandad had died 3 years before her), I drove past their old house and saw that the new owners had paved over the garden to make an extra car parking space, and I was so upset! I very rarely go past our old house, even though I only live about 3 1/2 miles away, and I don’t think I’d want to see the inside!
I feel quite sad for Fanny – she’s very much the poor relation with the Bertrams, but she doesn’t fit into her old life either.
That sounds a LOT like how my husband reacts to these sorts of things. His favorite house we ever lived in was our first, back in 2002-2005, in SW Wisconsin. We knew the new owners were making a lot of changes inside (like putting neutral colors on the walls, and putting down carpet over the hardwood floors), but he was even more upset when we found out that they cut down all the 100+ year old trees that surrounded the place. He didn’t go in to this house with me. This one would’ve upset him less, because other than general maintenance and painting the living room, we actually didn’t do any big WORK on this house. But all the ones we lived in since then, he’d hate to return to. And honestly, it’s hard for me to even walk by the house we sold two years ago. It’s on the same street as where we live now – we moved about half a mile away – and the new owners have let the beautiful cottage garden we created just go to seed. Oh well.
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