When a House is not a Home

I’ve moved a few times in my life. It’s not an experience I particularly love. There’s the feeling of sadness of leaving behind the old house, old friends and places so familiar that you can map them in your mind with ease.  At the same time, moving brings a certain excitement because there’s a new place, new friends and new places waiting for you to discover and make your own. My oldest son is currently in this process as he moves into a new apartment and is looking forward, for now, to living without roommates and the chance to make his new place entirely reflect his own tastes and personality.

Dissembling the home of a loved one who has passed away is different. It’s something I’ve done only a couple of times in my life. This time, it was a far more intimate undertaking because the home was that of my parents. And while it wasn’t the house where I had grown up, it had been their home for nearly 45 years and was the place I came to call ‘home.’

My mom loved her ranch-style home in which she and my father lived nearly 45 years.
My mom loved her ranch-style home in which she and my father lived nearly 45 years.

My parents were proud of their home. They had worked hard to buy it, a newer, custom-built ranch-style home previously owned only by the people who had built it.  For my mother, I”m sure it was like a dream come true. It was, by far, the nicest house she had ever lived in, my father too for that matter.  They had both grown up on family farms and lived with numerous other siblings in houses that were, by today’s standards, too small for the number of occupants. Everyone shared a bedroom with three and sometimes four others. This new house had plenty of room for their family of five, plus it had lovely features like the old barn wood siding in the family room, built-in bookcases in the hall, a large, oversized master bedroom with his and her closets (not a common amenity at the time) and a full basement, a very important thing to have in tornado country.

My parents took great care in furnishing the house, purchasing new furniture over the years to fill it.  They added the touches that make a home personal, placing mementos from vacations throughout the house, such as the ceramic totem pole bottle with its tiny mugs that stood on a shelf in kitchen. Or the shells gathered from the beaches of Oregon and Florida that were on the glass shelves in the guess bathroom, or the spoon collection that hung in the hall. Old wooden decorative plates that my Dad had sent home from Europe during World War II rested on the bookcase along with all the books and other knickknacks on the bookshelf.

A large canvas portrait, taken by my brother,  Brad, hung above the fireplace and was the centerpiece of the family room.
A large canvas portrait, taken by my brother,
Brad, hung above the fireplace and was the centerpiece of the family room.

But what made their home uniquely theirs were the photographs that hung in nearly every room.  In the family room were wall portraits of myself and my two brothers and our families. Over the old oak desk was a grouping of individual portraits of their five grandchildren. A large canvas outdoor portrait of my Mother and Father taken by my brother, hung above the fireplace wall.

In the living room, over the piano, was the beautiful light oil portrait of my aunt playing her beloved Hammond organ. In the corner above the bookcase was an arrangement of old family pictures of my great grandparents, my parents’ respective families and more portraits of the grandkids.  The bookcase top was covered with pictures of myself and my husband, my sons, my brother Richard’s family and of my other brother, Brad.

My aunt's portrait at the organ hung above The living room piano where I could see it as I practiced.
My aunt’s portrait at the organ hung above The living room piano where I could see it as I practiced.

On the walls of their master bedroom were ‘composite’ oil portraits of me and my brothers taken when we were babies. One of each of our baby shoes, bronzed, hung above them.  The adjacent wall had three, framed 11×14 portraits of me with each of my infant sons, portraits that my Dad had taken in my then Los Angeles home.  Displayed on their bedside tables were smaller, tabletop prints of our family in both snapshots and studio portraits.

Likewise, the guest room dresser and highboy was filled with photographs of themselves in younger years, their own brothers and sisters and their families. Above the bed’s headboard were pictures from their wedding,their parents’ wedding, my own and that of my brother, Richard. My Dad’s photograph of the Bandon lighthouse was the centerpiece of  another wall.

Whenever I visited, I stayed in the guest room surrounded by pictures of my family.
Whenever I visited, I stayed in the guest room surrounded by pictures of my family.

Clearly, their family was important to them both. I believe the family photographs placed on their walls and tabletops helped to keep their family close, especially since none of their children lived, for most of the time that they occupied the house, in the same town. And only a couple of their own brothers and sisters resided near by.

I was there in May to help begin the difficult and emotional process of closing my parents home.  Some of the sorting had been done in the months and years prior to my Dad’s death at my Dad’s insistence, But now, came the task of emptying the house entirely. Deciding what furniture was to be sold and what pieces someone in the family would take, if it had not already been designated by my Dad.  I stayed alone at night in the house. It was something I had done before when my Dad was in the hospital. But it was definitely different this time. Knowing that he would no longer be coming home. Knowing that everything on the dressers, the bookcases, the kitchen shelves, the end tables, the walls would have to go .

The framed tabletop photos had already been removed and only one of the baby composites was left hanging on the wall by the time I took this photo of the master bedroom. But the 11x14 prints of me with my sons as infants were still up.
The framed tabletop photos had already been removed and only one of the baby composites was left hanging on the wall by the time I took this photo of the master bedroom. But the 11×14 prints of me with my sons as infants were still up.

Starting was hard. Forty-five years of living and memories had to be sorted and dispersed one way or another.  A month earlier when my Dad died, I had insisted that the photographs be left on the walls where they would be less in the way.  Now, however, there could be no more delay. Things simply had to be cleared away.

One by one I began to gently lift the photographs off their nails on the wall. I folded up the easels on the framed tabletop picture and stacked them carefully in a box. It felt as if  as I was erasing a part of history, my history.  While it was a sad task, it was, in other ways, therapeutic.  That’s because as each photo came down, the house became less and less my parents home. Those blank, barren walls, once so filled with life, were now a void.  Just another wall in a house.

Certainly the memories built and contained in that house will continue to live in our minds. The photographs that made that house theirs, that said it belonged to them and only them, are now finding new places in my home, that of my brothers and other family members.  And the house that was a home is again, just a house.

 

 

Family Photos Relate Past to Present

Early last month, I made a weekend trip to visit my cousins in neighboring Oregon and to help celebrate my aunt’s birthday. I packed just enough clothing for a couple of days. And I took along some of the old family photograph albums that had been at my parent’s home until my father passed away this past spring.  My Dad had designated me to be the family ‘historian’ I guess and placed me in charge of sorting through all the photograph albums, movies and slides that they had accumulated through the years.

I had already begun this process during the many visits to see my parents in recent years. Since I was on West Coast time, I was often awake long after my parents retired for the night. I’d sit in my Dad’s recliner chair in the family room with a pile of loose photos on my lap. While watching a movie, I’d slip them into albums. I knew that one of the things that my mother, who had dementia, could still enjoy was looking through the old family photos. Until the onset of her disability, my mother had put together the photo albums and had taken care to label many of them, especially the ones from her childhood and youth, on the reverse side.

Scenes from everyday life   of my family tell us what they liked to do together. Here, my aunt and uncle are ready for a game of tennis.
Scenes from everyday life of my family tell us what they liked to do together. Here, my aunt and uncle have their racquets ready for a game of tennis.

Some nights, instead of assembling an album, I’d pull out one of the older albums. I handled them delicately because the black or faded yellow paper scrapbook pages, to which the photos were affixed with little black corners, were pretty brittle. Carefully, I’d turn through the pages, reviewing my family history and becoming acquainted with the faces and events that belonged to my relatives generations before me. It was like stepping into my own personal time capsule. Their stories unfolded as I gently lifted the individual prints out of their spot to read what had been written on the back.

Pictures of my family members from the past show us how much our family members today resemble them.
Pictures of my family members from the past show us how much our family members today resemble them.

Captions such as “Clara and Hulda Lonberg. Made in Doling Park Springfield, Mo. about  1912”  or “Lonberg Family Reunion” gave me clues to the time and place of the photo. It was not information that had much bearing on the history of things at large, and yet, these simple people did help to shape a country in their coming from their original homeland to settle here, to work and build homes, farms, businesses, schools and churches and, most importantly, to raise a family.

I carried with me to my cousins some of these books of collected visual memories to share with them. They had probably not seen many, if any, of these photographs, I guessed, because they had seldom visited my parents’ home in Kansas and when they did, I doubted that the albums had ever come out. Or, if they did, a long time had since passed.

Late one evening, after the littlest family members had gone to bed and the guys were in the family room talking about football, I sat down at the kitchen table with my cousin and my aunt and opened one of the books I had brought. It was like story-time in kindergarten class. My cousin was captivated by the people I paraded past her as I turned the pages.  She was thrilled because in one of the albums that once belonged to another aunt who had died a few years earlier were snapshots taken at my cousin’s own parents’ wedding. She had never seen them.

My cousin had never seen this photo of her parents taken on their wedding day.
My cousin had never seen this photo of her parents taken on their wedding day.

My aunt, her mother, who was sitting beside us smiled as she remembered that important day. Tears welled in her eyes as she recognized her sisters and brothers with whom she had grown up.  We broke into laughter when a photo prompted a memory about something silly that one of them had done.

For two hours, we turned through those fragile pages, asked questions of my aunt, read the snippets of information recorded, and studied the people and places preserved in the photos. The time passed quickly and left us tired–it was well after midnight–but wanting to see and know more. I promised to scan and share them all with my cousins, and to give to them the originals of the photos that were of their mother so that one day, they could sit down, as we had that night, and relate to their own grandchildren the history that is ours.

the family lines up at a reunion for a group photo that preserves the day forever.
The family lines up at a reunion for a group photo that preserves the day forever.

PostScript:  I have since started a group on Facebook for both sides of my family and have systematically been placing the old family photos in them as I scan them. We also now have an album in Dropbox dedicated for that purpose. The only ones with access to them are our family members who can download, save and print them for themselves. You might want to consider doing something similar for your own family.  But with hacking incidents such as the most recent one involving the iCloud, I’d still recommend making prints of all your most precious family photos.