My parents lived in the same house for my whole childhood. By the time they got divorced, I was in my twenties, in law school, and my brother was in college. Neither of my parents needed a house at that point, so they sold it and moved into separate apartments.
A couple of days before escrow closed, I made a special trip home to see the house for one last time. I don’t know why I was surprised to find it empty – the furniture gone, everything packed up and moved out – but it was a shock to walk in and see it that way. I remember how the yellow carpet in the living room looked faded and old, except for two bright, sunny rectangles where the couches had been.
The house seemed smaller, and without furniture or knickknacks, every crack in the wall seemed to glare at me, every creaky wood plank seemed to echo. It was like seeing a corpse; the house looked like the same house, but not quite, and I remember wishing that I hadn’t gone to see it. I remember wishing that I’d just left myself with my memories of it.
It’s been twenty years since then; I’ve gotten married and moved to LA and had children of my own, but I still think about that house. Every time I go back to Philadelphia I drive past it. The new owners have put up a fence and changed the exterior, but still, I have the urge to pull into the driveway as if I were sixteen again, coming home after a day at school. I’ve considered ringing the bell and asking if I could come in and take a look around, but then I think about how I felt the last time I was inside, and I keep driving. I don’t want to see how it’s been redecorated and remodeled. I’d rather just remember it how I remember it.
I’m thinking so much about my old house because we put our existing house on the market this past weekend, and it’s been an emotional few days for all of us. As excited as we are to move to our new place, it’s bittersweet. After all, my children were born here and were babies and toddlers here. My husband has started businesses here, I’ve written six books here. We’ve had birthday parties and engagement parties and baby showers and sat shiva here. Leaving this house seems impossible to me, yet we’re doing it. The for sale sign is in the front yard.
My kids cry a lot whenever we talk about moving. This is the only house they’ve ever known, and what I’ve learned about my family is that we’re all creatures of habit, and none of us deals very well with change. But I think it’s good for them. Sometimes life is uncomfortable and sometimes life isn’t going to be exactly how it’s always been, and it’s important to know that you can roll with it. It’s important to have experiences from the past that you can draw on in the future.
So I keep telling my kids about my old house, and about how sad it was for me to leave it. But I’m also telling them about how I came to love my new house – the very one we’ve lived in all these years – just as much, if not more, than the house I grew up in. I tell them that the memories are in our hearts, not in the house; just because we won’t be living here anymore doesn’t mean we won’t remember the time when we did. After all, I can still mentally walk through every room of my childhood home, can still see every fiber in the orange shag carpet of my bedroom, can still conjure the smell of the garage on a hot summer night. And I keep telling them that once we move, that’s it. No matter how tempting it may be to go back and visit, it’s best to leave the memories the way they were.