I walk somberly from room to room with my Canon, zooming in on every surface before snapping a photograph. Crouching on the cream-colored living room carpet, I capture the mauve floral wallpaper. I photograph the gray-and-rose-print dining room walls, the dark wood cabinets in the kitchen, my lime green bedroom carpet, even the linoleum that repeatedly caused my toddling daughters to slip and fall every time we came to visit. I want to capture it all, to keep it.
It was midwinter in South Dakota when my parents decided to sell the house that had been my home since age 13. My mom had been lamenting the out-of-date decor for years, and when an offer fell into their lap, it seemed like a sign that it was time for a change. It happened quickly; their house sold, they spent a few weeks searching for a new one and they were set to close on both homes by the end of March.
I couldn’t bear the thought of not seeing my old house one last time, so I hauled my daughters—then ages 7 and 2—across the Midwest on a 10-hour pilgrimage to say goodbye to my childhood home. It certainly wouldn’t be the relaxing spring break I had envisioned, but I felt oddly compelled to make the trip.
When my daughters and I turned onto the street where I grew up, our minivan jammed with suitcases, pillow pets, electronic devices and even the portable toddler potty, I felt a lump form in my throat. The Rolling Stones mournfully sang about wild horses, and I let the tears spill freely down my cheeks as we pulled into the steep driveway. I had parked my crappy 1989 Oldsmobile there more times than I could count during my teenage years.
After my parents told me their intention to move (albeit to a house five minutes away), a plethora of emotions fought for my attention. I was filled with grief for the familiar rooms that would no longer be mine. I was desperate to cling to the house, the history. I was critical of their choice to get rid of our comfortable old house and start over, considering it to be impractical and perhaps even foolish. Truth be told, I was a little bit pissed off at them.
As a mother, I have made a concerted effort—battling ambivalent feelings, guilt and self-judgment—to keep my identity on the table. Despite deeply rooted (though perhaps misguided) beliefs that I should always put my children’s needs and happiness above my own, I have carved out time for my career, my friendships, my body, my passions. I tell my children to find something else to do when I am busy working or talking with friends. I ignore the flashes of guilt and remind myself that I am actually giving them a gift by not making them the center of the universe. I am paving the way for my daughters to be fulfilled women with lives and desires of their own.
And yet, hypocritically, I couldn’t seem to extend the same courtesy to my own parents. They are human beings, enjoying their retirement and a slower pace of living. They deserve to start over in a new home without worrying about how it will affect their adult children. Even as I wrestle with my own motherhood, I still occasionally forget the fact that my parents are people who exist in a capacity beyond that of being Mom and Dad.
Then I realized that this was no longer my story. The home where I grew into my adolescent self, where I sobbed into my pastel pillows and left cheap mascara tracks, the bedroom where I tossed and turned, consumed by teenage infatuation that prevented me from sleeping, the kitchen where my brother and I were often disgustedly asked to leave the table due to our obnoxious behavior and raucous inside jokes, the bathroom where I meticulously applied makeup and steam rollers before formal dances, my brother’s bedroom where we huddled in the wee hours of Christmas morning, too excited to sleep—those were my memories. That was my story.
When I left home for college, the house—and my parents—went on to create new meaning that didn’t encompass me, yet it remained a safe place for me to land. Even after I ceased to officially live there, the comforting, dated haven was a touchstone for me. Beyond that, it was a time machine. I could always get in touch with my adolescent self, my young-adult self, all of the selves that had faded to give way to the latest incarnation of me. When I closed the door behind me for the last time, I was struck with the disconcerting notion that I would never be held by something in quite the same way again.
My parents have begun a new chapter in their lives. When I go to visit them, I will stay in a guest bedroom that holds no history for me. I will bask in their hospitality and enjoy their company. I will watch them come into their own in a new stage of life in a home that makes them happy.