There’s no place like home

My family is grieving. We have been since September when dad passed away. We’re now in the process of packing up our family home – a different kind of grieving. The process has not been wholly depressing and sad, however, quite the contrary! There have been many moments of joyful reminiscing as we discover little treasures hidden away in the many, many, many nooks and crannies of this old house. And to be clear, all these treasures are dad’s.

My dad was a pack rat, no doubt about it. Not to hoarder levels, but the man seemed to have kept everything. Since September, we’ve collectively been chipping away at sorting through 38 years of stuff, most of it, dad’s. It’s the stuff that accumulates over a lifetime, the remnants of raising four kids, evidence of grandchildren and friends and family spending time within these walls. It’s the kind of stockpile that tells a story – in this case, the story of our family.

I know being a sentimental fool, or a chronic pack rat is not a hereditary trait, but through this process I’ve cemented for myself that I, like my dad, have the same kind of emotional attachment to things. There have been things of dad’s that we kids and Mom have claimed over the last few months and I have claimed the most things, which surprises no one. I seem to want to hold onto certain objects of my dad’s because they have meaning. At least they have meaning to me. And while my mom keeps reminding me, especially when I am at times temporarily plunged into the depths of grief and feel like I will never be consoled, dad will live forever in my heart. And of course, she’s right. I have so many memories! And I have a 42-year long relationship with him that is mine alone that I can reflect on forever.

But there is something about having possession of certain objects in my home that bring me comfort. I seem to need the actual, physical thing: I can look at it, and just by virtue of it being in my physical space, it seems to take on even more meaning to me. It becomes an expression of me.

And it’s not just my dad’s stuff. Even though I moved out when I was 18 and haven’t lived there since, there are still a handful of my things hanging around, the most significant of which is my piano. And I have been grappling with the decision I’ve had to make about what to do with it. Let me explain.

When I was about 10, my grandparents procured a piano for me. Grammy and Grandad were invested in my pursuit of everything musical, and they wanted to support me. So, they got a piano from a friend for just the cost of moving it. Obviously, I was beyond excited about this. The years I lived at home, I played the crap out of that piano, one of my favourite things about which was that whenever Grammy and Grandad were over, unfailingly, they would plead “play us a little ditty, Angie.” I loved that.

Sidebar: Grammy and Grandad were the only people allowed to call me Angie. Well, them and my dad, which he did only occasionally, it was always “Ange.” And in recent years, Kelly, my choir director just because I love her and she can call me whatever she wants. But that’s it! Oh, and my friend Cheryl, but it’s in an ironic way because she knows I don’t like it and it’s a little inside joke. But, for real, that’s it!

I digress. So, I moved out, successfully launched into adulthood with the plan that once I had “grown up” and had a house of my own, I would transport my beloved piano from my parents’ living room to mine and my piano and I would live happily ever after together. Well, my life didn’t really follow that trajectory: no house for me, I’ve lived in apartments and haven’t had space for it.

There is space for it in my home now, but there is no way to physically get it into my apartment building. My piano is massive – it won’t fit in the elevator and even if I could get it hoisted up over my balcony, it wouldn’t fit through my not-standard-size balcony door. It’s a Kreutzer, made in New York City circa 1913, it’s a large upright and it’s solid mahogany. She’s big, and she’s heavy!

As much as I would love to keep it for myself, it’s just not possible. My sister, graciously, has been trying since the fall to see if a local school or church would be interested, but no dice.

So, the conclusion was that it would just have to go…and likely be destroyed. This is obviously heartbreaking for me. I know intellectually that my piano essentially amounts to a giant box of wood and strings, but of course it means so much more to me.

First and foremost, it represents my grandparents and the bond I shared with them. And now with selling the house and saying goodbye to my childhood home, it has come to represent that as well. Not surprisingly, its significance to me is also wrapped up in my love and grief for my dad. There is the more insignificant meaning that it’s because I don’t own a house that I can’t just keep it for myself. I had a fleeting feeling of failure because I didn’t reach that perceived milestone of owning a home that seems to define adulthood. But, like I said, that feeling was fleeting because I realized long ago that those traditional milestones just weren’t for me and it doesn’t make me less of an adult. So that doesn’t really count.

Anyway, my struggle in deciding what to do with my piano, and ultimately, coming to terms with the fact that it will likely be destroyed, has been difficult and wrought with complicated emotions.  

In the end, with my mom and brother’s input, I wrapped my head around the idea that it will no longer exist in the world, but perhaps I could hold onto it in a different way. I’ve kept the piano bench and the front panel which contains the hand-crafted decorative carvings that, in my opinion, make it so special and unique. I think I’ll turn it into some sort of art piece, and it will live with me forever and every time someone asks me about it, I’ll be able to tell them its story and why it means so much to me. I think that’s the best compromise we could have come up with.

My point in all of this, of course, is that while I’ve always known that a minimalist I am not, I didn’t fully understand just how attached I am (or can be) to certain things, the objects in my orbit. I’m emotional and sentimental, and I think I’m just one of those people for whom certain things become representative of something important – a person, an experience, a feeling, an accomplishment.

I’m impressed by my mom. She is not like her husband or her daughter in that she is exceptionally good at purging the stuff in her life. She’s the one that reminds me that home is where your family is, that this house is simply walls and furniture and a place, that dad will be in our hearts forever, and that she doesn’t need the stuff to keep the memories. This attribute of my mom’s has come in quite handy during this moving process. To me, it feels like we’re packing up our family’s lifetime – the things that represent our family over the last 38 years and beyond. But, my mom, in addition to being an extraordinarily strong woman, is also a very practical woman. She has kept certain family heirlooms that are important to her, and a few things of dad’s, but for the most part, if she doesn’t need it, if it doesn’t have a function in her new apartment, in her new life, she’s quite adept at deciding to throw it out or give it away. My mom is an impressive woman in many ways, and this is just one on a long list.

I’m not saying that being sentimental about things is better than not being sentimental, I’m just pointing out that people have different relationships with the stuff they accumulate throughout their lives. It’s not a judgement, just an observation. In fact, my mom is most assuredly better off being so cutthroat! Sorting through the contents of this house is an overwhelming and daunting task. I know that’s what dad felt. My parents had been talking about downsizing for years, but dad was always hesitant. In fact, last year, just before he got sick, he said to mom one day, out of the blue, that he felt good and healthy and thought that he could handle the upkeep and maintenance of the house for another few years. That may be true, but we all know that it was really about putting off the very task my mom and our family are charged with now.

While it has been hard and laborious work sorting through all his stuff, and figuring out where, or to whom, everything should go, we’ve had some wonderful treasures reveal themselves. And I’m so glad he kept this stuff!

Most precious to me is basically a piece of paper. For real.

When going through his (many, many, many) notebooks – the man made lists and kept records like the FBI – I found one such list that he had made entitled “Ange’s Projects.” It, not surprisingly, is a list of little projects that he and my brother insisted on executing in my apartment. This was just last spring, when my parents and brother were at my place often to be close to Sunnybrook Hospital where he had frequent appointments. And ever the “fix-it” dad (and, as it turns out, the “fix-it” brother), and man whose love language was Acts of Service, he made it his mission to get me all “set up.” Anyway, I found this list in the back of one of his notebooks in his signature sharp, perfect cursive. I now have it framed, sitting on my bedside table, and every time I look at it, a blanket of love and comfort envelopes me. It’s an otherwise throw-away piece of scrap paper, but to me, it is everything about our relationship and its value immeasurable. And I’m so glad I have the physical thing, in my possession, on display.

I know not everyone is like me in this way and that’s great! You do you! But for me, it is these things, the objects themselves which hold the memories and conjure the sentiments. After all this recent reflecting and processing, I’ve concluded that having a collection of certain objects from my life, and now of my dad’s, it provides a channel through which I can express, in a very physical, visual way, how much I cherish the story and emotions they hold for me.

When all is said and done and my mom hands over the keys next week, what we’ll be leaving behind is after all, just a building. It’s a collection of walls and creaky floors, a leaky basement and a lot of dust and cobwebs. And no matter what the new owners renovate or destroy or fix, to us, this house will always be ours in our memories.

It’s the place where countless Christmas dinners have been enjoyed and the talking and hanging out at the table extended well beyond the meal. It’s where doors have been slammed in anger, usually as a result of teenage angst, tears have been shed and deafening laughter has echoed. It’s the place where epic dance routines to the Mini Pops have been created, meltdowns over homework or fights with friends have transpired, where sick kids have been nursed back to health and boo boos healed with a Band Aid and a kiss from mom.

These rooms have borne witness to disagreements and petty fights over clothes or the TV remote and their eventual resolutions, where little kids ran around leaving chaos in their wake, the sharing of big news, and the learning of bad news. This is where our family grew for 38 years. It’s where all four of us piled on mom and dad’s bed when it was time to wake them up on Christmas morning, it’s where we searched with zeal for treats the Easter Bunny had left us and where we have blown out a million birthday candles. It’s where bannisters were broken during clandestine high school parties, where phone lines were tied up all night because of very important 4-hour long conversations with friends, and where spontaneous kitchen dancing broke out while two parents were making dinner…just because.

One by one we all left and launched into our own adult lives, but we’ve always called this house home and haven’t ever imagined not gathering there for holidays and family celebrations.

For me, visiting home will never be the same because I won’t be coming to stay at 780 Hopkins. But that’s OK. Time marches on and we adapt and forge new paths.

I miss my dad every day. Some days his absence hits me like a tsunami, and I don’t think I’ll ever recover, and other days I’m warmed by all the wonderful and funny memories and grateful to have had such an incredible man in my life.

After all, we have thousands of stories to tell about the Peters’s adventures in that house. And trust me, they will be told, probably over and over – it’s kind of our thing.

Alas, the time has come to move on, and as a family, we’re doing it together. I’m excited for this new season in my mom’s life and day by day she and all of us are figuring out what our lives are without dad. I think it’s OK to be a little sad at selling my childhood home, but the goal is not to hang onto that sadness, not to wallow in it.