We never grow up from our Christmas home . . . until it’s gone
Nostalgia is fun, and the Irish have a knack for it. Yet the finality of clearing out the family home is an emotional head-spin you don’t see coming.
We may emigrate, but we almost always feel that pull back to home
Christmas isn’t just about being a child – it’s about being someone’s child. It’s why when we cross the threshold into our family home for Christmas, we joke about pitching up to a sort of battleground.
Many of us become our teenage selves again. Age-old dynamics resurface. We huff about the remote control, seek refuge in our teenage bedrooms, moan about peeling carrots while the brothers/uncles do absolutely nothing to help.
A friend of mine, with a teenage daughter of his own, marvelled at how he’d always revert into a sulky teen when he went to his parents’ for Christmas. It’s the joy of being The Kid again.
If I’d known those days were numbered, I’d probably have cherished the sulking and moaning even more.
Some years ago, and after the death of my mother, we sold our childhood house. It was our job, one awful weekend, to remove all traces of our family, our memories and our upbringing, and make the house look like it belonged to nobody.
I made the fatal error of arriving to the scene with a deathly hangover, but by then boxes had begun to pile high in the livingroom; presses and wardrobes were already emptied; the skip in the driveway beginning to fill. All that was left to do was dry our eyes, put the kettle on and get on with it.
You don’t get too much time to drink in those last few moments of home, what with the flooding back of old memories. Jackie/Shooter/Bunty annuals bought with paper-round money, communion dresses, old teddy bears. My mother had an overwhelming instinct to hoard; more than likely aware that she’d never have to remove 40 boxes of family stuff from the attic. You take what stuff you can, and the truth is, it gets transported from one dusty attic to another.
Nostalgia is fun, and the Irish have a particularly canny knack for it. Yet the finality of clearing out the family home is an emotional head-spin that you don’t see coming. No-one tells you about the challenge it will be, packing up a family’s life and playing charity shop/skip/keep.
At one point, I tried to stave off the inevitable. I considered moving out of the city and into our suburban house myself. Anything to avoid the final goodbye. But there’s no need to live alone, in a big-ish house, in suburbia, just to keep the past from going up in smoke.
Perhaps it’s a throwback to feudal times, but we in Ireland have always had a huge attachment to the idea of a home. We may emigrate or trot the globe, but we almost always feel that pull back to family and home.
But what of those who don’t have that port in the storm, not least in these financially uncertain times? Where do you go if the vagaries of life are coming thick and fast, and you need the sonorous balm of your small childhood bed? Where do you go when you need a break from all that adulting?
I won’t lie: I’m envious of friends who roll their eyes about having to spend a weekend dutifully visiting parents. Whether your family has downsized or moved, or whether your home is being sold, the anchor to the life you’ve known and come from is being aweighed.
A friend of mine is currently having to relinquish her childhood bedroom, as her parents are moving to Portugal. She’s not taking this – quitting the backdrop to first kisses, Smash Hits posters, whole afternoons gabbing to friends on the landline – any better than I did.
Not having that port certainly makes you feel like a proper adult. You’re self-reliant, and a citizen of the world that isn’t tied to any locality. But being rootless is both a good and bad thing.
Like everyone else, my brothers and I took home for granted while it was ours. All through my teenage years, I yearned to be away from the place, and moved out as soon as I could. In adulthood, we’d show up for Sunday lunch (hangovers permitting), loll about on the livingroom sofas and argue over Deal Or No Deal. I’m not sure it occurred to any of us down the years that there was an expiry date on it all.
Selling the family home after a death is a phase that bursts open half-healed wounds without any warning. But it’s a sign that there is light at the end of the tunnel. It’s hard to fathom that some other teenager will be going through her own brand of teen angst in my bedroom, or another family will enjoy Christmas in what has long been our livingroom.
The time came for one final inspection of the house, before the sale went through. The home had been turned into a “desirable property”; a blank canvas for another party to furnish and fill with memories. What I wasn’t expecting, as I pulled the door for the last time, was to worry momentarily about the pet goldfish we’d buried years ago in the back garden (on the flipside, they might get some company yet).
Every so often, I pass the house and the street that used to be mine. The door has been replaced; the garden tended to so faithfully for years is a concrete driveway. In much the same way that an ex-boyfriend, the centre of one’s world for a time, simply becomes someone that you used to know, the house is now just somewhere I once lived. And home will never mean the same thing again. But whatever ended up in a skip or charity shop, we’ve taken the important stuff. The memories – good and bad – go wherever we do.