| Family First Feature |

The House That Built Me

“There’s a deep, vital security in knowing that, no matter how improbable a visit is, home is still there”

Chumi was 18 and preparing for her seminary year when her parents decided to move to a different city. They sold the only house she’d ever lived in and “that’s pretty much it,” she said. There was a long pause before she continued. “But I guess that’s not ‘pretty much it’ because when I talk about it now, even 20 years later, I start crying.”

Home is where the heart is — and when the heart has lived somewhere for so many years, it can be hard to move. What’s it like to have to pack a life into boxes, load them onto a moving truck, and hand over the keys to the place that witnessed you grow up?

Home Sweet Home

Childhood can bring on the image of many different things — hours of fun in the playroom, chasing your siblings around the yard, studying for finals on the carpet in your bedroom, Shabbos and Yom Tov meals in the dining room. For those fortunate enough to grow up at one address, there’s a constant backdrop to all those memories. The walls, floors, and roof of our house — however creaking and worn — make up the trusty scenery of those happy, golden years. When it’s time for the background to fade away, it can be a big deal.

Chumi said that it took her years to realize the loss. “I had my own things going on, what with leaving to seminary, so it didn’t register at the time. Also, the fact that we were selling to move to a better neighborhood definitely made it easier. It probably took years to hit me that leaving that home is a bit — or a lot — sad.”

Once Chumi was married and settled with her own family, the longing came on full force. “I’ll have weird dreams that I’m still there and then I wake up miserable all over again.”

Shifra, who was also 18 when her family moved out of her childhood home, also visits her home in her dreams. “It’s the only place I’d ever lived for an extended time,” she says, explaining why the house was the anchor in all her nighttime dreams, even years after her parents had sold the property and it was demolished.

The house Shifra dreams about was a massive place with a pool, a garden, and a backhouse. While she was in seminary, her father started a new job. It wasn’t a far drive during off-hours, but it could be upward of an hour each way during rush hour. When the private hospital next door mentioned that they were interested in extending their property, Shifra’s parents took the opportunity to sell their house and move closer to his job.

Shifra was in Israel when it all happened, so she packed out for the year from one home and came back to a different one.

“It was a traumatic experience,” she shares. She was upset about the move and mad at her father for agreeing to sell. “People associate their childhood with the home they grew up in. All my memories were there!”

Ruchale’s parents lived at the same address her entire life. Her parents owned their home for close to 60 years. It’s where she grew up, it’s the house she left when she got married, and it’s the place she brought her family to when they visited from Eretz Yisrael.

“I never thought we’d have to sell it,” she says. “After my father was niftar my mother made it clear that she wanted to stay in the house forever and we didn’t see why not.” Yet as her mother aged and circumstances changed, it became clear that staying was no longer an option.

Ruchale’s mother fell one day and broke her shoulder. After almost a year of surgery and rehab, it was an unspoken reality that she couldn’t go back to living alone in her four-story house. Ruchale’s mother moved into an assisted-living facility, but the family still held on to the home. “We realized it was a permanent arrangement — my mother wasn’t going to move back home again — and it didn’t make sense to keep paying the taxes and utilities for an empty house.”

The siblings got in touch with a real estate agent, but it’s over a year later, and they still haven’t sold the property. No one wants to take the step of actually handing over a copy of the deed and pushing the sale forward.

Aside from that, selling means sorting through decades of history stored in the closets, basement, and attic. There are 60 years of belongings collected in the house and packing it up will be a job that no one has the time — or heart — to take on. And, says Ruchale, “Even if someone did, where would we put all the stuff?” She says, “Still, sooner or later, someone is going to open one more utility bill, and finally say that they don’t want to pay it anymore.”

Ruchale and her siblings know that selling is the right move. Her mother resisted the idea at first — it was sad to think that her home of nearly 60 years wouldn’t always be home. “But it was also scary for her when she fell and I don’t think she wants to be alone anymore.” Ruchale’s mother is enjoying the perks of the assisted-living facility and, “even though she hasn’t put it into words, I think she knows this is what we need to do.”

Old Jaunts

For a while after Chumi’s family moved, they’d drive down their old block for a glimpse of their house. The new tenants, whom they knew from the community, even invited them in one time. “It was so weird to see our place, but with another family living there.”

After that family also sold the house, it was demolished and a new structure was built on the property. There’s nothing for Chumi to go back to now. “There was something comforting about knowing that at least the space is still there — but now we don’t even have that anymore.”

Shifra, though, says it was easier for her once the house was demolished. “At first the hospital used it for extra offices and it wasn’t fun to pass by. Now that it’s been flattened to become a parking lot, I can drive by without remembering that it’s the spot I lived in for most of my life.”

Although no one else took over her parents’ home yet, Ruchale says that going back is unsettling. “It’s still a vibrant house, with all my parents’ belongings in there, just that no one lives there anymore.” Until the house is sold, Ruchale knows that she can technically pop in for another goodbye visit. Like Chumi, she says knowing that is helpful. “It will probably be harder when I don’t have that to fall back on anymore.”

As far as the family’s new place, Shifra says that it just doesn’t feel like home. She made aliyah after her wedding, so she never really lived in the new house and didn’t have the chance to connect with it. “When I was visiting home for a wedding, my sister-in-law asked me for help finding something in the kitchen. I laughed because I know the house just as little as she does.” The place may be Shifra’s parents’ house, but she just comes for occasional visits the same way other visitors do.

Chumi agrees that the new place just isn’t home and says that her siblings — she’s the oldest — are lucky in that regard. “I never lived there long enough for it to become mine, but for them, it’s a second home.” Chumi is comfortable in the new house because it’s “Bubby and Zaidy’s house” and that’s where she brings her kids when they visit, but it’s not her place. “It will never be my childhood home,” she says. “I don’t have that anymore.”

As much as letting go of the house was a challenge, Chumi thinks about it from another perspective too. Her neighborhood isn’t very affordable and, to date, her children have lived in three different rental properties. “I lived in one house my entire life and it was hard for me to leave it. Meanwhile I wonder if my kids will ever have that — a place to connect to. Not having one specific home in which to ground your childhood memories is hard too.”

Shifting Grounds

Malka’s parents sold her home when she had already long moved out and established a new home in a different city. Once the house was officially sold, she was shocked at how many emotions spilled forth. “I couldn’t walk in without crying. I’d stare at the walls and just sob because I realized that I was going to miss them — the walls!” Malka was surprised by just how challenging the transition was — a sentiment that everyone interviewed echoed. What is it about this life-cycle event that makes it so hard?

Psychologist Dr. Ethan Ehrenberg explains that people experience these difficult emotions because of all that a home represents to us and what losing it can mean. Although not directly in his line of expertise, the universal phenomenon overlaps the attachment theory, a concept Dr. Ehrenberg often deals with in his position as a child and adolescent psychologist in private practice and as senior pediatric psychologist at Premium Health Center in Boro Park.

Attachment theory is based on the belief that children first form a bond with “mother” as their secure base. They then form attachments with “father,” which serves as a stepping stone, their link between home and moving out into the world. There’s a third level, which is when the children form an attachment to the image of their family and childhood.

The home, where the family was raised and formed, serves as the psycho-symbol of this image. “That’s why it’s hard to know if this is a child- or adult-related pain,” Dr. Ehrenberg muses, “because it’s about an adult attachment to a childhood life.”

A person’s home is a repository that holds layers of emotions — both good and bad — sandwiched between the brick and mortar. As people grow older, those images become static and they think they’ll always have something to come back to. “There’s a deep, vital security in knowing that, no matter how improbable a visit is, home is still there.

“The physical house serves as a psychological symbol of ‘home,’ and losing the physical house can be psychologically similar to the death of a loved one,” says Dr. Ehrenberg. “While our loved one is still alive, we’re reassured, knowing that even though they may not be with us on a daily basis, we can always go back to them.” When the symbol of home and family is sold or demolished, it forces us to reframe our relationship with our childhood, our connection with family members, and our concept of youth.

Chumi had a similar take. “You know what it is that I think is so difficult? Losing your home moves your childhood even further away. When I say things like, ‘When I was young…’ it feels so far off. That period of my life is not only separated by time, it’s separated by place too. It feels like my childhood is something from another planet. You can’t visit or take your children on a drive and say ‘Look, this is the place where Mommy grew up.’ ”

A Bigger Picture

Ruchale, Chumi, and Shifra all say that the surrounding circumstances played a role in how seamless or difficult the transition was. For Chumi, it helped to know that they were selling in order to move to a bigger house. The fact that she was busy leaving to seminary and going through changes of her own were great distractions. “It was only when I had kids of my own that the true impact of not having that childhood place anymore hit me,” she says.

Shifra shared that being away during the move — and seeing an abrupt shift when she returned home — made it harder for her than for her siblings. It was also challenging that her parents didn’t buy a house on the same material standard as the one they sold. “The real estate market skyrocketed right after they sold so they could only afford something much smaller and not as nice. It was hard on all of us — especially my mother — to downgrade, and until today my father occasionally mentions that he regrets selling.”

For Ruchale’s family, bracing themselves to sell the house was only one piece of a bigger picture. “That whole period was hard. My mother went from being capable and independent to relying on an aide. It’s an emotional chapter for us because we went from being the children to the adults making decisions on behalf of our mother.” Circumstances being what they were, Ruchale doesn’t think that there’s anything they could have done to make the transition smoother.

What she does recommend, though, is taking the time to say goodbye. “It’s a huge milestone and a huge parting. Take the time to do a walk-through of the house. Give yourself a chance to experience all the emotions before getting involved in the technicalities of packing up and moving.”

Dr. Ehrenberg gives a similar recommendation. “There’s a mourning process that needs to take place,” he counsels. “The mind needs time to allow for a physical object to separate itself from a psychological symbol. Have an imaginary conversation with the house or write it a goodbye letter, go there, put down a flower, say goodbye in person. By doing this, you’ll be crystallizing in your mind that what your home represents can live on even without a concrete manifestation.”

Chumi left to seminary before her family actually moved out, so she was gone by the time the moving trucks pulled up.

“I don’t remember walking out the door the last time, but it’s probably better that way,” she says. “I don’t know how I would have handled it.” Chumi’s goodbye may have gotten lost in the whirlwind of her family moving and her starting her own new chapter in life, but looking back, she thinks that the memory of a specific ending can make it easier.

“For me, part of my sense of loss came from feeling that I needed to say farewell because really, moving was a good thing for us.” If she were back there, she would take a moment to soak in the magnitude of it all before walking out the door.

The last time Ruchale visited her mother, she purposely took off an extra day to drive through her old hometown. It was emotional for her to go through her old dining room, living room, and bedroom…. “I walked through each spot and let my thoughts linger for a bit.” She’s glad that she went to get “one last glimpse of the memories.” It gave her closure, something she knows will help her in the future.

Closing the chapter can help lessen the weight of the transition. If possible, help pack up the house. Allow the mourning to take place. Recognize that it’s happening, talk it through with your siblings, allow yourself to be sad. Photograph the house, take something sentimental with you— or leave a piece of yourself there. When the pavement in front of her old house was redone, Chumi and her friends drew pictures in the wet cement. The house may no longer stand, but there’s something concrete, literally, that ties back to her time at that address.

Chumi likes knowing that no matter who comes next, and whether they know about the family who once lived there, her family still left a mark. Draw pictures in hidden spots on the wall, leave messages underneath the loose bathroom tiles, paste photos inside the rafters. Even when it gets painted over, the house will still have your imprint.

That doesn’t mean that the transition will be completely painless. Whenever Chumi feels nostalgic about being young, she thinks about the house and all over again, it hits her that it’s gone. “If you’re in this situation, be kind to yourself and don’t be embarrassed if you’re emotional about it. True that it’s just things and it’s only a house, but we connect real meaning to those things. Losing them can be a big deal.”

As Dr. Ehrenberg points out, our Jewish traditions can provide some solace. “In some ways the whole purpose of creation revolves around the issue of leaving and finding a new home,” he says.

“Our primary developmental task is to grow beyond the security of our childhood home and take on the responsibility of our adult home. There’s a spiritual parallel to that in our avodas Hashem, when we leave the comfort of Shamayim to come down and create a dirah b’tachtonim, a dwelling place for Hashem here on earth.”

It’s easy to say that missing a house is just a feeling, but a house is a home too — and there’s no place like it. At least there’s comfort in knowing that leaving home is normal and necessary. However difficult, the transition is integral to life — and growth.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 709)

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