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How to Say Goodbye to Your Family Home

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

By Jennifer Cramer-Miller

Dad’s face brightens as he focuses our attention. “I’d like to make a toast.” My mom, brother, sister-in-law, niece, husband, daughter, and I sit around the chestnut dining room table and raise our glasses for a shared clink. “So long,” Dad says. “You’ve been a good friend.”

He’s toasting the house that’s held our family’s memories for fifty-four years. Senior living awaits. Are they ready? Am I? Is anyone ever ready for this type of move?

The floral wallpaper—an ivory backdrop with delicate flowers of lilac, crimson, and tangerine—frames us. We begin rehashing stories that have unfolded within these walls.

“What are your favorite memories of this room, Dad?” I ask.

Drawing a blank, Dad looks to Mom at the opposite end of the dining table and affably asks, “Liz, what are my favorite memories of this room?”

At 87, Dad doesn’t remember things quite like he used to. I picture his memory like the Rolodex that had lived on his sturdy office desk. Being so full, it is harder to spin. So now he relies on Mom.

She laughs and spills stories of dear friends and rowdy nights where red wine splattered her cherished floral wallpaper. (It survived the assault.) The mood lifts as she resurrects decades-old shenanigans from their younger selves.

I grew up in this house and preparing to say goodbye has me reeling through time and memories like a sentimental commercial. I remember all Mom’s gracious holiday gatherings. Now, she gifts her cherished strawberry-and-vine patterned china to me.

I remember Dad playing softball with me in the front yard before my Little League games. Now, I help him navigate a curb and encourage him to use his cane.

I remember my long-ago teenage self bursting for independence. How quickly I became an adult, discussing my elderly parents’ independence. The same parents who jumped into action, like my personal National Guard, when I returned to this midwestern home with kidney failure at twenty-two. Ripped from my self-sufficiency on the West Coast, it devastated me to live under this roof again.

I remember swaddling myself in blankets to fight constant chills, and praying that I’d be okay. When Mom ran down the hall at top speed (like a frantic Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment), she burst in to witness my teeth-chattering shivers. Jumping on top of me, she proclaimed, “You need a blanket of love!” Certainly an unconventional nurse procedure—I laughed under the weight of her care.

Those memories, good and bad, reside within the structure of this house.

A kidney transplant had restored my independence, and I moved on to have a home of my own, get married, and add a daughter to our family. But twelve years later, I needed another kidney. Mom donated hers, a remarkable gift, and she successfully recovered in this home’s comforting rooms.

I had wanted to hold on to Mom’s gift forever. But when I lost her kidney after eight years, she soothed my disappointment at the same kitchen table where she served up cinnamon toast when I was young. Calmly, she said, “We knew it wouldn’t last forever.”

But that’s just it. Few things last forever. Not independence. Not kidneys. Not houses.

Nothing consolidates the march of time more than the marked-up wall in my parents’ closet. Pencil and pen slashes mark the progressive heights of my brother and me—from toddlers to teenagers.

I yank myself back from Nostalgia Lane as we take celebratory sips from our glasses. Our dining room conversation shifts to decades of interior design transformations. A mention of the family room’s 70s red shag carpet generates head shakes and hearty laughs.

“In our defense,” Dad insists, his eyes glistening, “it was highly fashionable at the time.”

My brother recounts when Dad, a retired custom home builder (who’d always kept up on the latest appliances) brought the first microwave home. Mom didn’t approve. “I thought it was just some dumb gadget,” she says. We laugh.

This house has witnessed our lives. Nothing consolidates the march of time more than the marked-up wall in my parents’ closet. Pencil and pen slashes mark the progressive heights of my brother and me—from toddlers to teenagers.

And the generation below us, my daughter and niece (my parents’ grandchildren), have their respective growth charts memorialized there too. Plus, a poem my daughter penned on the drywall in her third-grade curly cursive.

As the wine flows, our conversation bounces between birthday candles abruptly blown out before the singing stopped, the worry-laden Christmas dinner two days after my daughter’s premature birth, and my niece’s guitar concerts featuring her version of Katy Perry’s “Firework.”

From my dining room chair, I see a mountain of labeled boxes in the adjacent living room. Green stickers mark items for donation. Yellow stickers identify items that will make the move.

All week, we’ve sorted through layers that range from clutter to collectable. Yesterday, Mom nudged a bounty of things my way. “Do you want this silver tray? It’s perfect for serving rolls.” Hmmm… Will she feel disappointed if I say no? She moved on.

“Do you want these antique books?” I do! She beamed.

The stacked and packed boxes pull me back to years earlier when my daughter departed Minnesota for an East Coast college. Now, as my eight-year-old niece tastes her taco, I envision her high school graduation. In time, she’ll move on, too.

Together, we’re woven together into a tight ball that careens forward like the runaway balls my brother and I chased down the driveway when we were young. I want to slow the roll. Where does the time go?

This question is not new. Who am I kidding? Change has always challenged me. Even way back, on the last day of kindergarten, I had cried in my bed, lamenting that I’d never see Mrs. Johnson again. I just wanted things to stay the same. And back when I fell ill at twenty-two, my grip on time became as tight as it gets. I didn’t want to fade away.

I think that’s how Mom feels as she offers me silver trays, teapots, and serving pieces that once belonged to her mother. I imagine her saying, “Hold on tight to these parts of me. Don’t let our history fade away.”

I can’t catch this runaway ball. But I can accept my mom’s beautiful silver tray, teapot, and serving pieces.

Dipping a chip into salsa, I ask Mom, “What are you looking forward to the most in your new place?” Mom’s eyes widen at the absurdity of the question. She’s overwhelmed by the move.

I tilt my head towards Dad and try again. “Well, Dad, what are you looking forward to?”

He’s the Dale Carnegie devotee—the guy who read passages at dinnertime from How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. “Here’s the truth,” he starts, looking me in the eye. “This has been a wonderful house. But the stairs are difficult now, and will only get harder. We move on because we need to, even if we don’t want to. This is life.”

It wasn’t the positive spin I’d expected. His tell-it-like-it-is wisdom hangs in the air like a fine mist.

Mom lets out a resigned sigh. “The realtor will remove this paper, won’t she?” Her question propels my daughter Liza and me to push back our chairs and race downstairs to the basement on a mission.

Braving the cold, concrete-floored storage area, Liza and I pull box after box down from plywood shelving. Rummaging through, we finally spot rolls of wallpaper nestled together like old companions. We unspool one roll. And another. And another. And yes! The flowers from the dining room walls present themselves in nostalgic glory.

We realize that not everything will get wiped away like the growth wall. My daughter and I plan to frame this wallpaper to preserve the backdrop for bygone holidays, graduations, anniversaries, and birthday celebrations. Charging back upstairs, holding tight to the things we’ll carry forward, Mom claps at our discovery of buried treasure.

This home holds our stories, like Mom now does for Dad. There’s a beginning and a middle. But the end? Without this steady foundation, will the walls around us buckle?

I wish we could stay here forever, housed in stability. But we can’t. My parents have sheltered us. This house has sheltered them. Now, it’s my turn to offer stability and comfort.

We’re spinning on our carousel of time. I hear Joni Mitchell’s voice as we go round and round and round. This is our circle game on the corner of Westwood Drive and Westwood Lane.

We continue to reminisce in our respective seats. Filling up on festive Tex-Mex and enjoying lively camaraderie. And looking at the faces around the table, I realize that this home’s solid support is exactly what our family provides, too. No matter what foundation rests below or what roof hangs overhead, we’re shelters for each other.

It won’t last forever. But this is life.

Dad’s words circle back around. “So long. You’ve been a good friend.”

Jennifer Cramer-Miller is a writer, speaker, wellness mentor, and gratitude advocate. Her work is featured in Brevity Blog, The Sunlight Press, Grown & Flown, Mamalode, The Erma Bombeck Blog, The Kindness Blog, The Star Tribune, and Minnesota Physician. She is the 2023-2026 Board Chair for the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) Serving Minnesota, and a contributing writer for the NKF Kidney Stories newsletter. She works as a wellness facilitator (named Joy Scouter) to help others manage uncertainty, move forward with hope, and find some joy. She lives in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota.