In two weeks, I’m moving down to South Jersey to begin working towards a PhD. Not long after, my parents are going to move to the mythical Central Jersey to downsize/be closer to their children/be closer to my grandmother. The Childhood Home (which has on occasion been an interim adulthood home, including right now) will soon be someone else’s, and I’m soon going to actually know where I’ll be living for far enough in the future to actually register to vote in someplace that isn’t my hometown.
I have not traditionally been known as someone who is, shall we say, good at change. I’m better than I used to be; it does help when you get frustrated enough with your life that you really, really want a change. I’m extremely excited about going back to school, and I’m not quite mourning the loss of the Childhood Home (yet). The whole moving situation has put me in a nostalgic mood, though, to the shock of precisely no one. (A conversation I once had with my mother revealed what an exhausting child I was to raise, as I began a sentence with, “As a kid, I would get preemptively nostalgic about …” and she interrupted me to say, “EVERYTHING.”) So this will be a preemptively nostalgic blog about a house that has not yet been vacated but knows that it’s about to be.
My mom has loved the house as a home, but does not love the house as a building. She never wanted to live in a split-level; she prefers Victorian houses, especially those with porches. I can never quite let her mention this without prompting her to admit that it’s been a good house, because I haven’t learned to accept that the people I love don’t always get 100% of what they want. I compulsively try to erase all trace of disappointment or regret, no matter how minor — especially if I somehow factored into the decision, as I obviously did when my parents moved here.
My sister and I were eight and had just finished second grade. I did not love the house as a home for a while. In our new elementary school, the friend groups were quite solidified; while I wasn’t friendless, I certainly wasn’t granted permanent membership within a group. A little over a year after we moved, my paternal grandfather died; a little over a year after that, my paternal grandmother followed. These losses contributed to a mythologization of “when we lived in Staten Island” in my mind. I saw those first eight years of my life as a time of wholeness and ease. Without entirely articulating it to myself, I felt that moving away had broken the unchanging spell of childhood, and now other, worse things were allowed to change, too.
(Goodness, but it’s obvious in hindsight that I was going to have OCD, isn’t it? Incidentally, after my grandma died, my parents made me go to therapy. They are Good Parents.)
I have the same impulse now that I do when I insist to my mom that we love this old split-level. I am afraid of making it seem like I had an Unhappy Childhood. I want to assure anyone reading this that I have plenty of happy memories from third through seventh grade, which I absolutely do. I don’t want anyone to feel sad thinking that I have disappointments or regrets (…which I absolutely do). But I can reassure you without lying: I did learn to love this house as a home. Even in those early days, I can see things that I loved in my memory. The exact configuration of my sister’s and my Barbie families on the guest room floor. The swing set in the backyard under the trees. The snow tunnel we built with our neighbor that entirely collapsed on all three of us. The books upon books upon books that I read late into the night, sprawled on a beanbag in my room.
And then, around eighth grade, I became friends with the people who are still my friends. Or I should say I became close friends with them; I’d known and liked them since I was eight, but hadn’t quite realized that they were my people. Throughout most of middle school, I’d floated around the outskirts of friend groups, wallowing in the common pubescent suspicion that I didn’t really have anything in common with anybody, only to figure out that yes, I did, and they were right across the cafeteria.
From that point on, The Kellett Basement became a hub of adolescent girl weirdness. If my life were a novel, critics would almost certainly call it a liminal space. I never felt in a hurry to grow up when my sister, my friends, and I congregated there; we allowed ourselves to be extravagantly strange without feeling like we were sacrificing our fragile teenage maturity. Or perhaps I’m projecting and should only speak for myself, so I’ll say instead that I felt that way, and I am grateful that my friends allowed me to. They completed the transformation of this house into home.
This house has absorbed so many good and bad memories. In the kitchen, women of several generations tended to their assembly line of vegetable chopping while the men cleaned and shucked an alarming number of clams in order to make enough clam chowder to feed a small army (a.k.a. my extended family). In the living room, my father played the piano; ragtime and jazz mostly, but also Christmas carols when seasonally appropriate, and my sister would sometimes wander in to sing. For ten years, a beloved and poorly behaved Portuguese water dog tore through the backyard and barked at the phone. Throughout the house, I experienced periodic cataclysms of anxiety and found safe places to weather them. I read and listened and made choices about the kind of person I wanted to be.
My new apartment is the second story of an old house that my mother will probably like as a building. It has patterned carpets and long windows. I hope that when my friends and family come to visit, they will feel at home. When that happens, then I will, too.