Last week was a very busy week. My ex husband moved house. I thought I was just lending a hand but it turns out I was actively – and emotionally – involved in the process.
We moved in as a married couple with a one year old son in 1999. We did a loft conversion and created a six bedroom house, three and a half bathroom house. We had another child, a little girl. We redid two of the bathrooms and the kitchen. We replaced missing cornicing and two missing fireplaces. We added stained glass to the front door – and to the back door. We redecorated throughout, refinished floorboards and replaced the carpet. It was during this process that I retrained as an interior designer and throughout my coursework Wilf was my ‘client’ – I used his requirements to act as my brief.
Both of our children started school and developed a wide range of interests. We made wonderful friends in our neighbours. We had lots of parties and many guests from abroad – some staying for months at a time. It was a busy family life in a home that answered the needs of its inhabitants.
I’ve been separated and then divorced from Wilf for nearly eight years and since then I’ve been in and out of that house countless times – my favourite arrivals have always been on Christmas morning with bags of presents, in my pjs (I don’t even own a onesie, but Christmas morning is a tradition: I arrive in pyjama’s.)
After I left, I never felt particularly attached to my old home. It was Wilf’s house, the kids were there three nights a week, it was just a part of the scenery, so to speak. But last week packing up, I’ve been in tears countless times. I felt the love that we’d put into it over the years. I saw for the first time, stripped bare, all the work we had done. Without the furniture, the house was still beautiful, a little grubby where picture frames had rubbed the paintwork and where furniture had scuffed the floor but its bones were good; spacious and light and welcoming.
So what was it that caused me to get so upset? I was really surprised at myself. When you start unpacking a home, you unravel the history of the time that you’ve spent there. All of the events that surround the furnishings – the carpet from Turkey, the mirror from Stow-on-the-Wold, the clock from Newark, the painting from New Zealand, all come back to you and the trip down memory lane as you remove them becomes a part of the leaving of that building. It also brings up the milestone memories, the bathtub filled with toys by my son for my daughters first bath; the murals painted for the children by my mother; the measuring wall under the stairs – even the dog was measured on that wall; the first day at school; the birthday parties. It goes very quickly from a family home to simply four walls and looks incredibly unloved. It had no personality, it didn’t look like ‘ours’ anymore – I found that the hardest part. Somehow I wanted the house to know it had done nothing wrong and in thinking that, I found that the memories of living there were also enriched.
It’s really important to understand how much a part of you your home is. I say so often that you can’t under estimate the impact your surroundings have on you and I suppose because I haven’t lived in that house for eight years I didn’t regard it as my surroundings, but seeing each room undressed made me analyse the progression we had made through that environment as a family. The room that was the catalyst for this was my son’s room. Full to the gunnels of models planes and books about trains, space and birds (it took me two days to box up all the models, destined for deep storage – likely not to be unpacked until he is a father himself!) you would be forgiven for thinking he was 10 years old. He’s nearly eighteen! He’s reading Whitman and Donne not Tintin and Biggles. That room hasn’t grown with him. He was still living surrounded by his childhood – not with the kit of his youth; guitars and amps and computer gadgets. I felt in a way that we had let him down, to look at that room we hadn’t let him grow up, which isn’t the truth at all, but then looks are deceiving and that was what got me thinking. If our homes are to meet our needs they need to be flexible enough to grow with us. They need to accommodate not only the inhabitants but the possessions that hold our memories. And if that’s not possible, it means we need to be brave enough to let go.
My final task as Wilf gave back the keys was to put up replacement lampshades. It’s fanciful I know, but when I looked around the naked rooms I got a real sense of the house enduring, of shaking herself off and moving on, ready to receive her new family. I hope they will be very happy there and love the things about her that we loved.