This old house. There is something about it. I have memories here. Too many. Leaving those memories behind is going to be tough.
Yeah, I know a house is just an inanimate object without a soul or personality. Believe me, I get that. There’s nothing magical about lumber and shingles. A house is just rooms, electrical outlets, lightbulbs, and a few broken toilets.
But then, sometimes—sometimes—a house is more than that. Sometimes a house is a home. And this house was one such home to me.
I’m thinking about all this while looking at my late mother-in-law’s half empty home.
Currently, all my mother-in-law’s things have been packed away, her drawers exhumed, her belongings placed into cardboard boxes for safekeeping.
Right now we are temporarily staying here, but soon this house will be a tomb. Soon, the estate-sale people will take over from here and sell these things. It’s hard to believe that bargain hunters will fill this home, buying all items that remain. It’s hard to picture my mother-in-law’s china sitting in someone else’s cupboard.
If you’ve ever wanted to reflect on the temporal nature of your life, look around your house and visualize a bunch of yard-salers placing bids on your rocking chair, your flatscreen, or your Frigidaire. There you are.
Over the past weeks, my wife has been cleaning closets and sifting through eighty-some years’ worth of her mother’s belongings. We have poured over every black-and-white photo album, tried on every feathery hat, read every old newspaper clipping, played every Bobby Vinton LP, and cried in every room of this home. All the while, we were sort of ignoring the inevitable:
This is it. These are the last moments we’ll spend in this home. The end.
So we have eaten our nostalgic dinners at my mother-in-law’s dining table, amidst a house that is strewn apart, retelling old stories, and reminding ourselves of olden times.
This residence is our history. This is the place where we spent every Christmas, Easter, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Memorial Day, family reunion, Sunday dinner, and NCAA National Championship.
But that’s over now. Yesterday we counted my mother-in-law’s sterling silver pieces, separated her clothing, cleaned out her freezer, and threw away the old food in her pantry.
Now, as we approach the pivotal moment when we have to say goodbye, I think I am finally realizing why I love this old house so much.
As a young man, I had no real home. I grew up with an unsteady life and no concrete foundation. Our roots were shallow, we had neither a headquarters, nor much extended family.
After my father died my clan bounced around town like Barnum & Bailey on amphetamines. We lived everywhere—trailers, apartments, rental units, block houses, and salvaged refrigerator cartons. The only house my family ever visited on Thanksgiving, for example, was Waffle House.
But when I met my wife, that all changed.
For our first date I came to this exact home to pick her up. I stood on this brick porch, rang this very doorbell, and cupped my hand over my mouth to check my breath. When the front door swung open, my life was never the same. After that day, this house became a main character in my most important memories.
Everything happened right here. This was the house where I proposed. This is where my wife and I first kissed. And after our honeymoon, my wife and I moved into the upstairs bedroom and lived with my in-laws.
(Note to reader: never move into the upstairs bedroom and live with your in-laws.)
And when my mother-in-law fell ill, years ago, we moved in once again, this time to be caregivers. We built our lives around my wife’s mother’s routine. My wife cooked every supper, took her mother to the bathroom, tucked her in each evening, and administered the proper amount of Estée Lauder Youth Dew bath powder after each shower.
This was also the place where our family once congregated in a little back bedroom to hold an old woman’s hand as she crossed the river into the Sweet By and By.
Yes, I know it’s just a mortar-and-brick place. And I know there isn’t anything remotely special about a bunch of drywall and furniture. But sometimes a house is more than just a house.
And Lord, I’m going to miss this place.
James Hooker - October 6, 2021 7:39 am
Thank you Sean.
Linda - October 6, 2021 7:55 am
This piece you wrote about this house is what I’m going through. I’m not living in the house I grew up in 24/7, it was the house I grew up in. My stepdad died a few months back and we were with him as he took his last breath in his bedroom. We are going through both his and my mother’s belongings. The items they saved from their parents. This is house Is my childhood home. A place that witnessed my tears and laughter. Soon someone else will take it over. They won’t understand what a sacred place it is.
Kim Kennedy - October 8, 2021 7:20 pm
My father died 9/13/2018. My mother had passed in 2014. I still have the house, sitting without anyone living there. I haven’t been able to part with it. Not yet. I still go there and rest. Peace is there.
Sandi. - October 6, 2021 8:07 am
Sean, merely a suggestion, but maybe you and Jamie can meet the buyer of her mother’s house and in the near future go back and ask to look inside once more for old time’s sake. That’s what my sister and I did after our parents passed away a year apart. The new owners of our childhood home were glad to let us go inside and look around where we had so many delightful childhood memories. It helped to give us closure on that chapter in our lives.
Carolyn - October 6, 2021 8:23 am
Miranda Lambert sings a song with the same sentiments. It’s called The House that Built Me.
All that drywall may not seem like much but when you plaster that drywall with years of memories it suddenly becomes priceless. God bless you and your wife.
Bob - October 6, 2021 8:35 am
In my mid 60’s now and it’s my turn to enter the world of the old. I too and I expect most will or have experienced exactly or close to exactly what you shared this morning. My wife and my parents and grandparents have all moved to the next place in eternity each leaving as they say, “all of it” behind.
Leaving a “home” is always hard. For me the home in which I lost one of my 5-children to SIDS 32-years ago was the hardest to leave. Sue and I had lived in that Central Florida home for 12-years with our children and a few canine children. If they ever dig up the yard they will suspect a serial dog murderer had lived there.
When I can and sometimes years apart, I stop and park next to one of these old family “homes.” Those of the parents and grandparents are spread out in different towns across Florida and Georgia and are each a part of my soul. It’s easy to lose track of time sitting, watching, reflecting and re-living the memories and events of a lifetime. Often a tear will fall but most times a smile will come. It sometimes feels foreign and uncomfortable to see others living in these places. I sometimes want to say “hey, that’s my house.” But then I realize that the special home is now someone else’s “special home.” And even though I often find a new color of paint or that a special tree or bush is missing, it will always be “my home.”
You’ve done a fine job this morning sharing and perhaps preparing those who have yet to experience the passage, of what is to come. Take a deep breath and know that the house is “still” Mary’s home and always will be a part of your life. We are all “eternal souls,” there is nothing to fear and nothing to be sad about. Smile, you are doing good, very good. Thank you Sean!
Teresa Blankenship - October 6, 2021 9:41 am
Hope you find peace
Marcie Emory - October 6, 2021 10:48 am
I live in the house where my husband grew up. We lived here for 20 years with his parents. After the 3 of them died, I moved my parents into it with me. Now, they are gone as well. It’s much too big of a house for me, but I can’t bring myself to move. Because you are right, it isn’t just a house. It’s my memories and my love for 5 people who I miss every single day. God bless you and Jamie, I love you both.
Debbie g - October 6, 2021 10:52 am
Selling our farm was hard until the perfect family came through. We even sold it for less money because we wanted them to have it. Now visiting with our new best friends and watching their children all over the farm and we still have dinners and sit under the oak trees at our (their ) home Life is good. We know your pain but hope you get the same great family we got Love you Sean and Jamie . And love to all
Nancy Grinstead - October 6, 2021 6:55 pm
This is absolutely beautiful, I wish everyone thought this about their home💓
Te - October 6, 2021 11:01 am
I guess, despite all the memories I have of all the places I’ve lived –and there have been many! Gypsied around most of my adult life, but that’s the legacy of a child of the 60s and 70s. Now I’m 77, I finally own a home that is all mine, paid for, for the last decade and more. First house I ever owned, and I have to admit, I think about what will happen to my stuff and I shuffle off to that by and by. I have children who won’t want much of what I value, and friends who will take a few things in memory, but it’s gonna be a huge yard sale. I shouldn’t care. It’s only a lifetime of memories packed into 4 walls. I gotcha, Sean, more than you know. Maybe by the time I go, I won’t care about all of it.
Joyce Snoddy Yeung - October 6, 2021 11:11 am
Your article reminded me of emptying my mom’s house and selling it 10 years ago. I thought I handled it pretty well until I had a series of reoccurring dreams about being in the house illegally after it had sold. I guess subconsciously I wasn’t ready to let go. So thankful for all the good memories! Blessings to you and your wife.
Mark3:26 - October 6, 2021 11:30 am
Maybe if more people cared for their parents as you have for her mother, Americans would still be ‘more at home’, home on the range maybe or maybe not but at least not the Old Folks Home.
Connie - October 6, 2021 11:30 am
I’m not sure of the circumstances but i would probably try to live there myself rather than sell it. I know you love it. I’ve read many of your stories that are centered in that home. I know your hearts are breaking as you box her belongings up tho. I’m at an age where I’m imagining my children selling off or giving away my things. My antique furniture, my trinkets that I’ve saved over the years. My memories. Things I’ve hauled from pillar to post all my life. I’ve lived like a Gypsy myself but finally bought a home for my granddaughter and me a few years ago. But I have stuff that won’t mean anything to my children or anyone else. I know it’s just stuff but I hope they tell stories and hold my memories close. God be with you and Jamie. Sending you love and hugs.
Keloth Anne - October 6, 2021 11:36 am
Precious treasured memories 💕 Prayers for peace and comfort.
Hugs to you and Jamie♥️
Jean - October 6, 2021 11:40 am
It’s hard to say goodbye. First to the person…and then to the stuff that was theirs. I hope this closes the door of grief and you and your lovely wife can have peace in knowing that you did the very best for Mary in her later years. Not all of us can say that. Blessings to you and Jamie
Karri Misky - October 6, 2021 11:50 am
As I’ve been reading your columns everyday, especially about your journey with Mother Mary, I too have walked in your shoes. The only difference is that my mom lived with me. We bought a house with a ground level apartment because mom wanted to live with us but wanted her own space. She died this March 4th and I still need to go through her closets. I’ve kept most things, decluttered and rearranged her apartment so it flows better. I have a healthy amount of OCD, haha. I’ve married some of her furniture and things with mine. She’s everywhere, and yet she’s not. I’ve gently redecorated her place as a “Guest Suite”. This week I have tackled the last of it, her deck. I started Saturday pressure washing it, painting her cute little iron table and two chairs, pressure washed the Amish two seat sliding chairs I got mom and dad for their 50th anniversary, and will stain it. An indoor-outdoor rug comes today to tie it all together. I’ll hang the cafe lights today as well.
I said all of that to say this; Yes, brick and mortar doesn’t make a house a home, we do. Mary did. But you can’t have a house to make a home without it. I don’t know the details, but I think you all should stay and make it your own. As you say, you don’t know me, but I know you and I love you.
P.S. Nest time you’re in Nashville, I have a sweet “Guest Suite” where you can stay.
Rhea Wynn - October 6, 2021 11:52 am
Just sold my mother’s house this summer. I so feel all of these things. Thank you for the love you share with us everyday. God bless you and Jamie.
Cindy - October 6, 2021 11:55 am
This is work, but such a blessing. I did this for my parents with my sister, and for my mother-in-law with my husband, and his siblings and their spouses. The time is precious – we had lots of tears, and lots of laughs. Even the process of “closing” we made new memories that have continued to bless us as a family. PS. Make sure to look for strange little stuff – we found 2 gold teeth in a box that we almost tossed away. Took them to the coin shop folks and got $150!
Denise Walker - October 6, 2021 11:59 am
My siblings and I did the same thing in 2015. (We lost our mother to Alzheimers) She had lived in her house for over 40 years. There were 40 years of memories. It was not an easy thing to do. I hope you remember every good memory, and let the bad ones go………..
Paul McCutchen - October 6, 2021 12:07 pm
Nothing worse than being in an empty house when a loved one has passed away. When we went into my MIL’s house after she passed away it didn’t have the same smells in the kitchen and the walls didn’t seem as bright. It could have been just from the watery eyes but things seemed sadder.
Mary Burns - October 6, 2021 12:24 pm
Leaving is always so hard. But the memories your mind holds will always be with you and Jamie. Never forget!!
judemiller1 - October 6, 2021 12:29 pm
Why don’t you continue to live there?
pyrthroes - October 6, 2021 12:38 pm
We spent forty years, 1952 – ’93, reveling in a scenic old New England farmhouse built 1730s, with original pegged-timber rafters and vertical stone basement slabs. Over the years, at least four multi-generation dynasties had come and gone… quite likely, the current family will up-stakes by c. 2040.
Though others –including one particular girlfriend– reported spectral apparitions, we always felt “at home”… as surely will many another cohort yet to come. As Thoreau put it, “Time is but the stream we go a-fishing in”– though “old age is a shipwreck” (de Gaulle), our eddies whisper gently, “Love abides.”
Heidi - October 6, 2021 12:47 pm
Your writing brought it all back to me…..We went through this when my Dad died and Ohhhh….it’s so hard. I still miss that home but the wonder & full memories & thankfulness are in my heart. Always.
Nancy Crews - October 6, 2021 12:53 pm
Ann - October 6, 2021 12:54 pm
If you haven’t already done it…take a video of it, starting with the front sidewalk. Our son did this when my parent’s house was devoid of family. Thank goodness he did because it was eventually torn down and relying on memories gets “ iffy” as we age ( you will see)…. It’s a very heart wrenching time but great to “ see” and reflect years down the road.
Shelton A. - October 6, 2021 12:58 pm
Your mother-in-law’s home will always be there for you, as it was. It will live in yours and Jamie’s memories. Just as Ms. Mary will be there for you, too. God bless.
Jan - October 6, 2021 12:58 pm
It is difficult to say goodbye to a place that holds so many memories. My childhood home no longer exists except in my mind and heart. But in some ways that allows me to “go home” whenever I choose to do so. I can smell the crab apple blooms on the tree that stood outside my bedroom window just by bringing it to mind no matter what the season may be. I can feel the green linoleum tile underneath my feet and smell my mother’s biscuits and ham whenever I choose to sit and remember. The ability to remember, to call to mind means you never truly lose those places and people you love so much unless they are taken away by the scourge of dementia or unless you go to your true home in heaven.
CHARALEEN WRIGHT - October 6, 2021 1:12 pm
Heather M. - October 6, 2021 1:19 pm
Thirteen years ago my husband and I made a nostalgia trip back to our home town. While he was with some old friends, I took our car out for a tour of high school grounds, around various neighborhoods, visited the last home where my mother lived after I left home. I finished my tour at the home where my mother, my brother and I grew up. It was vacant: the back yard now a black-topped parking lot. Our home had been sold a couple times and the last time had been converted to a real estate office. I walked up on the back porch and peered into the den windows, then the breakfast room, kitchen, walked around the whole house. I couldn’t go inside of course, couldn’t see our bedrooms upstairs. I got back in the car and sat. And listened. No music, no books read to us by mother, no meals at the table while we listened to Bob Hope, Fred Allen, Red Skelton. No smells from delicious fried bacon, onions and liver. I could see and feel and hear mother singing and playing the piano. But, no one was there. I sat there for an hour, watching my memories move around in each room. I cried and cried. The house was our home, but WE made it home. I have the memories, but not the people that made the memories. The house just sort of died. I won’t go back again.
Bob - October 7, 2021 12:02 am
But you gave it life again, if even for an hour. The next time you go you just might find something beautiful!
beachdreamer1 - October 6, 2021 1:24 pm
Noticed most comments are those who can relate, who tell of their ‘home’ memories. I really don’t have those,,,wish I did, but I, like you Sean in younger years moved about, no ‘real’ home. So thankful you found one and have those wonderful memories. I’ve truly been blessed in my later years so I try not to look back, but to be thankful. Had it not been for those early ‘unstable’ years, I might not see how good my life has been. I sense that in your writing Sean. God bless you and Jamie…may you have many happy years in the home you’ve made together ❤️
Sue Adams - October 6, 2021 2:05 pm
I understand. Beautifully written. Thank you.
Gordon - October 6, 2021 2:19 pm
I will always, ALWAYS miss going “home”-the house in which I became “me”. I hope my two children and four grandchildren will feel the same about this pile of brick and mortar in which I now reside. It’s “home” for many, many memories.
Thank you for today’s post.
Christina - October 6, 2021 2:45 pm
I will miss this home and all the memories you’ve shared with us too.
Lynn - October 6, 2021 2:52 pm
I’m so sorry you are experiencing another loss – the loss of a home- on top of losing a family member.
Cathy - October 6, 2021 3:02 pm
I feel your pain. I am a house person but it takes people to make a house a home. I think abt. The homes of my grandparents and all the great memories of both of them, The house I live in today and have lived in for 39 yrs. I think of how hard my husband worked to pay for it and how lucky I have been to raise my children under this roof . The celebrations are countless. My daughter in law is an artist and if I do say so, she does beautiful house portraits. Take a photo of the house and let someone create a memory that you will enjoy the rest of your life. Walking away will be hard but I know you and Jaimie will have your arms around each other. Wish I could hug both of you❤️
Judy - October 6, 2021 3:21 pm
It may be too soon to let go. Consider delaying the decision. It is such a special place for you.
Bob - October 7, 2021 12:05 am
Very good advice when possible.
Kat - October 6, 2021 3:33 pm
It’s so hard to redefine and recreate “home”, especially when you’ve had the perfect welcoming spot. I’ve seen a lot of family homes change to new families. The memories and the plethora of black and white photos do remain. Hold tight to those.
Brenda - October 6, 2021 4:08 pm
You certainly will!
Donna Ledford - October 6, 2021 4:29 pm
The life you all brought to this home will be felt by those that are blessed to live there after you are gone. Big hugs to you all.
Tom Wallin - October 6, 2021 4:30 pm
Now you can remember all the good times with Mary in her house.
Susan from Wausau - October 6, 2021 5:38 pm
Sean, you’ve made this home so real for us, it’s hard for us to leave it, too. You made your mother -in-law so real and precious, it was heart breaking to have her leave us. I, too wish you could just sell yours and move in to hers, if just because of the bay. You’ve made your own memories, however, and it wouldn’t be the same without Mother Mary there. It’s so hard to leave the things we love behind, but what we carry forward is what we’ve learned, and our lives are so enriched by it. You enrich our lives, and I do appreciate it!
sharmenoswald - October 6, 2021 6:49 pm
I am still dreading the “clean out” of my mother’s house two years after she passed in 2019. All of her clothes and my dad’s clothes are still as they were when they left this earth in 2017 and in 2019. There are so many memories there! But you are right…it is not the home it once was without them there. Just their stuff occupying the house doesn’t make this a home. They occupying the house make it a home.
Carol - October 6, 2021 7:10 pm
I could not let go. I bought my Mothers house from her estate. Have you thought about just staying?
Gloria Knight - October 6, 2021 7:13 pm
I cleaned out my mother’s home as well as my dear grandmother’s. It’s not fun but somehow you find special things to keep to remind you of their love and what they meant to you.
MAM - October 6, 2021 8:29 pm
I, too, have been through the giving up of the home where I grew up. Because in our married life, we have moved so many times, when I dream about “home,” it’s always that house, but we knew we didn’t want to live there. The one we’ve been in for 22 years is still just one more house along the way, although it’s the longest we’ve lived in a place in 53 years of marriage. And I KNOW I need to declutter and get rid of lots of stuff, but I haven’t yet. So many moves made us declutter, but this one just keeps filling up. Our poor daughters!
Deanna - October 6, 2021 8:30 pm
You didn’t make me tears-eyed. You made me weep. My sister and I have to do this with our parents house. The house that has been there since 1959. We will do our best
Linda Moon - October 6, 2021 8:35 pm
Nostalgic dinners from my mother’s kitchen brought mist to my eyes as I read about Mother Mary’s table. I loved my Mother Billie’s house so much that I probably chose my house (or it chose me) with its front porch like hers. My Guy first took me out from a doorbell ring on her porch. Now, all these years later, we have a front porch swing like the one we shared on Mama’s porch. Mothers’ houses will always be home with memories of those places we loved.
Bill Harris - October 6, 2021 10:56 pm
Thank you Sean, for putting into words the emotions we have all felt.
Dean - October 7, 2021 12:05 am
Kathy - October 7, 2021 1:03 am
I know: it’s hard. Hold those memories. Love.
Drew isaac - October 7, 2021 1:33 am
I like it
M.Kathleen Byrnes - October 7, 2021 2:42 am
Sean, for 65 years I never spent a Christmas anywhere but my mother’s house. Although my husband & I moved 5 times, we went ” home” for all events. The day we adult kids met there to decide what to do with what, I was sobbing as I dug up the bulb flowers in her front flower beds. Only after my older brother’s responsible urgings to come inside & get started on the tasks, could I give up needing to take it all with me. 1940 to 2004. I sobbed through your story, for you, for me, for all the people who left comments. It’s now 2021 & I am still sobbing.
patricia Bice - October 7, 2021 2:43 am
I am so sorry you are selling this house since you love it so much.
elizabethroosje - October 7, 2021 3:23 am
Whew! Sean that is a HUGE change in your and Jamie’s lives. Still praying daily for you all. I am honoured to read of your process. Grief is hard. A journey. God bless you. We are all heading towards times like these. Lord have mercy.
Lee - October 7, 2021 3:28 pm
God created the universe and all in it. That includes the hands of those who constructed the house. And, importantly, the souls who live there. The impact a home and those who love it have upon each other is a mystery. I cannot understand it but appreciate it.
May we all not limit the mysterious beauty but embrace it.
Suzi - October 7, 2021 4:03 pm
I will miss this ol’ house too, but am grateful for the memories you have shared with us.
Luna Prestwood - October 8, 2021 8:56 pm
With all the memories there, I think you are selling the wrong house.
Suellen - October 8, 2021 9:18 pm
We moved back home a little over a year ago. After my husband’s stroke my daughter and her husband built us this beautiful house that is .3 miles from the house I grew up in. I can see the backs of the houses on my street from my office window. I was ruthless when packing for our move and gave away or threw away 60% of what we owned. My husband wanted to get a storage unit but I knew my health won’t be getting any better and I won’t be getting any younger to clean it out a few years from now and I know my daughter probably won’t want any of this stuff. Even the stuff I couldn’t part with. My Mother’s blue willow dishes, my Grandma’s punch bowl set, my Fiestaware and Dansk china and much more glassware. Kids just don’t use that stuff these days. I at least have tried to impress on her that these are worth some real money because to her it’s just junk.
Mandy - October 8, 2021 9:52 pm
First funeral was my mother’s
Second funeral was my father’s
And I was so attached to the only house I ever lived in until marriage, I considered it the third funeral I had to endure.
It was like loosing another part of my family.
The day we sold it, I was orphaned.
Jim Shaver - October 10, 2021 4:22 pm
The October 6, 2021 article ” The Goodbye House ” brought back a song I had heard a number of years ago sung by. the Clearwater Connection entitled “Who will watch the homeplace”. It’s a lovely song that expresses the same sentiment as your article. You can find it on YouTube