Photo by Guillaume Delebarre

Starter Home

When my parents sold the house I grew up in, I was determined not to be sentimental about it. This was ambitious as well as out of character, since I am sentimental about everything.

Considered at a remove, the house was just a frame. I was intensely attached to its contents: our years of accumulated objects, the physical traces we’d left, an air about the place that made it ours. None of those things were really going anywhere they hadn’t already started going in the years since my brother Zach and I moved out. But I was sensitive to the baggage that came with this moment. The nostalgia attached to leaving my childhood home felt mandatory, and (as if in tribute to the petulant kid I was when I lived there) I was loath to do what was expected of me and give in to it.

Discussing the logistics of the sale, the realtor had off-handedly called the house a “starter home”—which, as a label for a family’s dwelling of 28 years, stung a little but was not untrue. The house was a modest bi-level, with gray wood siding and brown trim. It had four small bedrooms and two and a half baths, a two-car garage. The living room had a high, sloped ceiling and a wall of windows. The back deck was only partly shielded from the neighbors by a narrow strip of trees.

A bi-level is basically what it sounds like: a no-fuss rectangle with two floors stacked on top of one another. Ours was on a corner lot in a neighborhood comprised almost entirely of similar structures and populated, when we arrived in the mid-1980s, mostly by young families. The girl who became my best friend lived in a house that faced ours and was its mirror image, our fates sealed by real estate.

Our family of four was comfortable there, but the house had its limitations. When I was a teenager, I overheard my mom telling someone she hated bi-levels. She didn’t mean it as any kind of grand statement of dissatisfaction, just that she was living in a kind of place she didn’t expect or particularly love. Still, her anti-bi-level stance made immediate sense to me, and it stuck—to the point that, years later, when friends asked how I felt about my parents’ move, I flashed back to her critique of suburban architecture. It wasn’t a big deal, I said. It was just a house. And not even a great one.

I could afford to be detached, too, because I’d cleared out my stuff long ago. When my brother and I showed up shortly before the big move to help sort and pack, I was smug about my short personal to-do list—and then deflated to find that I hadn’t actually accounted for everything. In the attic, there were several sizeable boxes stuffed with childhood drawings and notes and yearbooks and dolls and heretofore unknown baby clothes, and my costume from a community theater production of The King and I when I was 12, heavy stage makeup still caked on the elastic chin-strap that secured a foam crown to my head.

I was a little demoralized to have more things to contend with, but not exactly disappointed. I love unearthing old stuff. Still, I live in a small apartment that can only contain so much of it along with my sanity. I remembered reading that if you have a hard time parting with material possessions, you should take snapshots of those things you’re struggling to let go. Then, with that space-saving 2-D reproduction, you can treasure the photo and more freely toss its subject.

So, I cleared a space amid the piles of boxes and laid out a series of things to document: A tiny turquoise bathing suit I’d worn at age 3; a thick stack of birthday cards; a straight razor I found buried in a bathroom cabinet, sheathed in a disintegrating case whose lettering suggested it came from Germany along with my grandfather in the 1940s; my mom’s hippie wedding dress, which she’d recovered from the furthest reaches of the attic and told me, definitively, she was throwing out.

After we’d cleared everything out of the attic, I squinted into its depths and saw, wedged under the roofline and sunken into the insulation, a battered roller skate I’d once transformed into a high school art project. I took a picture of it and added it to the garbage.

On the inside wall of the closet in my old bedroom, I’d scrawled the names of boys and bands I loved so much they begged to be spelled out on that solid, half-secret surface. Some of them had been crossed out as they were replaced by new crushes and concerns, and others remained, an unfortunate inheritance for the house’s new owners. Thinking about the moment when they’d find my cagey graffiti and paint over it (probably requiring a few coats) made me cringe: It reduced me to a girl in a room with a Sharpie and some petty fixations. But that anonymized image was also freeing. I squeezed into the closet and took a picture of “I LOVE JOE” written in thick red marker, letters an inch high. (That declaration had been scribbled over circa 1996, though not with conviction.)

Meanwhile my parents were diligently plowing through their own belongings, laying out a stunning amount of pottery and glassware and books, resigned to a massive purge but reassured that Zach and I would take the runoff when it mattered. My mom and I deliberated about a dozen teacups that had belonged to my grandmother. They were lovely, impractical things, each uniquely decorated and designed to hold little more than the fabled “spot of tea,” an excuse of a beverage for ladies to linger over. We decided we would each take the one we liked best and give the rest away—but lingered after making our selections, fingering the spindly handles and adding just one more to our respective piles.

All these choices about which things would stay with us and which ones we’d shed had been set in motion by a larger decision: the one to move in the first place. We all agreed that was a good decision. When it came to the seemingly endless series of ever-smaller choices that followed, it was harder to tell what mattered. What was really worth hanging on to? Letting go of any one thing didn’t exactly count as a loss. But losing the chance to have kept something felt momentous. I cared so much about making the right call that it almost seemed better not to decide.

Over the next 24 hours I revisited the pile I’d set aside and second-guessed everything in it. I took some more pictures, edited the pile and then added to it, the criteria for inclusion shifting as my hunger for every single thing fought my shaky self-restraint. The amount I left with was indulgent but seemed manageable. When I got home I unloaded everything on the kitchen counter, where it stayed for more than a week while I stared it all down and tried to figure out where these things might fit on my shelves and in my life.

Fixating on things I could hold in my hands had turned out to be an effective distraction from the house that had contained them. But as moving day approached, I kept returning to the online real estate listing, now headlined “UNDER CONTRACT.” It included a video montage that slowly panned across every room while soft jazz played. I clicked “play” again and again.

In the accompanying photos, the house was staged to a beguiling, slightly foreign gloss. While there was still time, I made sure to download and save them all. Just in case.




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